ATHENS -- The knee surgeries, all three of them, changed Marcus Thornton’s game, and set back his career.
They also are proving to be one of the best things that happened for this year’s Georgia men’s basketball team.
Thornton has inarguably been Georgia’s best player so far this season, leading the team in scoring (14.9 points per game) and rebounding (7 per game). His interior play has been vital for a team for whom post play was a weakness for several seasons.
And if not for those knee injuries, and a medical redshirt two years ago, Thornton’s senior season would have been last year.
He also might have remained the wing player he was coming out of Westlake, rather than the interior force he’s become the past two seasons.
“With Marcus healthy and confident, we’re different,” head coach Mark Fox said.
The difference will be needed again on Sunday for yet another critical non-conference game. Seton Hall (9-1) is No. 16 in the RPI entering the weekend.
This is the first game for Georgia (5-3) in two weeks, the most recent game being the win over Colorado, an important aid to the Bulldogs’ non-conference resume. Thornton had a team-high 16 points in the game.
The surge in Thornton’s play can be traced to one game, last season’s SEC opener, the upset win at Missouri. Thornton only had five points, but he had three blocks and six rebounds. So began a stretch where Thornton’s interior defense was key to Georgia’s startling run in SEC play. His rebounding average nearly doubled, and his scoring average went up by two points.
“I was just kinda knocking on the door before that,” Thornton said. “There’s so many things you miss (when you’re out). You forget about playing in the flow of the game. So you don’t grasp that, ‘if I play this way,’ or ‘if I do this right here’ . . . It’s experience and instincts.
“You’ve got to be able to play a few games in a row, and pick up on small things that were keeping me from being productive, or just constantly being a presence. And that’s what kind of helped take me to the next level.”
But his play went to another level this year, thanks in large part to finally having an offseason when the knee wasn’t an issue.
“Just being able to play,” Thornton said. “When you get gaps in there, it makes it hard for you to build momentum and continue to improve upon on what you had built on before.”
Thornton, who is 6-foot-7, was considered a tweener when he came out of high school. He could play on the outside and shoot the ball, but also play a bit in the post. During his first two-plus years on campus (he played six games before his injury that third year), he attempted 31 shots from beyond the 3-point arc.
“When I came, when I started, I was pretty much all outside,” Thornton said.
But the knee surgeries took away some of his athleticism, at least when he first returned. So he concentrated more on his inside game, especially defensively.
Thornton said the athleticism has basically returned, but he’s proven to be so important to the team in the post role that he has stayed there, while using the athleticism to his advantage when possible.
He has recorded two double-doubles this year, the first two of his career, and set a career highs for points three times.
“It’s great to see,” Fox said. “He deserves it, because he’s been through so much. You can’t wonder what it would have been like if he had never gotten hurt. Those years are gone and not coming back.
“But it’s just good to see him healthy and playing so well.”