What to Make of Marcus Thornton's Hot Start in Fantasy Hoops

Marcus Thornton is playing like a first-round asset in nine-category leagues. What's a realistic projection for him going forward?

Marcus Thornton wasn't picked in the vast majority of fantasy hoops drafts this year but is currently the 10th-ranked player in nine-category leagues through his first six games of the season with the Houston Rockets.

No one saw that coming. Probably not even Marcus Thornton.

Thornton unceremoniously signed a one-year deal with the Rockets this summer at the veteran's minimum. He wasn't projected to do all that much in a backup role behind James Harden, but injuries to Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas in the early going left the Rockets without much at power forward and a sizable void in the starting lineup as a result.

To compensate for the hole left at the four, coach Kevin McHale has been going with a small-ball lineup to start games, consisting of four guards/wings in Ty Lawson, Harden, Thornton, and Trevor Ariza, with either Dwight Howard or Clint Capela at center (depending on Dwight's health and game-to-game availability).

In 70 minutes together, the version with Howard has a Net Rating of 5.4, while the Capela versions sits at a whopping 26.9 in 55 minutes of action. In other words, the small-ball five-man unit is working just fine.

That's probably why McHale kept things status quo in Wednesday's game against the Brooklyn Nets, despite the fact that Terrence Jones was returning from injury. Thornton continued to start and somewhat surprisingly still played 35 minutes, while Jones only logged 16 in his return.

Now, through six games (all starts), Thornton is putting up the best fantasy numbers of his career. In 35.3 minutes per game, he's averaging 17.3 points, 3.0 triples, 4.3 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.2 blocks, and only 1.0 turnover, while shooting a respectable 47.8% from the field (and somehow hasn't shot a single free throw). People are screaming left, right, and center for some kind of regression, or at least that his role is bound to be reduced at some point.

Is that reason enough for fantasy players to leave Thornton sitting on the wire, or should people in the 50% of Yahoo leagues where he's still available be scrambling to pick him up today?

The first thing to consider is the fact that this isn't the first time in Thornton's seven-year NBA career that he's been fantasy relevant. He finished the 2011-12 season as the 28th-ranked player in nine-category leagues on a per-game basis while playing for Sacramento, thanks to averages of 18.3 points, 2.1 threes, 3.7 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.2 blocks, and only 1.6 turnovers, while shooting 43.8% from the field and 86.5% from the line.

In the years that preceded that breakout campaign -- and even more in the years since -- Thornton hasn't come close to that level of success from a fantasy perspective, never managing to crack the top-100 in nine-category leagues a second time. If you glance at his career as a whole, his 2011-12 season almost looks lost as the lone fantasy-friendly outing in a sea of otherwise mediocre years. Before you scream "regression" too loudly about this season, though, consider his role and minutes per game in every other season.

In 2011-12, he averaged a healthy 34.9 minutes per game as an everyday starter. In every other year, he averaged right around 24 minutes per contest, with the exception of last season, when he bottomed out at 15.0 through 48 games between Boston and Phoenix. One thing that might suggest that this season isn't a fluke is the fact that his per-minute production has remained fairly steady throughout his career. Just look at how his per-36 numbers this season compare to those of that 2011-12 breakout, as well as his career rates.


His shooting split of 47.8% from the field and 39.1% from deep is certainly up from his career rates of 43.0% and 36.3% respectively, but it's not that out of whack. Even if he does regress in terms of his efficiency, the popcorn counting stats look to be right in line with what he's done his whole career on a per-36 basis. In the end, his projected fantasy value for this season will depend heavily on his minutes.

Going into this season, a completely healthy Rockets roster looked like it wouldn't have much room for Thornton. The reality is, however, that Houston hasn't been healthy, and Thornton has capitalized on the missed games by Patrick Beverley, Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas, and Dwight Howard. Enough so that Kevin McHale seems to have taken a real shining to him and might continue to give him minutes, even as other players that originally seemed to be ahead of him on the depth chart get healthy.

With the NBA going smaller and smaller, the Rockets should have plenty of use for a guy like Thornton, who can guard multiple positions fairly well and provides plenty of spacing on the offensive end. It might take a few injuries to get the most possible fantasy value out of him, but there are plenty of guys on Houston's roster with spotty enough injury histories to open up time for him fairly consistently. His first-round production over the first few weeks is unrealistic and almost certainly unsustainable, but he has proven in the past that he can put up early- to mid-round value when given the minutes.

If Thornton is still available on your waiver wire, you have to grab him.

He's a solid source of points, threes, steals, free throw percentage, and low turnovers, and his role seems safer than originally thought, at least for now. Don't drop anything of significant rest-of-season value for him, as his role could diminish overnight, but you can't use the pending returns of other players or fear of regression as a reason to hold off on adding him any longer.

If you have anything resembling dead weight or someone that's less than a sure thing on your bench, make the move. Worst case scenario, Thornton comes back down to earth in a week or two and you drop him for the next hot free agent. Best case? You just got a once proven, game-changing fantasy asset for free.