clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Turnaround

Buying into Evan Turner’s vision of a midrange renaissance

AP Images/Ringer illustration
AP Images/Ringer illustration

After a long summer of topless championship parades, free-agency meetings in the Hamptons, Snapchat mishaps, and gold medals, the NBA is finally, truly, really, almost back. The start of training camp marks the beginning of our NBA Preview.

This is How Basketball Works Week. We’ll be looking at the scouts, stats, coaches, and tactical developments that are shaping the game.

Evan Turner is the self-appointed messiah of the midrange revival, or at least the counterrevolution’s most outspoken salesman; he is a descendant of Jordan and Jesus, both Christ and Shuttlesworth; he will tell you that he’s a basketball player, but he plays the game with a historian’s sense of duty. “A lot of people say the highest percentage is a 3 or a layup, and I definitely comprehend why,” Turner told me. “But sometimes you gotta read the game for what it’s worth.” He plays to preserve what might yet be lost to time.

“The future is in the midrange,” Turner famously told Complex in June. It was a proclamation that ran so contrary to today’s notions of basketball that it felt like a prophecy meant for children of the Singularity. Perhaps there will come a time when we transcend the limitations of advanced metrics, and when we do reach the other end of the pace-and-space wormhole, Turner’s words as the Midrange Nostradamus will be there to greet us once more. “The midrange is where the money’s at, man.”

Turner might see himself as one of the last of a dying breed, but he embodies a very modern route to cult appeal in the current NBA landscape. At some point in the progression of the Michael Jordan tree of swingmen, there came a divergence: The wild success and popularity of players like Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, and Vince Carter created a sublayer of expectations for the young wings who came after. Most of them didn’t possess nearly enough talent to lift up entire franchises, but they certainly had the bravado. Players like DeShawn Stevenson, J.R. Smith, and Nick Young established a new phylum: the postaspirational swingman, untethered to the responsibilities of Jordanesque stardom but able to maintain a charisma that pretends they are.

In today’s social media economy, irrational confidence is its own industry. Turner has quickly become the best quote in the league, often imbuing delusions of grandeur into what would typically be tepid game reaction. Postaspirational players project a kind of self-confidence that, from the outside, seems preposterous. From the inside, it’s a form of self-preservation. Because not too many people in the NBA are going to be confident for you. “In the league,” Turner said to the Providence Journal last year, “there’s going to be three or four superstars and the rest of the players are only as good as the coach thinks.”

Turner entered the league with all the pressure that comes with being a no. 2 overall pick (playing for Philadelphia, no less), and it was quickly evident that his future lay as a jack-of-all-trades role player. After 54 games in Philly during the 2013–14 season, in which he put up some of the biggest numbers of his career, he was traded to Indiana at the deadline after the Pacers had amassed a remarkable 40–12 record in the first half.

It was a bad fit from the jump; Indy needed floor spacing, and he provided none. The Pacers had a net rating of minus-3.2 when Turner was on the floor, the worst figure attached to any Pacer who played at least 400 minutes during the season. “I think after my stint in Indiana, I had to [figure out] if I wanted to play in the NBA or not,” Turner said. “It was all about getting back to being happy. I think that was the biggest thing. For lack of a better word, just saying, ‘Fuck it,’ and just being happy.”

In Boston the next season, he found a coach in Brad Stevens willing and eager to take advantage of his versatility. (“Brad was a borderline genius when it came to play calling,” Turner said.) Turner became a regular crunch-time contributor and one of the Celtics’ most reliable playmakers off the dribble. Playing on a team for which his role was made explicitly clear, his personality blossomed; he’d become a fan favorite for his candid responses. “Sometimes I just get tired of answering questions, so I just try to have fun with it,” Turner said. “I grew up playing basketball and having fun, and this should be my happy place. I try not to let anybody take my joy. I know what I am. I know what I can do. And I know I play great basketball.”

Playing in the midrange, namely the post, requires the development of rhythm: Jab steps, staccato dribbles, creating tension to find the best way to resolve it — it’s an overt display of individual superiority over a defender. And yet, if the idea of basketball as jazz holds any water, its truth would be found in the midrange, where a soloist’s physical improvisation is still an important detail. But that kind of rhythm often comes at the expense of the team; it usually takes too long to develop. The friction between modern basketball and the midrange game largely revolves around time itself.

“In order to get a shot off in the midrange, you have to have the right type of footwork, the right type of patience and balance, and a feel and read for the game,” Turner said. An ideal offensive situation for him, both in preference and in statistical efficiency, involves possessing the ball for two to six seconds and dribbling three to six times; unlike most wings, Turner’s percentages drop precipitously the more open he is. Turner has calibrated his body in such a way that physical tension is what drives his shot effectiveness. He might not have the best midrange game, but every tenet of its gospel can be found in Evan Turner.

Which is why the four-year, $70 million contract with the Trail Blazers he signed this offseason feels so incongruous. Portland does love its 3-pointers; the Blazers had a top-three offense after the All-Star break last season, the product of being in the top five in both 3-point makes and percentage. Their perimeter barrage had begun to mirror the Warriors’.

Turner’s utter lack of a 3-point shot made it hard to envision a clear path of success within the Blazers’ spread system, and it was indeed one of the first questions Turner had to answer in his team introduction. Would he embrace the 3 the way the rest of the team does? Turner’s answer was noncommittal. He’d keep working on getting better from behind the arc, but he was more concerned with taking the right shots and making the right reads for his teammates.

The questions surrounding his paltry outside shooting have dogged him his entire career, and they aren’t about to let up — especially now that he’s playing on a team that has steadily built its identity around two excellent 3-point shooters in Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.

But Turner signed with Portland for a reason. The spread-out motion offense that the Blazers run is its own ecosystem, and the spacing that players like Lillard, McCollum, and Allen Crabbe create allows for subregions and microclimates to emerge. Within that framework, players like Turner or Mason Plumlee, who don’t possess the same gravitational pull on the perimeter, can simply play the way they know how.

Turner came to Portland essentially to become its version of Shaun Livingston. During last season’s playoffs, in scouting their second-round opponent, the Blazers probably realized the kind of offensive option their team was lacking. Livingston, who had taken a starting role against the Rockets in the first round, was torching Houston. He shot 27-for-46 against the Rockets in the first round, and not a single attempt came from beyond 19 feet. Playing alongside teammates Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes, and Andre Iguodala, Livingston was able to take a smaller defender down in the block with impunity. He was a combo guard with a center’s offensive game, and not only was that stylistic quirk accepted within the Warriors’ grander scheme, it was a wrinkle that would become a key feature in the offense.

“When you’re in the playoffs, sometimes the midrange is the only shot you really have,” Turner said. “Especially from the defensive mind of the coaches. I know here, we like to give up the midrange. And in other situations, other teams like to give up the midrange, [too]. They’re betting on the analytics of it. But the advantage of hitting that shot, if you got guys who can pull up and hit that shot comfortably, you’ll be OK.”

Given the variance in sample size, there isn’t much evidence that teams in general attempt more midrange shots in the playoffs than they do in the regular season. But Turner does have a point about being able to take advantage of the midrange bait that opponents cast out. Bigs who can step out and shoot from the perimeter have gone from being a luxury item to a necessity; Livingston and Turner could be the first steps in (re)institutionalizing the post-up guard.

At 6-foot-7, Turner can ably operate as a second or third facilitator on the floor, which will allow the Blazers to upgrade on size and defense when coach Terry Stotts decides to stagger Lillard’s and McCollum’s minutes without sacrificing playmaking on the floor. His assist percentage over his two seasons in Boston (27.0) is just outside the top 25 among players who have played at least 120 games over that span; among non–point guards on that list, he is behind only LeBron James (37.3), James Harden (35.0), and Dwyane Wade (29.6).

It should be noted that while Turner talks big about his midrange game, he shoots only 39.5 percent within that area of the court, nowhere near efficient enough for it to be considered “crazy,” as he’s described it. That doesn’t mean his claims are totally empty, though. If there’s one part of the court where Turner is truly excellent, it’s in the post. Turner scored 0.99 points per possession on post-up attempts last season, which put him in the 84th percentile among all players, and behind only Kevin Durant, Arron Afflalo, Kawhi Leonard, and Andrew Wiggins among perimeter-oriented players with at least 100 possessions in the post. (Livingston scored a point per possession on the 95 post-up possessions he was involved in.)

The baseline turnaround fadeaway, the iconography that made swingmen like Jordan and Kobe legends, is now a vestigial maneuver that lives on in players like Turner and Livingston, change-of-pace guards who operate as key role players off the bench.

“I think as we get older, and as the game keeps growing, and as kids growing up play less and less basketball and [do] more and more drill work, I don’t think your feel and your technique is always going to be there in situations when you can’t fully see 12 steps ahead,” Turner said.

The midrange has become less of a prestigious skill and more of a contingency plan. Still, Turner stresses its importance to players who pride themselves on having well-rounded games. “I played versus certain teams in the past playoffs where it was easy to guard the guards off the simple fact of the matter that they couldn’t shoot off the dribble at all,” he said.

But preserving the midrange is more about the art of the midrange shot than it is the function. Consider the shots that players like Turner, Livingston, and DeMar DeRozan take, night in and night out, as faithful homages to Jordan and Kobe. It’s the kind of stylistic imitation every kid of this generation has attempted in the playground once in their life. For Turner, that short corner jumper is more than just an exercise in hero worship; through repetition, it has become part of his identity. “As you get older, you don’t really dream Kobe as much,” Turner said. “You’re more prone to worry about Evan Turner.”

We all succumb to the future in one way or another. Even for a devout practitioner like Turner, there is dissonance in his love for the midrange jumper and his sensibilities as an all-around basketball player. He loves the skill and guile involved in scoring over your defender in the post, but, on a macro level, he has an even greater appreciation for the game’s emphasis on ball movement in the pace-and-space era. To watch the game evolve, he’s willing to accept that some strategies deployed by the greats of yesteryear no longer have a presence in today’s playbooks.

“A lot of these new coaches, you know, you sit down in free agency, you ask them about iso post or iso short corner, and things like that,” Turner said. “They’ll say they’re not really into it. And rightfully so. I think the coaches have gotten even better, I think the game of basketball has gotten even better, and I think a lot of players have gotten a lot more skilled in the sense of team play.”

With about a minute remaining in the first quarter of Portland’s first preseason game against Utah last week, Crabbe drove baseline from the left corner for a pull-up with four seconds remaining on the shot clock, but got caught second-guessing. The ball was flung out about 7 feet behind the arc to none other than Turner, who had shot 24 percent from 3 last season. This should’ve been a disaster. But on a terribly broken play with only about a second to react and fire, Turner caught the ball in his shooting pocket, rose up, and … nailed it?

“Coach [Stotts] told me everybody ends up shooting the 3 better when they get here,” Turner said at his introductory press conference in July. Less than three months later, he’s hitting a 3 in stride from Curryland. This, from a player who once called the act of passing to him while he was behind the 3-point arc a violation of “an unwritten rule of the NBA.” Must be the water in Lake Oswego.

This is Turner’s first time playing in the West, and he’s a firm believer in the stylistic differences between the two conferences. He’s eager to see how his game is liberated now that he’s out of the East’s systematic drudgery and into the West’s more up-tempo, free-flowing style.

But first, he’s settling into his new digs, getting a feel for the city. His house still needs to be fully furnished, though all three of his cars — a Ferrari, a Maybach, a Range Rover — are with him (“I gotta keep a close eye on ‘em,” he said).

Uber drivers often talk about using the service to learn about a new city, to establish a rhythm with the commute and get a sense of the topography. Turner flirted with the idea of driving for Uber last season in Boston, but either he was honest when he told me he didn’t have the time, or the list of demands he sent to their company didn’t take. “You sit down and listen to how much people are making at Uber, it’s unbelievable,” Turner said. “Of course, throw on your favorite playlist and ride around the street — and you’re going to drop somebody off? I’ll fan for that, too. It’s better than checking in a 9-to-5.” Pedicabs of Portland, relax. It didn’t sound like Turner was planning on starting up a side career just yet, but he does have it down as an emergency plan.

“If I ever, god forbid, ever went broke,” Turner said, “please believe I will be that cool dude in a 2010 Range Rover — and it’s 2040 — driving the streets in an Uber.”

After self-driving cars take over the roads, after the Singularity occurs and proves his prophecy true, and after the midrange abandons even him, it’ll be Turner, with his favorite mixtape, in his matte viridian Range Rover, weaving through automated roadways, forever a throwback.