NLEX import Al Thornton working himself into game shape

MANILA, Philippines - The NLEX Road Warriors were aware that they needed to acquire a talented piece for the upcoming 2015 PBA Commissioner's Cup after their 3-9 campaign in the 2015 PBA Philippine Cup.  

The franchise may just have accomplished that task that by signing former NBA player Al Thornton to be their import for the next conference.

Thornton, who played for three different clubs in his NBA career from 2007-2011, was part of the All-NBA Rookie Team after his first season with the Los Angeles Clippers, and had his best season as a pro in 2008-2009 when he put up 16.8 PPG, 5.2 RPG, and 1.5 APG in 71 games. 

Following his final season in the NBA with the Golden State Warriors in 2010-2011, Thornton took turns playing pro basketball in Puerto Rico and China. Prior to agreeing to terms with the Road Warriors in December 2014, the former Florida State Seminole's last playing gig was in March 2014 in Puerto Rico.

The long layoff has left some rust on the 31-year-old's body, and he hopes to get into in-game shape before the Commissioner's Cup kicks off January 27. 

"[I'm] just getting acclimated to the team, trying to adjust, trying to see what kind of sets coach likes, what he uses to his style of play," Thornton told Rappler during the Road Warriors' practice on Saturday, January 10. "[I'm] also getting used to [my] teammates, trying to build some type of chemistry, offensive and defensively." 

"Also, [I'm] just trying to get a little bit in game shape. Getting up and down, five on five. It's been pretty good. [I'm] still learning."

So far, NLEX head coach Boyet Fernandez is pleased with the import acquisition of his team. "I'm happy with what I'm seeing. He's in shape in terms of working out, but in-game shape, not yet," he said. 

Thornton agrees, admitting that "I can get in a little bit better game shape." 

"I haven't played organized [basketball] in a while - since Puerto Rico," he explained. "I don't want to lose too many more pounds. Five more pounds, I'll be good, I'll be in playing weight."

Fernandez is giving Thornton the freedom to get in game shape however he likes. "For me, I don't really try to hold my players - what they want to do, what they want to eat. For me, it's their career, so they have to manage it," he said. 

Load to carry

But shedding weight will be important to lessen pressure on the lower body of Thornton, who was spotted wearing a brace on his right knee - one of the outcomes of a surgical procedure he underwent recently for a reason he opted not to specify. 

Nonetheless, he says his knee - or the brace covering it - aren't red alerts NLEX fans need to worry about. 

"I had surgery about a year and a half ago. It's fine. The brace, it's a comfort thing. I feel good with it," Thornton said. 

"There was an issue about his knee before, but he said that he's okay," Fernandez said about the topic. "As we usually do in NLEX, we take good care of our boys. We'll continue to manage it. We'll continue to check it. And hopefully he'll be 100%." 

Fernandez will need Thornton at his best if his team hopes to improve on their 3-9 standing (including their quarterfinals loss to the Alaska Aces) in the Philippine Cup. 

The head coach is coming off winning five straight championships with the San Beda Red Lions in the NCAA and is hoping to get the Road Warriors to the top of the PBA echelon by building around 41-year-old big man Asi Taulava.

Taulava averaged 16.2 PPG and 11.2 RPG in the Philippine Cup, proving once again that he can still perform at a high level despite his advanced age and the mileage on his body.  

Being one of the four teams with the lowest records in the last conference, NLEX had the liberty to acquire an import with unlimited height for the Commissioner's Cup.  

But instead, they went with the 6-foot-8 Thornton, whose skills from the perimeter should supplement the post-oriented game of Taulava.

"Al plays mostly in the outside. And then Asi plays in the post. That's why we took Al - because we want him to complement Asi," said Fernandez, who says he plans to play Thornton at the small forward position. "I know that he (Thornton) can [also] play defense. It's just a matter of him getting in shape." 

"I'm kinda excited [for] when he gets into his groove," Taulava said of his new teammate during practice. "He plays the wing and the post."

"I'll play in the post, take advantage of my size, and I'll play in the perimeter as well," Thornton said. 

Thornton also said that his experience playing professional basketball in the NBA and other countries will allow him to contribute to the team more than just what will be displayed on the stat sheet, such as “being a helping hand on offense and defense. 

“Just the little things where they can grow as a player, and also encouraging them."

But first, Thornton will have to build chemistry with Taulava and the rest of his teammates. From January 14-25, the Road Warriors will be in Dubai to take part in an international basketball tournament, which provides the perfect venue to establish camaraderie.

"Our purpose in Dubai is not really winning the tournament; our purpose there is for us to improve as a team and bond as a team. The most important thing is the PBA - the second conference. That's our main focus," Fernandez said.  

He also mentioned how the basketball-heavy schedule in Dubai for the team will provide major steps for Thornton to get into in-game shape. 

"It will be a training camp. We're going to be playing in the evenings, we'll practice in the morning, so he'll probably shed some weight." 

"This trip to Dubai for us is going to be good," said Taulava. "This is our way of getting in shape and at the same time, bonding, and getting to know each other, getting familiar with each other before the [Commissioner's Cup] kicks off."

"It's going to prepare us for the season. I think we have six games in Dubai, so it's going to give us a chance to get familiar with Al." -