Heading into this season, Evan Turner's standing as a fatally flawed dissident of contemporary NBA basketball—aka the age of analytics—felt like it was lodged in a block of cement (as is the case with most guards who don’t/can't shoot a lot of threes).
But a startling resurrection, summoned by Brad Stevens and the Boston Celtics, is beginning to alter the reality of who Turner is, changing the fundamental expectations many held just a few short months ago regarding whether he could ever become a productive player.
Turner doesn't really have a position, and that's OK. The 26-year-old has useful skills that come in handy from a variety of spots and in several different areas of the floor, and the Celtics are happily taking full advantage. They mostly bring Turner off the bench as Rajon Rondo's backup, but giving him that label would restrict everything else he's capable of.
Finally unshackled from the chains that came with being selected No. 2 overall, then failing to develop into a franchise cornerstone, Turner is just now settling into suitable ground as a frisky facilitator who can also create his own (good) shot at will. It's resulting in the most measured and least detestable campaign of his career.
Turner isn't familiar with getting such little playing time (22.7 minutes per game, the fewest of his career), but sometimes less is more. A lot more. His PER, true shooting percentage and assist rate have never been higher, and right now he's attempting to fill a hole Boston's had on its roster for the past few seasons.
The Celtics are perpetually looking for someone who can run a threatening pick-and-roll, put defenders on their heels with determined drives to the rim and, well, score at will (not that other teams aren't). Turner isn't necessarily all those things, nor is he a human firecracker off the bench like Jamal Crawford or Lou Williams, but more and more he's succeeding within the structure of Boston's offense, letting the game come to him as opposed to forcing shots and over dribbling.
Turner is averaging more assist opportunities per game than Andre Iguodala, Chandler Parsons and Kawhi Leonard. On the Celtics, he’s second only to Rondo, who also leads the league, and no player on the team— save Rondo, Jeff Green and spurts of Marcus Thornton—can effortlessly create space for himself in a scoring situation.
Unlike his ultimately tragic tenures with the Philadelphia 76ers and Indiana Pacers, Turner is currently playing with intelligence—more times than not. The ball doesn’t stick in his hands as much as it once did. This doesn't sound like a lot, but the mere fact that Turner is willing to hit the open man before the defense can recover and rotate is hugely surprising and genuinely helpful.
Turner's expansive skill set smelled three years past its expiration date last June, when he couldn’t sniff meaningful minutes in the Eastern Conference Finals. But Stevens and his coaching staff have done a fine job putting the five-year veteran in positions where he can make plays.
Here he is coming off a pin-down screen set by Phil Pressey, running a handoff with Brandon Bass. Turner has several options here, based on how the defense is playing him. He can pull up to shoot off the dribble, drive to the rim, hit the roll man or throw a difficult pass back to Pressey, who should be open for three on the weak-side wing. Turner reads the defense like a book, and makes the perfect bounce pass to Bass.
A little under half of Turner’s shots are jumpers from the mid-range, the elephant graveyard of analytics. But, as you can see from the shot chart below, he makes it work, using the space to his advantage by attacking the one area defenses treat as a poke in the belly instead of a hammer to the face. In other words, Turner travels on a path of least resistance, and he makes the most of it.
(Among bench guards, he’s one of the most effective mid-range shooters in the entire league, launching over three attempts per game and sinking nearly half of them.)
Some of this success may be due to improved mechanics, as MassLive.com's Jay King writes:
For years, Evan Turner noticed something about his missed shots. They often drifted to the same side of the hoop. 'Every time I work with somebody,' he said Sunday before meeting the Washington Wizards, 'I’m just like, ‘Yo, I have a weird way of my shot always going left.''
After practices, he can be seen with what he calls a 'shooting sling,' which wraps around his left arm.
'It’s just something Coach Larranaga has me work with to take my left thumb out of my shot so it won’t affect the ball,' Turner said. 'I always felt like my shots just kept going left. I remember when I was shooting, my left hand would turn this way (rotates his hand clockwise). So it’s all about just keeping my left hand straight and shooting through my guide hand.'
Life is up and down on defense. Mostly down. Turner could never lock ball-handlers down on the perimeter, but this year his shortcomings aren't for a lack of effort. He closes out hard on shooters, fights above screens and shuffles his feet to keep hungry scorers at bay. It's not easy, and he tries. But too often it's not good enough.
The Celtics allow 108.3 points per 100 possessions when Turner's on the floor. No player has a worse impact. When Turner sits, that number drops down to 101. This is the difference between the eighth- and 26th-ranked unit in the league. He easily gets lost.
Turner isn't perfect, and there will be nights where his jumper isn't falling and he reverts back to bad ball-hogging habits. He isn't getting to the free-throw line as much as he could, and isn't even one of the four most valuable players on a 7-13 Eastern Conference team that could very easily miss the postseason.
But relative to where he was at the end of last season—essentially tumbling out of the league—Turner's unusually steady play deserves a round of applause.
Michael Pina is an NBA writer who's been published at Bleacher Report, Sports on Earth, Fox Sports, Grantland and a few other special places. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelVPina.