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He's about to graduate

4 years of college have Thornton ready

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Al Thornton calls himself a "gamer," the kind who enjoys testing his skills with PlayStation 3 controls in hand. Sometimes it's NBA 2K7. Sometimes College Hoops 2K7.

When playing the pro game, Thornton prefers using Kobe Bryant "because he's about the only one who can score 100 points on the game by himself."

When it comes to the college version, Thornton plays as himself, which the Florida State forward finds "pretty amazing."

He has just one complaint about his virtual self.

"I think I'm a little underrated," he said. "I wish I could do more."

Asked if College Hoops 2K7 imitated reality and that he will enter tomorrow night's NBA draft underrated, Thornton laughed and said, "No comment."

With four years of experience in a college program overshadowed by in-state rival and two-time national champion Florida, the 23-year-old Thornton is not a fashionable pick. Four-year college players went out of style once NBA teams became enthralled by the theoretical upside of high school players and college freshmen. And when younger, underdeveloped players did not catch the eye of scouts, foreign players did. Four-year college players came to be regarded with suspicion and sometimes unfairly cast as second-round talent (see: Ryan Gomes, selected at No. 50 in 2005).

Although Thornton will not find himself anywhere near the second round, the mock drafts he views on a daily basis project him going late in the lottery, between No. 9 and No. 14. It's no secret that Celtics executive director of basketball operations Danny Ainge values Thornton's maturity and scoring ability, calling the 6-foot-8-inch forward the "second-best offensive player in the draft" behind Kevin Durant. If the Celtics package the No. 5 pick in a deal and trade down, Thornton could be their guy. If Atlanta and Memphis pull surprises at No. 3 and No. 4, some believe, Thornton could merit the No. 5 pick.

"He's a man's man," said Celtics assistant executive director of basketball operations Leo Papile. "He's used up his four years of college. Ability-wise, I think he's top 3-10. It depends on needs."

Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton concurred: "I'll be awful surprised if he goes that low [between 10 and 15]. He probably should go anywhere from 3 to 10."

While it's highly unlikely that the Celtics would select Thornton with the No. 5 pick, he could be one of the pleasant surprises in the draft. He may be underrated now but appreciated when he shows his readiness to make an impact on a team. Again, think of Gomes.

Papile and Hamilton bring the perspective of people who have watched Thornton grow from an outstanding all-around athlete into a basketball player. They see upside not always present in a college senior. Knowing how far he has come since his days as a freshman "glued to the bench," Thornton sees the upside, too.

When asked early in the predraft process what he would tell an NBA general manager who looked at his age and questioned whether he had upside, Thornton said, "I don't know what I'd tell him. I'd probably look at him crazy.

"I have a lot of upside. Within two years, I think I can be an All-Star. I know what I need to work on and I'm going to work on it, keep getting better.

"My work ethic has improved over four years. The key was just wanting to get better each and every year. I just had a drive to add something to my game every year."

Raw material was there
As Thornton and Hamilton tell it, there was a lot to improve on. Coming out of Perry (Ga.) High School, Thornton received scholarship offers in both track and field and basketball. While it was a family decision to pursue basketball, there were plenty of times when he was a freshman when track and field seemed more attractive to Thornton. At least he would actually compete with the track team.

The way Thornton remembers it, the only time he saw action as a freshman was during warmups -- a slight exaggeration, considering he came off the bench in all 30 games, averaging 2.8 points in 7.9 minutes.

"Coming into college, I probably shouldn't have been playing basketball," said Thornton, who red shirted for a year. "I was just an athlete. I should have run track. I'd have been a 400-meter runner, high jumper, long jumper, that type of thing.

"I probably should have run track because in basketball I was all legs. No jump shot, pretty much no ball-handling skills, just pretty much running and dunking."

Hamilton and his staff took the raw athlete and began preparing him to succeed at the next level. Above all, Hamilton wanted Thornton to be a student of the game and a complete player, to match his athleticism with intelligence on the court.

It is one thing to have a 37-inch vertical leap from a standstill and a 41-inch leap with a step into the jump. It is quite another to know when and how to use that athleticism to the best advantage. In other words, the lessons that younger players struggle to learn in the NBA Thornton was taught during four years of college.

Despite little playing time as a freshman, Thornton bought into the learning process. Hamilton recalled that Thornton would be the last player to leave the gym after every practice. Sometimes he would stay as much as an hour and a half. Thornton needed the extra time to work on every facet of the game, from passing to ball-handling to footwork to his jumper. He also needed to add strength, and eventually bulked up from 185 pounds as a freshman to 220 as a senior.

Better and better
As a sophomore, Thornton started four games, averaging 9.1 points and 4.4 rebounds in 18.0 minutes, and shot a career-best 54 percent from the field. Starting all 30 games as a junior, Thornton had a breakout season, averaging 16.1 points and 6.9 rebounds, and he considered leaving school early for the draft.

After a lengthy discussion with Hamilton, who had coached the Washington Wizards in the 2000-01 season, Thornton decided it would be better to finish school. Thornton started all 35 games his senior season and led the Atlantic Coast Conference in scoring at 19.7 points per game. He also had a career-high 7.2 rebounds per game, and shot 53 percent from the floor, 44 percent from 3-point range.

"He has allowed himself to be coached," said Hamilton. "He separates himself by just how hard he works. I've never known him to have a bad-effort day. He also had the tremendous support system of his parents, who understood that they needed to be patient. They always encouraged Al to be patient, stay coachable, and stick with the game plan.

"A lot of times when you're dealing with young, athletic players who have had a measure of success in high school, they think it will translate immediately into success on the college level. He was eager to play as a freshman, but to his credit, he's maintained his focus.

"He always accepted the challenge of earning playing time. He's more mature, very competitive and confident. He can be quiet in some ways and unassuming, but that can throw you because once the ball is thrown up, he kind of jumps out of a phone booth."

Hamilton believes Thornton is NBA-ready and could excel in any style, with any team. Thornton feels he probably would fit best with the up-tempo Phoenix Suns, but he knows he won't drop as low as No. 24, where the Suns are slotted to pick. Ultimately, though, Thornton must develop his perimeter skills to succeed in the NBA. Critics worry that he may be foul- and turnover-prone.

"I really, truly believe I can play with anybody," said Thornton, who projects himself as a small forward in the NBA. "I feel like I can make an immediate impact on the offensive end. I can come in and rebound and bring a lot of intensity, be an energy guy, create some havoc on the defensive end, and be a team player."

Calling his number
When Thornton visited the Celtics for a predraft workout almost three weeks ago, he talked with Ainge. One of the main topics was jersey numbers. He'd like to wear No. 12 in the NBA.

"I already talked to Danny about it," said Thornton. "There's no 12 [retired], so I can get 12."

Like most gamers, Thornton has been envisioning a new reality. At the next level, he hopes that reality matches his NBA dreams.

2007 NBA draft
Madison Square Garden, New York
When: Tomorrow, 7 p.m.