Evan Turner’s performance against the Denver Nuggets Saturday night was hardly inspiring: six points on 3-of-12 shooting, 5 assists and four rebounds. Last year, a game such as this was the norm for Turner. This season, however — Turner’s fourth — this sort of display has become the exception, rather than the rule.
After three seasons of disappointing play, Turner’s emerged this year as the 76ers’ best player, if not one of the best guards in the Eastern conference, averaging 20 points, 6.5 rebounds and nearly four assists per game. That emergence comes as a result of Turner healing himself of his two worst ailments: inconsistency and inefficiency.
Turner’s production would ebb and flow in previous seasons — a string of promising performances led only to a similar streak of unproductive play. Saturday night, by contrast, was just the second game this season in which Turner’s failed to score over ten points.
“(Last year), playing with older veterans, I had to look over my shoulder. So if I missed my first few shots, I might be down, or I might not play,” Turner says. “(This year), I’m able to shoot myself out of situations without pressure. If I miss a few shots to start, I have confidence I can (come back).”
“He’s more aggressive,” 76ers forward Thaddeus Young says of Turner. “(He’s) looking to score and be in attack mode every game.”
While it’s true that Turner’s been more central to the offense this year — he’s using 26% of his team’s possessions, a five percentage-point uptick from last season per Basketball-Reference.com — it’s what he’s doing with those possessions that’s keyed his career season.
Turner’s forsaken the inefficient, ill-advised long-range two, once an unhealthy feature of his game, in favor of driving to the rim. The results have been revelatory.
According to the NBA.com player tracking data, Turner’s shooting 63% on drives to the basket, scoring 7.1 points per game in such situations — the second-highest average in the NBA. He’s also hitting 60% of his shots within five feet of the rim this year, a full thirteen percentage points better than last year. Turner also feels he’s better at the rim this year because he’s getting to the line more, supported by the fact that he attempts nearly .3 free throws for every field goal attempt — a career-high free throw rate, according to Basketball-Reference.
He’s still nothing close to a three-point marksman, as he’s shooting a paltry 24% from beyond the arc this season, but he’s also only attempting 1.3 three-pointers per game. And yet, his true shooting percentage, which takes into account both three and two-point field goals as well as free throws, is a career-high 53%.
To what does Turner attribute this remarkable growth in shooting? Offseason training? New head coach Brett Brown?
“The ball’s just going in,” Turner says.
Increased efficiency and opportunity aside, there’s one other element at play in Turner’s emergence: comfort.
This is the Evan Turner that once dazzled at Ohio State, the constant triple-double threat that simply dominated his collegiate competition. It’s the player Philadelphia fans thought they’d receive when the 76ers drafted him second overall in 2010. For a while, it seemed as if that player had simply disappeared, his skills unable to translate to the faster and stronger N.B.A. Yet here he is, given the chance to play as he did in his Buckeye Halcyon days.
“We always knew he could handle, score and make plays for everybody,” Spencer Hawes says. “Now he’s had the opportunity, and he’s stepped up.”
“I guess sometimes I look like I’m in my old form because I’m doing what I naturally did,” Turner says.
Given Philadelphia’s youth movement, it’s unlikely Turner returns to the 76ers next season. Nevertheless, he’s shown that he can adapt and survive in this new data-driven, efficiency-emphasized NBA.
Statistical support for this article provided by NBA.com/Stats and Basketball-Reference.com