As Sindarius Thornwell and I finish talking, he’s getting ready to fly from Cleveland to New York City. There, he’ll participate in Kevin Love-organized workouts ahead of the start of training camp. It’s a warm late fall day in Cleveland — somewhere in the 70s — and yet he says he’s cold.
We had been talking about things to do in Cleveland, with a Browns game being one of the things I recommended. Thornwell, though, was worried about being cold. Having played his entire career in Los Angeles, and having grown up in South Carolina, the Cleveland winters may catch him off guard.
Nothing else, though, catches him off guard. Take, for example, what went wrong for him last season with the Clippers.
“Just not being out there, not being involved — I’m a basketball player, I play,” Thornwell, who will wear No. 3, says. “I don’t really do one thing. I go out and play the game, and not playing the game and not really having a real reason as to why I’m not playing... It was almost like ‘damn, well, if I don’t have a real reason, I’m going to take it as I’m not good enough. Or that y’all don’t have confidence in me.’ I lost my confidence by just not being out there.” The G-League would have been an option, Thornwell says, but the four games in two years wasn’t enough time to matter.
On a Clippers team that made the playoffs, he struggled to get regular minutes after playing 15.7 per game as a rookie. In his first season, he made a name for himself as a hard-nosed, versatile defender; DRPM rated him one of the league’ top-20 defenders. Last season, he was mostly used in specific defensive circumstances by Doc Rivers and played under five minutes a game.
“It didn’t matter where I was gonna end up, where was I was gonna be playing,” Thornwell says. “My main focus was myself this summer and just focusing on myself and getting back to player I know I am, getting back to the confidence I that I have for myself and my game.”
As for leaving the Clippers, he says he views it as an opportunity to reclaim that confidence. He was waived after Los Angeles netted Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
“I never thought I wasn’t going to be with ‘em,” he says. “But when everything happened with Kawhi [Leonard] and Paul George, I said ‘all right, let’s get ready for the next thing.’ And that’s a place where I can get the opportunity — earn the opportunity — to play, to get on the court and show what I can do. And I just felt like Cleveland was the best fit, they was last in defense and, by statistics, I’m one of the best defenders.”
Thornwell, by the way, isn’t bitter about how his time in Los Angeles ended. As a fan of the game, he think it’s better for the league and asked me during our talk who I thought would make the Finals. (I went with the 76ers and Clippers, but don’t feel great about that prediction.)
“you don’t have that one dominant team that’s flat-out better than everybody,” he says. “I feel like with all the moves, it didn’t do nothing but balance the NBA out and it just made it more interesting and more competitive. You don’t have that one team that’s going to run through the whole league. Milwaukee will probably do it in the East, probably. Maybe, possibly. Let’s say Milwaukee runs through the East - who are you going to pick to come out the West?”
“You could pick one of nine,” I say.
“This is the thing people forget,” he responds. “People forget Portland is a No. 2 seed in the West for the last two, three years. Who they lost? They lost nobody and they gained Hassan Whiteside, who averaged 14 and 12 in 14 minutes. Denver just won the West and they don’t got a superstar on their team. And those are the teams that aren’t getting that media coverage, that aren’t getting ESPN. You don’t see them talking about Denver, but Denver was No. 1 in the West last year and they gained some people.”
In Cleveland, Thornwell sees himself complimenting and growing with a young core. His role, he says, is to provide defensive support for a group that figures to struggle on that end while making shots that come. For his career, he’s a 34.2% three-point shooter.
His contract for the season isn’t guaranteed. But he would seem to be a favorite to land one of the Cavs’ open roster spots because he’s likely the best perimeter defender on the roster. Of the group of players he’s likely competing against — former first-round picks Jarrell Martin and Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot, most notably — he has the best NBA track record.
Thornwell says the role he’s talked about with head coach John Beilein fits the role he already envisioned for himself.
“In our conversations, he’s talked to me about how bad they were defensively, just saying to come in and help the young guys on the defensive end and try to help the team and play my game,” Thornwell says. “I played against [Beilein] in college —he knows my game, he knows how I play, he knows what I bring to the table. He just tells me to do that — bring to the table what I bring to the table.”
He adds that he’s come away impressed with several of the Cavs’ young players. This summer he’s spent much of his time in Cleveland working out with them.
“I’m not the type of person who gives nobody no credit. I’m a tough critic,” he says. “But those young guys, everything people say about them is true. Like, [Kevin Porter Jr.] can play. Collin Sexton is really a dog. Darius [Garland] can really score the ball, he can really shoot, he can really playmake. Dylan [Windler] is really good. Dylan reminds me of Joe Ingles, he really reminds me of that. They all can play and all compliment each other.”
“I feel like it’s a perfect situation for me to come in and be the player that I am and not having to worry about nothing,” he says. “Come in and play the right way. Play defense and play the right way.”
“Ya, people tell me ‘you were ranked No. 1 in defensive rating or efficiency or whatever,’ but like I tell people, it doesn’t mean anything because I wasn’t playing 20, 25, 30 minutes a game,” he continues. “That don’t mean nothing to me. My thing now is to earn some legit minutes and just show what I can do. Show that I can make the open shots and show that I am a real lockdown defender, that I can guard one-through-whatever. Whatever you need me to do, I can do it.”