The former Gamecock star knows how to make an entrance, arriving on the second day of Pro-Am action last week while wearing bright orange sneakers, a blue Orlando Magic hat and a hefty gold chain that read, in all caps, “SINCITY.”
If the city that chain is referring to is Columbia, then there’s some truth to it. No matter how far Thornwell goes in the NBA, the former Gamecock star will always hold a special place in Columbia sports lore. He’s a symbol for South Carolina men’s basketball at its pinnacle — the best player on Frank Martin’s best team.
A lot has changed since 2017, when Thornwell and Martin led the Gamecocks to the first Final Four appearance in program history. South Carolina hasn’t made the NCAA tournament since, and rumors of a Martin firing circulated this offseason after the Gamecocks won just six games in a pandemic-ravaged season.
But Thornwell still has love for Martin, the Gamecocks and Columbia, still uses “we” and “our” when talking about USC, and he was among the many former players who spoke out in Martin’s defense this offseason.
“I heard Frank was about to get fired, and I didn’t think it was right,” Thornwell said during the Pro-Am. “Corona came, like so much stuff was happening last season. He was sick. I don’t think — in any work field — nobody should have lost their job with we had to deal with this year.”
In the past five years, Thornwell has bounced around the NBA and the G-League, playing for the Clippers, Pelicans and most recently with the Magic. But throughout that time, he’s kept in touch with Martin and maintained a local basketball presence. So, too, has the Denver Nuggets’ P.J. Dozier, who attended but didn’t play in the Pro-Am after coming off a late-season injury.
In contrast to the star power Thornwell and Dozier brought to Heathwood Hall, the current Gamecocks are a bit more anonymous. In an eventful offseason, the Gamecocks lost seven players to the transfer portal and brought in six transfers and three freshmen. Fans are still getting to know them. The coaching staff is too.
But after seeing several of those new faces in action, both Thornwell and Dozier expressed confidence in the group that Martin assembled and belief that their former head coach can steer the program back toward its winning ways.
“I’m just happy that he is going to be back with us at the University of South Carolina,” Dozier said. “I’m happy that they brought him back, and I know he’s not gonna disappoint you. He’s done a great job in recruiting this offseason. I’m happy to see some of my hometown guys come back home.
“I can tell you personally that I’m really excited. I’m really excited to see what they’re gonna do this season.”
Changing of the guard
James Reese welcomed the challenge. He viewed it as an opportunity to show what he can do.
A former A.C. Flora standout and state title winner, Reese has always wanted to play for South Carolina, to represent his hometown. The guard had played in two other SC Pro-Am events in the past, but this year’s was his first as a Gamecock after the senior transferred from North Texas.
In his very first game, Reese matched up with none other than Thornwell himself.
Neither player held back, with Thornwell playing his trademark suffocating defense and with Reese taking shots all over the floor and running the point.
“Tough defender,” Reese said after the game. “You’ve got to score in many different ways versus Sindarius, but he’s a great player, great person. I like competing against him because he brings the best out of you.”
The feeling is mutual.
Thornwell has been familiar with Reese for quite some time, from watching him at A.C. Flora to playing pick-up games with him this summer. He came away impressed by Reese after the transfer scored 24 points in their Pro-Am matchup, making four of nine 3-point attempts. But even more, Thornwell loves Reese’s edge on the court, loves that he was a key player on an NCAA tournament team at North Texas.
“He’s a winner, and that’s what our team needs right now, USC, is somebody that’s gonna bring a winning attitude and competitiveness,” Thornwell said. “He works hard. He shoots the (expletive) out of the ball, and he’s got skills. He competes every time I played against him this summer whether it was here, pick-up at the gym, work out one-on-one, wherever, he’s gonna bring it. He’s a hooper. He kind of reminds me of myself.”
If there’s one aspect of last year’s team that Martin consistently critiqued, it was the Gamecocks’ lack of edge and toughness — their lack of players like Thornwell. Bringing in transfer guards like Reese, Erik Stevenson and Chico Carter Jr., another local product from Cardinal Newman, is an attempt to inject that sort of energy back into the program.
It’s only July, but already Stevenson is drawing rave reviews in practice. And Carter Jr. was the third-highest scorer in the Pro-Am, dropping 29 points in his game against Thornwell’s team, although he wasn’t guarded by Thornwell nearly as much as Reese was.
Even though he no longer wears garnet and black, Thornwell clearly has a stake in the program. When he wasn’t playing, he spent much of the Pro-Am chatting and connecting with players from the Gamecocks and around the state. He cheered on some of the other new USC faces from the stands. At one point, an explosive put-back dunk from freshman Devin Carter brought Thornwell to his feet.
Carter was the top scorer in the tournament, and he and fellow freshman guard Jacobi Wright seem poised to make early impacts in their USC careers. Thornwell liked what he saw from them and the transfers, and he said he’s tried to impart wisdom on the young players where he can.
“They’re all athletic, man,” Thornwell said. “I don’t know if I can run and jump with them all day, but I could play with them. But they’re so athletic now, like these kids all play above the rim. And all of them have similar energy. The thing I see with young guys now is they don’t really have the most IQ for the game, but they have all the athleticism and the skills for the game.”
How far the Gamecocks go could depend on how quickly they learn.
Is this a Frank Martin team?
There’s a sense of rejuvenation around the South Carolina men’s team after COVID-19 sapped the joy out of much of last season. Martin seemed downright giddy in an early July news conference as he described the vibes and mood in practice.
Martin has said often that last year’s team wasn’t “a Frank Martin team,” and early on, this year’s group seems to gel more with the head coach’s personality.
But is this year’s team a Frank Martin team?
“No way,” Thornwell said, without the slightest hesitation. “They know that, though. They’re working to that. They’re young. They’re building to that. But they’re not a Frank Martin team yet.
“We wasn’t either. They said the same about us when I was a freshman and sophomore. I remember the Oklahoma State coach said that in an interview after we just beat him by 30 (points). He said, ‘It’s still not a Frank Martin team yet.’ And I was like, ‘What do you mean? We just smacked y’all.’ ”
Thornwell knows through his own experience that Martin’s system takes time to learn and perfect, something that accumulates over years in the program. With so many new players, this year’s Gamecocks will have to adjust and mesh together quickly, and Thornwell said that can be difficult without older, more established players who can guide the new players along.
“I tell people all the time, the stuff that Frank teaches is hard to learn, and it’s easier if you’ve got older players that can teach it,” Thornwell said.
“But I think once everybody gets it down, once the younger kids get older and everything, I think it will become a Frank Martin team, because they’re all good guys with the right mindset.”