NEW ORLEANS – Hornets coach Monty Williams insists he has Marcus Thornton's best interests in mind, even if it hasn't always looked that way when the former LSU star has been a healthy scratch or sitting on the bench for long stretches.
When Thornton comes off the bench and scores in a game-changing flurry — as he did against Memphis on Wednesday night — Williams then finds himself trying to explain why his explosive 6-foot-4 shooting guard's playing time has been so spotty.
"He and I have had rough times since I signed," New Orleans' rookie coach conceded this week. "I've been up his tail like a you-know-what. And I want him to succeed. Sometimes I think he thinks I'm his worst enemy. It does me no good if he's not playing well."
As the Hornets head into a tough stretch of games starting at Atlanta on Friday night and followed by home games against San Antonio and Oklahoma City, the trick for Williams will be figuring out the best way to make Thornton a part of the rotation.
While the second-year pro has had numerous moments of brilliance, he has been streaky, following up double-digit scoring nights with shooting droughts in which he piles up misses at an alarming rate.
In mid December, for example, he helped the Hornets win three games with point totals of 19, 19 and 18 during a five-game stretch. He did so without playing more than 24 minutes in any of those games.
However, he followed that up by going a combined 9 of 41 from the field during an eight-game stretch in which his playing time plummeted.
Just when it looked like he'd hit bottom, he exploded for a season-high 22 points in 32 minutes on Jan. 12 to lead the Hornets to an unlikely overtime victory over Orlando that snapped the Magic's nine-game winning streak.
Thornton then sank back into a 5 for 20 slump during his next three games and on Wednesday night found himself sitting on the bench for the entire first half and more than 6 minutes into the third quarter before Williams finally told him to check in.
At that point, the Hornets trailed Memphis by 11 and the crowd roared when Thornton trotted to the scorer's table.
"The fans are great," said Thornton, a Baton Rouge native whose been popular ever since he averaged 20 points during two seasons at LSU. "That's what keeps me going."
Thornton wound up with 17 points in only 22 minutes, and in the final seconds of overtime his deflection of Mike Conley's inbound pass helped cause a turnover that led to Thornton's game-winning reverse layup.
Thornton said he's made up his mind to control what he can and always be ready for whatever minutes he gets.
"I try to give the team a lift whenever they need it," he said.
In his rookie season in New Orleans — where he was traded minutes after Miami picked him in the second round of the 2009 draft — Thornton set a franchise record for points in a quarter with 23 and his 117 3-pointers for the season shattered the previous franchise rookie record of 81. He finished his first pro season averaging 14.5 points.
This season, he's averaging only 6.8 points per game.
Williams has said Thornton needs to keep working on the details of the game plan, particularly on the defensive end, and the coach added that he prefers to have Thornton in a role that give his reserve unit a scoring threat.
While Thornton has looked fearless and aggressive from his first day as a pro, there are times when he appears to be freelancing. Still, even refined play-makers like Chris Paul praise Thornton's court presence.
"You saw the standing ovation he got when he checked into the game," Paul said after the win over Memphis. "Our team feeds off that energy. ... He's a spark off that bench and I think he got me going a little bit, too."
Williams, who is often questioned about Thornton's playing time — seemingly to the point of annoyance — by Hornets fans he meets, made a point of reminding everyone how much he'd like to see more of what he saw from Thornton on Wednesday night.
"I want him to do well," Williams said. "If he knew how happy I was for him, he'd be surprised."