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Role Player of the Week: Marcus Thornton

Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports

We know everything Stephen Curry and LeBron James do. We sound the alarm over every Anthony Davis block and dunk.

That’s all fair, but it makes it easy for role players to not get properly recognized. In the ebb and flow of the season, several role players go through hot streaks that go under the radar.

We’ll try to rectify this issue by awarding a Role Player of the Week Award. This is to highlight a superb week by a player who may not get a ton of coverage. The Week 7 winner is Marcus Thornton.

The Houston Rockets began the year as one of the teams thought to be in the Western Conference’s upper echelon.

James Harden was coming off a runner-up for MVP season, Dwight Howard was getting healthier and the team was deeper than ever.

It hasn’t exactly worked out that way to start the year. The team has stumbled to a 12-12 record with a -2.6 point differential. Houston has been one of the most disappointing teams in the league, and it’s hard to find many bright spots thus far.

One of the few players on the team who’s performed up to expectations is Marcus Thornton. Thornton came into the season as someone having to fight for rotation minutes. Despite averaging 18.5 points per 36 minutes, Thornton has bounced around the league, with Houston being his fifth team in the past three seasons. And with Ty Lawson joining the likes of Harden, Patrick Beverley, Trevor Ariza, Jason Terry and Corey Brewer, Thornton was in true danger of being nothing more than a depth player for the Rockets.

It’s pretty surprising, then, to see now that Thornton is the third-leading scorer on the Rockets this season at 11.5 points per game. It’s even more surprising when you consider the fact that seven Rockets are averaging more minutes per game than Thornton. He’s been able to pour in a ton of points in just 21.5 minutes per game.

Thornton’s skills were on display this past week, as he averaged 19.7 points in Houston’s three games. He was most impressive in Houston’s lone loss of the week, when he dropped 32 points on just 18 shots in a loss to the Brooklyn Nets.

As you can probably tell from his numbers, Thornton’s best skill is his ability to score. He isn’t a great passer or defender, but he has great handles and can make tough shots.

Watch this nasty crossover by Thornton:

When you think of the best handles in the league, Marcus Thornton isn’t a name that comes to mind. But there aren’t too many players in the league who can execute that devastating of a crossover.

While Thornton had a particularly good week, he’s been solid the entire year. And it’s not like this is out of the ordinary, either. He’s been good at filling up the score sheet his entire career.

It’s easy to say Thornton deserves more minutes, and he probably does. Although Harden and he might seem like an awkward fit, they’ve played well together thus far this season. Despite having a negative differential overall, Houston is outscoring its opponents by 6.3 points per 100 possessions in the 313 minutes when the two guards have shared the court, per NBAwowy.com.

Thornton’s a good enough three-point shooter that he doesn’t cramp the spacing when Harden has the ball, and the Rockets benefit from having another shot creator on the floor. Houston traded for Ty Lawson in large part to get someone who could put the ball on the floor besides Harden, but he’s been brutally bad. Perhaps pairing Thornton with Harden more often would have the desired effect.

The issue, however, is that Thornton isn’t a particularly great defender. He’s not atrocious, and the team is only marginally worse with him on the floor on defense. But with as bad as Houston has been defensively (27th in the league in defensive efficiency), it makes sense for the team to throw out its best perimeter defenders around Harden, and that’s Trevor Ariza and Patrick Beverley.

Still, Houston needs to get Thornton a few more minutes a game if he continues to be effective, and that starts with reducing Lawson and Brewer’s minutes if they continue to struggle. The NBA is a meritocracy, and Thornton has outplayed both of them this season. Brewer has shown some signs of rebounding lately, but Thornton has still been the better player overall.

Daryl Morey felt he needed another perimeter weapon this often, and thought he got it in Ty Lawson. Although Lawson has struggled mightily, perhaps Morey did find what he was looking for in Marcus Thornton. And if he continues to mesh well with Harden, we’ll start to see more and more of Thornton when it counts.

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