On the night he entered the NBA, as the second pick of the 2010 draft, Evan Turner was everything the Philadelphia 76ers wanted: a skilled, intelligent, high-character player, a foundational piece for a brighter era.
“The guy we needed,” Ed Stefanski, then the 76ers’ general manager, said on that June evening.
On Thursday, less than four years after he was identified as a 76ers centerpiece, Turner was shipped to Indianapolis. “Traded” would be the wrong word. Turner was given away—packaged with Lavoy Allen and swapped for a diminished Danny Granger and a second-round draft pick.
If the 76ers buy out Granger, as some expect, then Turner will have effectively been dealt for half of a second-round pick.
This is not the expected fate for a No. 2 overall pick. But these are not normal times in the NBA.
The 76ers, under new ownership and management, are stripping the roster, clearing the books, stockpiling draft picks and openly gunning for a top pick in the loaded June draft. Turner was heading for free agency and a big payday—one that, in the view of the 76ers’ new front office, would have exceeded his worth. He was deemed expendable.
This was a business move first. But it was, most certainly, a basketball move, too.
Turner is producing a career-best 17.4 points per game this season. He is a solid playmaker and rebounder for his position. But he is a poor 3-point shooter and a shaky defender. He has never met the lofty expectations conferred on a No. 2 pick.
The burden of that label has weighed heavily on him.
“I know there’s a sense of relief that will come” with the move to Indiana, said one person close to Turner.
This is the trade within the trade—a swap of circumstances, roles and expectations for a 25-year-old whose career is still evolving.
In Philadelphia, Turner was a draft bust, talented but incapable of lifting the franchise, a star player on a losing team.
The Pacers were title contenders before Turner arrived. All they need from him is steady play, not salvation.
“He was ecstatic,” said Turner’s agent David Falk. “They play old-fashioned, no-nonsense basketball. That’s the way Evan sees himself.”
This simple change in scenery could cast Turner in a much different light. The NBA is filled with players whose images suffer based on context: the wrong team, the wrong coach, the wrong system, the wrong role, the wrong surrounding cast, or simply the wrong expectations.
Pau Gasol was a disappointment in Memphis, but a two-time champion as Kobe Bryant’s co-star in Los Angeles. Jeremy Lin was a twice-discarded fringe prospect before finding fame in New York. Boris Diaw was a nobody in Atlanta, a star in Phoenix, an overweight punch line in Charlotte and now a key reserve in San Antonio.
Context matters. This is Turner’s golden opportunity to rewrite his story.
“Evan’s a winner,” said Doug Collins, the 76ers’ head coach for Turner’s first three seasons. “The kid is a winner, and he’s a big-time competitor.”
Although Turner’s statistics were modest—he averaged 7.2 points as a rookie, 9.4 points his second year and 13.3 points last season—Collins saw steady improvement, and a knack for big moments in the playoffs.
The 76ers entered the 2012 playoffs as the eighth seed, but pushed the Boston Celtics to seven games in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Turner helped secure the victory in Game 2, in Boston, scoring the go-ahead layup with 40 seconds to play, then following with two free throws. He delivered several clutch plays in the 76ers’ first-round upset of the Chicago Bulls.
“He’s at his best when he plays on winning teams and when he’s a complete, all-around player,” Collins said.
Turner has shown that ability, averaging around six rebounds and four assists over the last two seasons.
But his game still needs refining. Though he is a solid mid-range shooter, Turner is awful from three-point range, shooting .288 from the arc this season. Turner is skilled at creating his own shot off the dribble, but poor as a spot-up shooter.
Defensively, Turner can use his length to bother opponents, although he tends to shy away from contact. Playing for the Pacers, one of the NBA’s elite defensive teams, will require an adjustment.
Perhaps context will matter here, too. A guard can defend more aggressively when he knows he has an elite rim protector like Hibbert behind him. With less pressure to score, Turner might relax a bit and make those open 3-pointers.
“Sometimes he’s too hard on himself,” Collins said. “As he’s gotten older, he’s gotten better at that. But it’s one thing I used to talk to him (about) all the time, is he could really beat himself up.”
But Collins also recalls a rookie Turner going hard at Miami’s LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in the first round of the 2011 playoffs.
“He loves to play in those kind of games,” Collins said. “That’s why I think this is such a terrific thing for Indiana.”
Whatever Turner may become, it was never going to happen in Philadelphia, not with the 76ers’ new general manager, Sam Hinkie, pursuing an all-out demolition of the roster. The concern was that Turner, as a former lottery pick, would demand a contract exceeding $10 million a year. There were reports, as well, that the 76ers feared Falk, who is renowned as a tough negotiator.
“I’m flattered that people think they would trade a player as talented as Evan Turner because they were afraid of my ability to get him a fair-market contract,” Falk said, chuckling.
In fact, Falk said he had hoped the 76ers would keep Turner. He even told ownership that he would work with them this summer “to work something out that was fair” to both parties.
But the 76ers never stopped shopping Turner, along with Spencer Hawes (who was dealt to Cleveland) and Thaddeus Young (who stayed put). When the market for first-round picks dried up, Hinkie settled for a batch of second-rounders, and sent Turner to Indiana.
“I’m thrilled by it,” Falk said. “It landed my client on an amazing team with a very real chance to compete for an NBA championship.”
It remains to be seen how Turner will adapt to life as a reserve, or how he will mesh with a young superstar like George, who happened to be taken eight picks later in 2010.
But Turner has the talent and, by most accounts, the desire, maturity and commitment, to carve a new path, and perhaps even to help the Pacers knock off the Miami Heat and make the NBA Finals for the first time since 2000.
“They are going to win the Eastern Conference,” TNT’s Charles Barkley proclaimed Thursday night, in response to the Turner trade. “This takes them to another level.”
So much for lower expectations.
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @HowardBeck.