Seven games into the 2013-14 NBA season, and Evan Turner is still straight killing it. It started opening night, where his team-high 26 points on 10-19 shooting were largely overshadowed by the historic debut performance of shiny new teammate Michael Carter-Williams, but were still enormous in the Sixers' shocking upset of the Miami Heat. And it's gone right up until Saturday's game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, where ET scored a career-high 31 to go with ten rebounds, and helped force double OT against a team that seemed like it had long since taken care of business. Most surprisingly, there hasn't been a bum outing in between them--seven straight games of Good Evan.
It's long been concluded that as a #2 overall pick, Evan Turner has been a disappointment at best, and an outright bust at worst. Through three NBA seasons, his production has been uniformly below average, and though his superficial numbers have gotten bigger with more playing time and more offensive responsibility, his advanced stats have stayed thoroughly unimpressive, with the Extraterrestrial yet to post a PER over 13 (15 is about league average) or an Offensive Win Shares above zero (not sure what league average is, but it's definitely higher than zero) for a full season. Considering that names like DeMarcus Cousins, Greg Monroe and Paul George were still available when the Sixers took Turner--even if neither the Sixers nor anyone else who might've drafted #2 that year would've given serious thought to picking them--Evan's drafting certainly seems like a black mark on the previous Sixers administration.
But hey. Let's imagine that on draft night 2010, you said that seven games into his fourth season with the 76ers, Evan would be averaging about 23 points and seven rebounds a game, shooting over 50% from the field, and logging a PER over 21. That'd be OK for your #2 overall pick, right? Especially if you mentioned that those numbers helped get a young Sixers squad off to a 4-3 start, including wins over the defending-champ Heat and much-vaunted Chicago Bulls? It should at least be enough to get any potential bust talk off the table, right?
Well, it should, but hold on as second, because there's more to Evan Turner's numbers those first three years. They may seem mediocre (or slightly worse) on the surface, but they mask runs of absolute brilliance that Evan has gone on for weeks at a time, only to revert to his worst-case self shortly thereafter--giving Sixer fans the sneaking suspicion that no hot streak of ET's will ever truly last. Consider the evidence:
EXHIBIT A: MARCH 7TH, 2012 to MARCH 16TH, 2012
Number of Games: 5
Stats: 20.0 PPG, 9.8 RPG, 3.8 APG, 60% FG
Marquee Performance: A 24-point (on 9-14 shooting), 15-rebound outing against the Knicks at MSG, leading Philly to a 106-94 victory over their Atlantic Division rivals.
Why It Felt Different: Evan had just been thrust into a starting role, and after a rough first outing as a starter against the Bucks--2 points on 1-12 shooting--he seemed to finally find his groove, perhaps getting back into his Ohio State comfort zone at long last.
Gushing Quote From Me at the Time: "That’s three games in a row now of incredible play from Turner—three more than he’d had in nearly two months leading up to the Boston game...His 66 points combined in the last three games are more than he had in the 14 leading up to them, and his 11 free throws (!!) made in the last three are as many as he had in the 21 games (!!!!) before that. To do it today on the road, against a division rival, in a team win…you can’t say enough about it."
What Happened Next: Evan averaged six points a game on 30% shooting over his next five starts--only cracking double digits once--while his boards dropped to five a game and he started averaging more turnovers (2.2) than assists (1.8)
EXHIBIT B: NOVEMBER 24TH, 2012 to DECEMBER 18TH, 2012
Number of Games: 13
Stats: 19.1 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 4.2 APG, 46.7% FG, 48.6% 3PT FG
Marquee Performance: A 26-point, ten-rebound, five-assist night against the Celtics in Boston, including the game-winning jumper--his first as a pro--in overtime.
Why It Felt Different: 13 games was by far the longest consistently productive stretch of Evan's career as a pro, and it included the new threat of Evan being lights out from downtown--though the fact that he admitted his improvement was due to actively doing nothing was a minor cause for worry.
Gushing Quote From Me at the Time: "Evan’s offensive production has been too good for too long now to be considered fluky. This is ET’s 13th straight game scoring double-digit points—his previous-best streak was just five games. We’ve got ourselves a legit NBA starter on our hands with ET, and someone who might have a better chance of making a future All-Star team than we ever would have thought a year ago."
What Happened Next: Evan's next 13 games would see him average just 10.7 a game on 40% shooting, including three games of five points or fewer, while his improved outside shooting stroke essentially disappeared, dropping to 24% (6-25) from deep over the stretch.
EXHIBIT C: JANUARY 21ST, 2013 to JANUARY 28TH, 2013
Number of Games: 4
Stats: 22.0 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 6.0 APG, 54.5% FG, 60% 3PT FG
Marquee Performance: 27 points, a non-garbage-time career-high for Turner, on 12-18 shooting, to go with seven assists and just one turnover in a close loss to the West-contending Memphis Grizzlies.
Why It Felt Different: Not really sure that it did, to be honest, but it was Evan's last really, really good week of play for the Sixers before this season, so we clung to it for dear life anyway.
Gushing Quote From Me at the Time: "Evan Turner was a marvel tonight, scoring from all over the court on the way to his season-high 27 points and seven assists...it’s worth pointing out that after slumping for about a month straight, the Extraterrestrial is finally back up in space."
What Happened Next: ET shot 26% over his next four games, including a 1-10 outing against the Pacers, failing to crack double digits in a single one. (By then, no one was really surprised.)
So, with all this, you'd of course forgive Sixer fans for being a little gunshy on declaring this seven-game hot stretch of Evan's the emergence of the Real Evan Turner, the guy we drafted back in 2010 but who for reasons unknown decided to burn three seasons before letting us glimpse his true colors. It's reflexive now to distrust any positive developments with Evan, to not believe any All-Star-caliber glimpses he shows, until we actually see him throwing alley-oops to LeBron James at the actual All-Star Game. Then, maybe we can talk in declarative sentences.
Still, this time it feels different. Of course, it always feels different this time with Evan. But maybe this time it feels different because it really is different? Let's examine Evan's case for You Guys I Really Mean It This Time:
1. He's doing it to start the season. That's a first for Evan, who aside from his first-ever game in the NBA--a promising 16-point, seven-board outing in a blowout loss to the Miami Heat--has traditionally gotten off to a pretty slow start at season's beginning. Here's Evan's yearly numbers for the first seven games of the NBA season:
'10-'11: 9.3 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 2.6 APG, 47.5% FG, 2.4 TOV
'11-'12: 9.9 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 2.6 APG, 46.8% FG, 1.3 TOV
'12-'13: 11.7 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 3.6 APG, 37.8% FG, 2.3 TOV
So to go from those types of numbers to the All-Pro-caliber numbers he's putting up to start this season--after a fairly strong pre-season as well, it should be mentioned--leads one to believe that the improvement with ET came over the summer, and has quickly manifested itself in his league play.
2. He's doing it by getting to the line. Free-throw shooting has never been a particular forte of Evan's--he doesn't get there that much (average of under two attempts a game before this season) and he doesn't shoot particularly well for a wing once there (74% before this season). Getting to the line wasn't a particularly big part of Evan's success in the hot stretches listed above, either, since he didn't average more than 3.5 attempts a game over any of them.
This year, though, he's living on the line like his name was Joey Fatone. Evan's taken over six FTs a game since the season started, including a career-high 13 attempts in Cleveland on Saturday night, and shooting a Nash-ian (or at least Billups-ian) 86% from the line once there. What's more, he's actually looking for the contact now, taking it hard on drives to the basket, and even pump-faking defenders to get them in the air, then jumping into them--a nasty little trick that just about any good volume scorer in the league has in his arsenal.
Free throws are the key to efficient scoring, for a couple reasons--mostly because it's basically free points that don't count against your shot attempts, but also because it's indicative of a more aggressive offensive mentality, something ET occasionally lacked during his first three NBA seasons, but which he appears to have in much higher gear so far this year.
3. He's NOT doing it by draining threes. When Evan admitted that the reason his three-point stroke showed in such full force during his long hot stretch last season was essentially for no reason at all, it confirmed what a lot of us had feared about his sudden marksmanship from deep--that it was a weird fluke and would not likely be sustained. Indeed, after shooting a ridiculous 48.6% from three over that stretch, Evan shot just 32% from three for the rest of the season, leaving his overall rate a middling 36.5%.
Going into this season, if you heard Evan was back to producing like an All-Star, you might figure he was just hitting his threes for a minute again, and that once his numbers from beyond regressed to the mean, so would his scoring output. But in fact, the Extraterrestrial's been pretty lousy from deep--just 3-17 for the year, including a two-make night last time out against the Cavs. So this time, it's the grunt work he's doing on offense that's allowing him to rack up points--which means if he ever does get hot with his stroke at some point season, watch the f--- out everybody.
4. He's doing it at the basket. NBA stat guru John Schumann did a pretty vicious takeout piece on Turner about a month back, where he broke down all the ways ET was hurting the Sixers with his inefficient scoring--the most notable of which was his shooting 49.4% at the basket, ten percent worse than league average, and worse than all but eight of the 236 players who took at least 100 shots in the restricted area last year. For a player whose jumper is as erratic as Evan's, to also be that miserable from up close is pretty damning--it's hard to help your team as a primary offensive option when you can't get easy buckets anywhere on the court.
So far this year, that's all turned around. Take a look at his shot chart from last year as reference, courtesy of NBA Stats:
On these charts, shooting yellow from a range means you're shooting about league average, shooting red means you're below average, and green means you're above. So you can see here that Evan didn't have a lot of hot spots last year--along the baseline and the top of the key, and that's about it--while he was absolutely miserable around the basket. But look what he's up to this year:
He's absolutely red-hot at close range, shooting a staggering 68%--22% better than last year!--around the basket, and maintaining that right baseline area as his ultimate sweet spot, hitting 11-15 from there so far this season. You can see that he's also cold as Foreigner from long range, but that's OK, because he's barely shooting from there at all--of the 119 shots he's taken so far this year, 50 have come at the basket, 28 along the two sides of the baseline, and no other range accounts for more than seven attempts.
This year, Evan's not only taking high-percentage shots, he's making them at a high percentage, which is pretty much the definition of an efficient scorer--and just about everything his game seemed in direct opposition to for his first three years in the league.
So let's accept for a minute that it actually is true--that this hot streak of Evan's is due to legitimate improvement as a basketball player, and that even if it ends up coming down a little, it won't disappear completely like it has every time before this. There'd have to be some sort of explanation, right? Inefficient 13-point scorers don't become efficient 23-point scorers just with a change in wind direction--there has to be something accounting for this, right?
Let's take a look at all the possible explanations and see if any of them are potentially satisfying:
1. He's grown into a role of responsibility. The hardest thing for Evan coming out of college was ceding responsibility at the pro level. At Ohio State, he was The Man times infinity, the guy who the Buckeyes sank or swam with in basically every single game, and in the pros, he didn't have the game yet to come in and demand the same kind of ownership of the Sixers from day one. He was stuck behind Andre Iguodala in the starting lineup, then he was stuck playing second fiddle to Jrue Holiday once the Damaja emerged as an All-Star, and with new star acquisition Andrew Bynum lurking in the background as a threat to take over the team if he could ever get both of his legs moving at the same time.
This year, Iguodala, Holiday and Bynum are all gone, and just about all that's left is the Extraterrestrial. Now that he's the team's unquestioned #1 offensive option, and also somehow one of the oldest, most experienced dudes on the team now, he seems to have slipped back into his natural leadership role, which perhaps forced him to take a good hard look in the mirror and figure out what he needed to do to improve his scoring and attacking to help the team that was now basically his. He's still only 25, and a lot of players need time to grow up and adjust to the pro level, mentally and physically. Perhaps this is just the year he turns those corners.
2. He's got better teammates for his style. Hard to say this to be conclusively true, given that he lost his best teammate (and closest friend) in the off-season when Jrue was traded to the Pelicans, but this season, he has had the benefit of playing with the Rookie of the Year front-runner in Michael Carter-Williams, a pass-first point guard who can score but doesn't demand the ball in his hands on every possession. He's also got James Anderson locking down the two-guard position, meaning he can consistently play the three, where he's more comfortable and can play closer to the basket--one of the reasons why he's not shooting as many threes this year.
Perhaps most importantly, he's got a team that's running again, getting him clear looks in transition and allowing him to do some operating before opposing defenses are totally set. The Sixers rank 4th in league pace this year after finishing 20th the year before, and are fifth in fast-break points, up from 17th last year. That's a lot of easy points to go around, and Evan's claiming a whole bunch of those.
3. He's got smarter coaching / management. I wrote a piece in early October pleading with Philly fans not to write Evan off before this season, even though most had mentally traded him away by the time of the draft. I thought he deserved a chance to show us what he could do with a larger offensive role, and more importantly, what he could do outside of Doug Collins' conservative, low-efficiency, stat-wary offense, and on a team now engineered by two efficiency-minded thinkers in Brett Brown and Sam Hinkie.
Well, not gonna say I told you so, but...looks like I might not have been crazy, at least. You have to see a little of Brown and Hinkie's influence in the way Evan now seems to operate with his shot chart in his head at all times, thinking "No, not from there, that's not a good look," when he previously would hoist a contested sixteen-foot pull-up jumper in transition. It wouldn't be the only way the Sixers' new staff has maximized the potential of this seemingly super-limited roster, but it might end up being the most consequential.
"I certainly hope that Brown and Hinkie give Turner a fair and true chance," I wrote in that article. "[That they] work with him to help him understand what he needs to do to help the team run more efficiently, and allow him to show that the Doug Collins stink can wash off him enough for him to become a net positive player on offense again." So far, so good, guys. Thanks for making me look smart for once.
4. He's in a contract year. Would probably be naive to deny the import here. This being Evan's fourth season, his rookie deal is finally coming to an end, and given that he and the Sixers failed to work out an extension before the Oct. 31st deadline (and by all accounts, they didn't try particularly hard), ET will become a restricted free agent in July. He'll have a chance to go out and claim as much money and as many years as the open market dictates, and the Sixers will then have the opportunity to say word or no thanks.
That's not to say Evan's been dogging it the three years he's been under contract in Philly, or that he'll suddenly play harder now that there's loot to be gotten--he takes umbrage at the implication, and I don't really blame him, since a lack of trying has never appeared to be one of his faults as a player. But still, moneymoneymoneymoneyMOOOONEYYYYY has historically been a powerful motivator, and if Evan's agent went to him at some point in the off-season after making some underwhelming preliminary phone calls and said yo ET get that PER up, he'd have a pretty good reason to want to get that done.
Do you buy any of 'em? Do you buy any of it in general? Personally, I really want to--of course--and with an efficiency-minded gun to my head, I'd say that at least some of this improvement has to be real, has to mean something. He just looks too different, is doing too many things that he never did before, for the entire run to be just considered an anomaly. In his 13-game hot stretch last year, I kept thinking "HOW IS HE DOING THIS???" This year, it's more like "WHY DIDN'T HE DO THIS EARLIER???" There's a difference there, I think.
Still, we're only seven games into the season, and just as sure as the Sixers won't stay champions of the Atlantic Division all season, there are going to be stretches this year where our faith in New Totally Good Evan will be put to the test. I can handle that, I think, but I don't know if I could handle another complete disappearing act from ET. Please, please stick around this time, NTGE. My heart won't be able to take any more sad-in-retrospect Gushing Quotes From Me at the Time.