CHARLOTTE — ACC Operation Basketball is more than just a traditional media day in which players and coaches from all 15 league schools are available for interviews.
It’s also an opportunity for the players and coaches to interact and get to know one another as friends before they become rivals on the court again in a few weeks.
At least two of this year’s participants were already well acquainted with one another. And that produced a potentially awkward encounter amid the chaos at Charlotte’s Marriott City Center hotel.
Boston College graduate transfer Derryck Thornton played his freshman season for coach Mike Krzyzewski at Duke in 2015-16 before transferring to Southern Cal after the Blue Devils signed another five-star point guard — Frank Jackson — to play in front of him.
Although his departure was contentious, exaggerated by some inflammatory comments by a family member on social media, it appears that the passage of time has healed whatever wounds may have existed.
“It’s fine,” Thornton said. “He’s a great guy, a great coach. No bad blood. Some shoes just don’t fit. It speaks for itself what he’s done. I’m just here to compete. I’m focused on Boston College and trying to get as far as we can go.”
It was a mature response from a player who has admittedly learned a lot during a college basketball journey that has crisscrossed the country and lasted four years longer than expected when he graduated high school a year early to join the Blue Devils.
Thornton decided to reclassify after Tyus Jones unexpectedly entered the NBA Draft after helping Duke to the 2015 national championship, leaving Krzyzewski without a true point guard for the following season.
Things didn’t exactly go according to his one-and-done plan, though.
Thornton had an up-and-down freshman season, averaging 7.1 points, 2.5 assists and 26 minutes per game while starting 20 times. Convinced he would be little more than a backup to Jackson as a sophomore, the 6-foot-3 California native decided it was time to leave.
Now after sitting out a year and playing the past two seasons at Southern Cal, he’s back on the East Coast, motivated to succeed in his second go-round in the ACC.
“I feel like I’m a better player now,” Thornton said. “When I came into the ACC, I was super young and had a lot to learn. Now I’m way wiser and excited to compete on a different level. This time I want people to see that I’m a player, and I feel like our team has a chance to do really great things this year.”
Thornton said he decided to finish his college career with the Eagles because “it was the best fit for myself and the school,” adding that BC “has already helped my career in so many ways.”
While his experience at Duke was less than satisfying, it was still experience in an elite program whose expectation is to be among the nation’s best on an annual basis. He’s also the only current member of the Eagles to have appeared in an NCAA Tournament game.
Because of that, new teammate Nic Popovic is hoping Thornton’s winning influence will rub off on everyone else on the team as BC looks to play its way into the NCAA’s field of 68 for the first time since 2009.
“This is something different,” Popovic said of Thornton. “He does everything to create, to lead, to make plays for others and himself.
“This is something we haven’t had before, so it’s going to be great. Practice has been amazing playing with him. Experience is something you just cannot replace, and that’s what he has. He’s going to help us big-time with that.”
Thornton is expected to step right in and fill the void created when North Carolina native Ky Bowman decided to leave a year early for the NBA Draft. It’s a role he said is his sole focus this season, which is why he is trying so hard to downplay his connection to Duke.
Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski also steered clear of the topic at last week’s Operation Basketball.
The discussion is inevitable, however, with BC scheduled to visit Duke on New Year’s Eve. It will be Thornton’s first game at Cameron Indoor Stadium since a loss to UNC on March 5, 2016.
“I try to approach every game as if it’s a game, it’s what I love to do,” Thornton said. “I’ve played in that arena. I’ve played in a lot of different ACC arenas. I’m going to approach each game the same. … I don’t think about it too much. What happens, happens. I’m there to compete and win.”