Is Class of '22 basketball commit Bruce Thornton Ohio State's next 5-star?

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
Bruce Thornton is on track to be the first five-star player to enroll at Ohio State since D'Angelo Russell in 2014.

Grassroots basketball can always be counted on for jaw-dropping highlights. And depending on the matchup, with multiple high-level players on the court for either side, it can be hard to know where to look or who to watch.

Bruce Thornton is proving himself to be the exception. Now a five-star prospect in the national rankings, the Alpharetta (Georgia) Milton standout and 2022 Ohio State verbal commitment is playing this summer as a legitimate top-15 prospect with a growing future.

You just might have to look a little closer.

“He’s a winner,” basketball analyst Jamie Shaw said, drawing parallels to former Ohio State player Scoonie Penn and Michigan State’s Mateen Cleaves. “Those type of guys that you might look at them initially and have questions, but then once they start playing they start racking up positive plays upon positive plays and wins upon wins.

“His team always seems to be better and his teammates always seem to be better when he’s on the floor.”

In a recap from the Bob Gibbons Tournament of Champions, which took place May 14-16 in Suwanee, Georgia, Shaw singled Thornton out as one of seven top performers from among the 250 teams ranging from the U14 to U17 levels. It comes on the heels of a junior season at Milton that brought home a Class 7A state championship and a quarterfinal appearance in the Geico Nationals Tournament.

He was also named the state’s player of the year at his division. As a senior, though, his primary goal consists of recapturing one of those awards even at the expense of his own numbers.

“He said, ‘Next year, I’m gonna have to take a step back from my scoring to allow (2023 five-star guard and teammate Kanaan Carlyle) to grow. My goal this year is to lead the team in assists and win state,’ ” said Adam Gibbs, Milton assistant coach and director of The Skill Factory TSF, Thornton’s AAU program. “I don’t know too many kids who that would be their goal.”

Gibbs first met Thornton when he was in third grade and started working with him one year later. When Gibbs looks at where the 6-foot-2, 195-pound Thornton has grown and where he’s headed, the pride is evident in his voice.

There’s also a strong feeling that the best is yet to come.

Bruce Thornton establishing himself as one of nation's best point guards

Recruiting lists are notoriously fickle. Rivals, has had Thornton at No. 12 but now has him at No. 20. The rankings have him as a four-star prospect, No. 23 nationally.

ESPN’s top 60 for the 2022 class skips over Thornton entirely.

“Do you want the guy that can control your team and do everything or do you want the guy who’s going to put up gaudy numbers?” Julian Barfield, Thornton’s coach at The Skills Academy, said. “He’s like, ‘No, I didn’t have the off-the-rim dunk like the other person had who had 25, but guess what? I won.’ ”

That’s not to say he can’t put up those numbers. Barfield said Thornton had a 49-point effort for Milton last season during which he didn’t have a single dunk. And yet, in another game, he didn’t take a single shot and finished with around 13 assists in a blowout win.

“He doesn’t need the baseline videographer,” Milton coach Allen Whiteheart said. “He just gets it done. He just grinds out 25-, 30-point performances daily. That’s who he is.”

Shaw said those skills are evident even in an AAU game.

“All eyes are on Bruce,” he said. “Everybody knows that Bruce is the man, even the other all-stars on his team. He commands that type of respect. He doesn’t really need to necessarily say anything, he just commands that presence because they know that if they work their butt off they’re gonna get the ball back.”

Gibbs said Thornton’s two favorite players are Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler. His No. 2 jersey is a tribute to Leonard.

Bruce Thornton shoots against IMG Academy. analyst Jamie Shaw compares Thornton to former Ohio State player Scoonie Penn and Michigan State’s Mateen Cleaves.

A power forward while growing up, Thornton switched to point guard in sixth grade and never looked back. His coaches describe him as a true point guard, one who can windmill dunk but typically just lays the ball in instead. In his final prep game of the season, he had 18 points, nine assists and six rebounds in a five-point loss to Bradenton (Florida) IMG Academy.

He has gone through the testing process at the P3 Peak Performance in Los Angeles, which has assessed the physical tools of more than 40% of the current NBA. According to multiple sources, Thornton’s attributes have him in the company of one-and-done college players.

“Because of the social media era we live in, Bruce isn’t sexy,” Gibbs said. “He’s not the girl that everybody wants to take out, because he doesn’t look sexy, but when you finally sit and watch him you say, ‘Damn, he might be the best player,’ because you see how effective he is.”

There’s still work to be done. Whiteheart said he’s on Thornton about being a more vocal leader. Barfield is working with him on improving his three-point shot. Gibbs said Diebler told him Thornton will have to run a mile in 5:30 when he arrives next summer, and he’s already got his time down to 5:40.

He doesn’t do it alone, either. Barfield said when he tries to work Thornton out in a small group, he typically ends up inviting most of the team to join.

“They gravitate to him,” Thornton said. “He picks up the phone, he calls, he usually gets that guy to come.”

Chris Holtmann, Jake Diebler sealed the deal for Ohio State

Although his profile figures to continue to grow with the return of in-person recruiting and live AAU events this summer, Thornton isn’t planning to use the summer as an opportunity to create more recruiting interest from other schools.

Barfield said the commitment Thornton made to Ohio State last November won’t waver for two key reasons: Chris Holtmann and Jake Diebler.

“He loves that coaching staff,” Barfield said. “From what he told me, it’s just about being comfortable. Bruce is one of those kids that just wants to be comfortable and it’s about trust, and he trusts those guys up there.”

The Buckeyes built that level of trust not only by a level of constant communication but also by providing constructive criticism that Gibbs said was appreciated.

“They critiqued every high school game,” Gibbs said. “What his percentage was shooting floaters in this part of the floor, what he shoots here. Those are the next-level details that help you make it at the highest level, not just, ‘Oh man, you’re great, you’re player of the year.’ ”

That enabled the Buckeyes to lock Thornton up months ago. He's on track to be the first five-star player to enroll at Ohio State since D'Angelo Russell in 2014.

“They made him a priority early and showed him all the stuff that could really happen,” Shaw said. “It seems like Ohio State, even back to Thad Matta, has really identified the players that they want early. Typically they’re in-state guys. To do it in Atlanta might be unusual … Getting a five-star in fold early, especially at point guard, is nothing but positive.”

So while he’s planning his first visit to campus this June, Thornton isn’t worried about what others could showcase. Prior to the pandemic, Gibbs said he took visits to Kentucky, Georgia, Georgia Tech and Auburn. His list of five finalists also included Indiana, Purdue, Georgia and Alabama.

“(People) were like, don’t you want to see the campus? He said, ‘Man, all of them are the same. Just show me where the gym is, where I’m taking my classes and I’m good,’ ” Gibbs said. “None of the aesthetics were gonna play a part in his decision.”

And although his profile could still grow, Gibbs said no amount of attention will pull Thornton away from the Buckeyes.

“Jake’s like, I want to get through this signing period before people figure out what we’ve got,” Gibbs said. “I was like, ‘Jake, you don’t have to worry about that. Bruce is a committed kid.’ You know schools still reach out but we don’t entertain none of that stuff, because once he made his decision up, it was where he wants to be.”