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Wednesday, September 13, 2006
Star forward more eager to take on public face

By Andy Katz
ESPN.com

Al Thornton didn't want the attention last season. He shied away from doing interviews. He wanted his game to speak for him.

And it did, especially when the 6-foot-8 Florida State forward lit up Duke and Boston College for a combined 74 points (albeit in two Seminoles losses).

He is, to quote Duke assistant coach Chris Collins, "as accomplished as anybody in our conference, a player who will contend for player of the year in our league." Boston College assistant coach Pat Duquette describes him as "a classic mismatch at small forward, where he can post you up or take you off the dribble, a player who can score in so many ways."

But despite his abundant skills, you may not have heard much about Thornton -- mostly because he wasn't verbal enough. Sure, Florida State didn't make the NCAA Tournament (still a point of contention for head coach Leonard Hamilton and the rest of the team), but it would have been hard to get to know Thornton either way. In a word, Florida State sports information director Chuck Walsh said Thornton's interviews last season were terrible.

Al Thornton
Duke's Josh McRoberts gets more hype, but Thornton gave him and the Devils fits in last season's meeting.

That should change this season. Hamilton didn't want his best player -- the potential player of the year in the ACC -- to be so reluctant to express himself that no one would even bother to call, so with a nudge from Walsh, Thornton took an independent study class this summer on communications. Walsh also got Thornton involved with a media training expert, a process that will continue throughout the season.

This should prepare Thornton to be the face of the program this season and should help him in six to eight months when he'll be going through the NBA draft process.

"That class gave him confidence," teammate Jason Rich said. "He's opening up more and more. He has the respect of the teammates, but this helped solidify it. He's showing more leadership."

You would never know that Thornton struggled in this area if you talk to him now. He had no issues speaking at length with ESPN.com Tuesday night about his basketball stature and wasn't shy about mentioning that he is 20 hours away from his degree in social science, either.

"I got an A," Thornton said proudly of his work in the communications class. "It really taught me how to deal with the media. How to handle trick questions and how to handle negativity. I used to shy away. I would give short answers. I wasn't explaining myself. I would say, 'no comment.' I didn't like doing interviews.

"[Now] I'm being more social," Thornton said. "I was a loner my first two years."

Thornton, who averaged 16.1 points and 6.9 rebounds per game last season, considered declaring for the NBA draft, but was smart enough to realize he wasn't a lock for the first round. Opposing ACC coaches said that, based on production, they thought Thornton was more likely to declare than teammate Alexander Johnson, who did end up staying in the draft, but they also noted that Thornton, unlike Johnson, is a tweener at the next level.

For now, Thornton's focused on just his senior season.

"I can relax because I know it will happen," Thornton said of the NBA. "I'm enjoying school."

Opposing teams didn't enjoy trying to stop Thornton last season. How did BC try to defend him?

"We didn't," Duquette joked.

Both the Eagles and Blue Devils attempted to play Thornton straight up. It didn't work. Miami, though, made him into a passer and a dribbler, running two players at him when he received the ball and holding him scoreless. Thornton did manage 18 points in the rematch.

Thornton agreed that forcing him to make dribble/pass decisions was the way to play him, but he said he spent quality time working on those aspects of his game over the summer. He went to the Nike and Jordan Camps and also spent time in Tallahassee practicing those skills.

Defenses this season are likely to focus on Thornton. Johnson is gone after being drafted 45th overall by Indiana before being traded to Memphis, as is Andrew Wilson, another big man who took some heat off Thornton last season. The Seminoles do return Rich and Isaiah Swann and add Auburn transfer Toney Douglas (who Thornton said is a true point, something that was missing last season) to give the Seminoles a potential three-guard lineup.

"We're going to play small ball," Hamilton said. "We're going to tweak our style both offensively and defensively."

That strategy should work for the Seminoles, who should be in the hunt for an NCAA bid again. They're certainly hungry after what they perceived was an NCAA Tournament snub after finishing 9-7 in the ACC (20-10 overall). They ended up losing to eventual NIT champ South Carolina in the second round of that event.

"We've got a lot to prove," Thornton said. "We can't wait to get this year started."

That includes handling more interviews, which will allow Thornton to put a fresh face on the Seminoles.

Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.