Can 76ers' Turner come up big again?

Evan Turner gets schooled by Doug Collins. "Wait until you see me next year," the rookie said.
Evan Turner gets schooled by Doug Collins. "Wait until you see me next year," the rookie said.
Posted: February 20, 2011

When the Hoop Scoop basketball rating service published its ranking of the nation's top 460 high school sophomores in January 2005, Evan Turner didn't rush to find where he was on the list.

He wasn't on the list.

Even though a handful of high school sophomores already were committed to colleges and the top-rated player, O.J. Mayo, was starting to field questions about when he would turn pro - and another guard at Turner's high school was No. 120 nationally - Turner was on his high school's junior varsity. The following November, he did crack Hoop Scoop's list. He was No. 305 in his class.

So there was no early heads-up about this guy from the far West Side of Chicago, no warning he would eventually be the national college player of the year and the overall No. 2 pick, by the 76ers, in the 2010 NBA draft. Turner always had skills, but always had to climb the ladder, not missing a step. Even at Ohio State, Turner showed up as the No. 3 recruit in his Buckeyes recruiting class and didn't start during most of a frustrating freshman year.

The Sixers knew Turner's background in great detail when they drafted him, how he never started where he wound up. But that's not the kind of thing you can put on a billboard or a commercial when you draft a guy No. 2. The 2010 draft had only one sure thing - John Wall, drafted No. 1 by the Wizards. Wall had been Turner's opposite, the man at every level.

Turner described his own path: "I really had to fit in before I stood out."

Obstacles to overcome

Turner was the kid with a ball in his hands. There were a couple of nearby playgrounds, at a school and a park, but it was often smarter to stay closer to home. "You've got to be a little careful," Turner said of life in his neighborhood near Franklin Park.

Turner's back alley didn't have a hoop, so he and his buddies improvised. Their first rim was a crate they attached to a stop sign at the end of the alley behind his house.

"They tore that down, so I just dribbled and used the awning of the garage as the basket," Turner said. "Then we found a rim and a backboard. We got some wood and built [the pole]. . . . Then the kids chipped in and we bought a rim."

A crate and a stop sign didn't launch Turner's ascendancy to the NBA. He had obstacles to overcome, and when he overcame them, he found more obstacles.

"Early on, he was immature," said Mike Mullins, his AAU coach. "He wasn't quite sure of himself. It's not uncommon for kids. . . . I think his self-confidence came last after he proved himself to his teammates and on the floor."

Turner moved around as a kid. The family first lived on the South Side, he said, then moved to the West Side, then out to the western suburbs, to Oak Park. Family circumstances propelled them back to the West Side, but Turner's mother still wanted her boys to go to school in Oak Park.

"I was 11, my brother was a year older," Turner said. "We'd walk a few blocks to the bus, take the bus to a train. Then walk like a mile to the school."

High school was a similar commute. St. Joseph High School in Westchester is the basketball school depicted in the classic documentary Hoop Dreams. Turner followed his older brother out there. This time, it was a city bus to a suburban bus, then a few blocks' walk.

"If I wanted to go shoot early, I had to wake up at like 5:15. . . . It would take an hour or so, a little longer if it was snowing," Turner said. "It was wearing on me. I finished practice, home at 9:30 at night, had schoolwork."

Turner said he knew there were financial struggles, too.

"Everyone has tough times," he said. "My mom got sick, she had brain surgery. She lost her job. Everybody goes through stuff. That made me tougher. I was 15. My brothers, we had to stick together."

Mullins, the AAU coach who has remained part of Turner's life, can remember seeing Turner for the first time when he was about 13 years old.

"My first memory of Evan was watching him in a middle school game, as a guard, shooting threes off his hip," Mullins said. "He could handle the ball. He was built like Bambi, he was all arms and legs. He had some guard skills, and really played with a passion even at that young of an age. He was just a little above average height, [5-foot-8] or 5-9, not anywhere where he was going to be. But having seen his brother Richard at St. Joseph, Richard was 6-8."

Mullins has a strong AAU program, the Illinois Wolves, and it was particularly strong at Turner's age group. He didn't have all the top players - a guard named Derrick Rose was already tops in Chicago - but Turner joined a team that eventually produced four or five Division I players. He wasn't the best of them right away.

"One thing he always did for me, he always taught me, never doubt myself," Turner said of Mullins. "If you're unsure, walk in like you own the place, that I should expect great things. Sometimes I missed out on little things, just confidence, mental things. He'd say to carry yourself like you're a million dollars."

Mullins can remember a turning point, an AAU national tournament in Orlando when Turner was in high school. The opposing team was the top-ranked team in the nation one year up, featuring a bevy of stars, including future Villanova all-American Scottie Reynolds. Down by a point in the last minute, Mullins drew up a play designed to get Turner a shot.

"I could see him smiling in the huddle," Mullins said. "It wasn't going to be one of the other guys taking the shot. There was a big guy on Evan, he down-screened, then came back up to the top [past a] screen - one jab step, he hit a free-throw-line jumper, swish."

Turner remembers the play?

"I think I hit a pull-up jumper going left at the buzzer," Turner said after a recent Sixers shootaround.

One other thing he remembered.

"He gave me the ball," Turner said.

"He has a switch inside," Mullins said. "Even though self-confidence at times maybe was lacking day-to-day, he has a belief that he wants to be the best. As he puts those small victories away, he builds on them."

College work

Ohio State was coming off a Final Four appearance when Turner arrived in 2007. The stars who had propelled the Buckeyes to that Final Four, Greg Oden and Mike Conley, were gone to the NBA after one season in Columbus. But Ohio State had plenty of talent left and brought in a strong freshman class, topped by center Kosta Koufos, who would stay at Ohio State one year before leaving for the NBA.

By this point, Turner had grown to 6-7. But even preseason pickup games were an adjustment.

"He had a rough time starting out," said Buckeyes teammate David Lighty. "There were so many athletes on the court. He wasn't used to it. He had to use his height and skills."

"I was homesick, for one thing," Turner said. "I was really out there by myself for the most part. I got off to a bumpy start, I really wasn't happy there. I kind of went in with one foot in as opposed to two feet in, saying if it doesn't work out here, maybe I can leave. Coach [Thad] Matta told me if you put two feet in, you're going to have the best time of your life."

After an early-season exhibition game, "I was moping around, really upset," Turner recalled. "Coach told me, 'If you don't want to be here, don't be here, go home to Chicago. If you want to be here, be here.' My mom came down, she talked to me about stuff. I talked to my AAU coach about stuff. I got acclimated, realized it was going to be home for the next few years."

That freshman year, Turner mostly came off the bench, but he got on the court, averaging 27 minutes a game, scoring 8.5 points.

"We didn't really know what he was going to be," said Lighty, a current Buckeyes star. "We had him spotting up in the corner making threes most of the time."

Sophomore year, Matta had Turner bring the ball up one game against a tough Purdue defender. He had a huge game, and all of a sudden, he was the linchpin of the team. He didn't become Ohio State's point guard until the following season, but he had the ball in his hands a lot. Lighty remembers how Turner "watched a lot of film on big point guards - Magic, LeBron, how they kept guards on their back when they're pressuring you full-court."

Lighty had another remembrance: "His raw will to want to win."

Matta wanted Turner to work on his left-hand passing skills, so he dribbled around campus, banging passes off stop signs. A manager would get late-night texts asking if he wanted to shoot (i.e., rebound for Turner). Last season, it all came together for Turner. He had the ball in his hands and averaged 20.4 points, 9.2 rebounds, and 6 assists a game. He was named national player of the year by the Associated Press.

"What he does coming off the ball screen, he gets you with that no-dribble crossover I call it, out of nowhere," Lighty said. "It gets you every time. I think he got Dwyane Wade with it earlier in the year. That was the Chicago coming out in him."

The pro game

Mullins, the AAU coach, remembers a phone conversation with Turner early in his time with the Sixers. Once again, he started out struggling, even in summer-league ball, where top draft choices often shine.

"Why do I have to go through this?" Turner asked Mullins. He meant, always go through it.

Lighty said, "I told him, 'It's just the same way - once you figure out the NBA game, it's going to be an eye-opener for everyone.' "

High school stars don't always become college stars, and college stars can't all become NBA stars. Most hit their upper limits eventually. But it's hard to say where that is with Turner. He obviously has turned a corner in recent weeks. After disappointment or even bust, became attached to his name, he's been on the court and performed well in a number of late-game, close-game scenarios. He's still a work in progress, though. Many times, he's sent to the corner as a secondary offensive option, just like his freshman year at Ohio State.

"I can see his growth - spiritually, mentally, every way," said Sixers coach Doug Collins. "Evan's got a swagger about himself now. He knows he belongs here. He knows this is the right spot for him. He knows he's getting better."

"You have to earn respect," Turner said. "Coach Collins wasn't going to take it easy on me, and everybody is fighting for a position. I had to start over and earn my keep. That's the way life goes."

Collins is confident that in Turner's case, past truly is prologue.

"He's going to be so much better next year," Collins said.


Contact staff writer Mike Jensen at 215-854-4489 or mjensen@phillynews.com.

 

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