Myles Turner's 'Astronomical' Rise Helping Spark Indiana Pacers' Playoff Hopes

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 8, 2016

Indiana Pacers forward Myles Turner controls the basketball against the Charlotte Hornets in the second half of an NBA basketball game, Friday, Feb. 26, 2016, in Indianapolis. Charlotte won 96-95.  (AP Photo/R Brent Smith)
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MIAMI — Myles Turner hesitated only momentarily to describe his journey from the Indiana Pacers bench to the injury report and finally to the NBA's Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month for February.

"Astronomical," the 19-year-old rookie told Bleacher Report. "I like that word. Yeah, we'll say that."

He's not wrong. Since the All-Star break, Turner is second among rookies in blocks (1.7 per game), fifth in rebounds (5.5) and seventh in scoring (11.6). Adding significance to those stats, he's also the lone player among the top eight second-half freshman scorers who suits up for a team currently inside the playoff picture.

It's getting harder to remember that this same player struggled to find major minutes early on in the campaign.

"Every time his number is called, he's making plays," said Pacers All-Star swingman Paul George. "We trust that he can make shots, he's proven that. He's the future so you want to give him that confidence."

George is right—the rookie is just getting started.

From Project to Pacers Staple

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 25:  Myles Turner meets with Commissioner Adam Silver after being selected 11th overall by the Indiana Pacers in the First Round of the 2015 NBA Draft at the Barclays Center on June 25, 2015 in the Brooklyn borough of  New York City. N
Elsa/Getty Images

Turner's unicorn-like skill set of stretch shooting and paint protection is well-documented. He was the second-highest-ranked player in 2014's ESPN 100 and selected 11th overall in the 2015 NBA draft.

Every rookie enters the NBA with a steep learning curve ahead, and Turner's road seemed longer than most. He hadn't set the hoops world on fire during his lone season as a Texas Longhorn. He used his relatively meager 22.2 minutes a night to average a modest 10.1 points and 6.5 boards—albeit it with an eye-opening 2.6 rejections.

Between those stats and an awkward running style, he looked like a project pick.

Only he didn't see himself that way. And neither did the Pacers.

"They drafted me to come here and make an impact," Turner said. "They wanted me to play right away."

But an early-season thumb fracture cost him seven weeks of game action. That's likely why you're not hearing his name mentioned along with fellow high-impact rookies Karl-Anthony Towns, Kristaps Porzingis and D'Angelo Russell

He treated the injury not as a setback but rather an opportunity to further his on-the-job training.

"I was able to sit back and watch a lot of film," he said. "I was able to look at the game in a way I didn't see it before."

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - NOVEMBER 27: Myles Turner #33 of the Indiana Pacers before the game against the Chicago Bulls on November 27, 2015 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Indiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downlo
Ron Hoskins/Getty Images

In Turner's first game back, he blocked three shots in 21 minutes. The next night, he snagged nine boards in 17. But he never saw production as his key to playing time.

"I took it as, 'I'm going to come out here, and I'm going to do everything I'm asked,'" he said. "I did everything I was asked, and I did more. I think [Pacers] coach [Frank Vogel] knew how hard I worked.

"I would always be the last one in the gym, always try to be one of the first ones there. I'd come shoot late at night. I think he took notice."

A Sustainable Breakout

A January 22 game against the Golden State Warriors finally served as his aha moment. In 27 minutes of action, he poured in a career-high 31 points on 12-of-17 shooting along with eight rebounds and two blocked shots. That came on the heels of a 25-point, seven-rebound, two-block effort against the Denver Nuggets.

He's still one of only two players this season to drop 30-plus points on the Dubs while shooting at least 70 percent from the field.

"We needed a spark off the bench," Turner recalled. "I was able to provide that spark and then some. That was a really big statement game for me."

The Warriors took that game, but the Pacers left with the night's biggest takeaway—Turner was ready.

Three games later, he'd forced his way into Indiana's opening lineup, a spot he's only ceded once since. His numbers ebb and flow, but his ability has seemingly experienced perpetual growth. Given that he's one of the only wild cards in the team's veteran-heavy rotation, his improvements can elevate the rest of this roster and frighten those around it in the Eastern Conference standings. 

"Myles is progressing nicely," Vogel said in late February. "He's bringing great energy. He seems to be managing the increased workload. ... His offensive game is just growing with each game."

The Next Chapter

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

Whether eyeing the Pacers through a wide-angle lens or dissecting them under a microscope, it's clear Turner will have a massive say in their success.

"I don't know how fast and how far he develops [the rest of this season], but it will be a big factor in what our ceiling is," Vogel told Candace Buckner of the Indianapolis Star.

Remember that the Pacers are, at their essence, a nearly billion-dollar business, and it's staggering how much weight is spread across Turner's broad shoulders. Unless, of course, you ask the teenager about it.

"I'm just coming in and doing my job," Turner said. "Some people look at it as pressure. I look at it as I'm really confident in my situation."

That confidence will be key to carrying the freshman through the stretch run. He could be the deciding piece in whether Indy becomes a disappointed playoff hopeful or a full-fledged postseason participant.

The Pacers are 10-8 since his first start, and their defense has been dominant with him over that stretch (98.7 points allowed per 100 possessions, which would be second overall). Per B/R Insights, he has the team's best defensive field-goal percentage at 41.6 (minimum 300 field-goal attempts).

He's a member of its best five-man unit, helping Indy post a plus-60 alongside George, Monta Ellis, George Hill and Ian Mahinmi.

Individually, Turner wants and needs to improve defensively, particularly on the perimeter. He's sliced 1.8 points off his opponents' overall field-goal percentage but has allowed them to shoot 1.7 points above their average outside.

Then again, they might be shooting out of necessity. No one has had much success testing Turner at the rim.

Turner also wants to expand his offensive range. His most active shooting area is the zone from 16 feet to the three-point arc. It's only a matter of time before he's consistently taking and making triples.

"The three-point shot isn't something I'm pushing right now, but given the opportunity, I'll let a couple of them fly," he said. "I'm very confident in my ability to shoot the ball, so one of these days, I'm going to be able to grow my game into being a three-point shooter."

He isn't rushing, because he doesn't have to. For all the scouts who saw Turner as a long-term project, he's already ahead of schedule. If he can stay that way, the rising rookie could help Indiana secure a playoff trip.

All quotes obtained firsthand, except where noted otherwise. Statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com and current through games played March 6.