It’s been only a season, but the 2015 NBA draft class seems destined to be one of the best ever. Even beyond clear superstar talents like Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis, the class is teeming with players who, in one way or another, serve as a key to understanding their respective teams’ long-term identity. Over the next few weeks, Jonathan Tjarks will be looking at 2015 draftees entering Year 2, and how their teams can best serve their pillars of the future.
Myles Turner always had talent. Few players as big as Turner (6-foot-11, 243 pounds, with a 7-foot-4 wingspan) can jump and move like he can, and even fewer can shoot the ball from long range. But the talent was mostly theoretical in his only season at Texas, where he came off the bench to shoot 45.5 percent from the field and 27.4 percent from 3. The Pacers drafted him at no. 11 based on potential, not production, and he seemed far away from contributing at the NBA level. Turner was a 19-year-old project with two veteran big men (Jordan Hill and Ian Mahinmi) ahead of him in the rotation, and there was a mandate from the front office to play smaller and faster. The Pacers wanted to contend, not rebuild.
Despite his inexperience and lack of polish, Turner’s unique skill set quickly made him indispensable. He forced his way into the starting lineup after a six-game run in mid-January when he averaged 18 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks per game on 63 percent shooting off the bench.
Frank Vogel was a defensive-minded coach who preferred playing two traditional big men, and Paul George had voiced doubts about being a small-ball 4 since training camp. Starting Turner at power forward, then, was the best of both worlds: His shooting ability opened up driving lanes to the basket for George, and allowed Vogel to keep two interior defenders in the game. Turner went from the end of the bench in the first two months of the season to averaging 28 minutes a game in the Pacers’ seven-game series against the Raptors in the playoffs. He looked like the star everyone thought he would be in high school, when he was a top-five recruit according to the Recruiting Services Consensus Index. Expectations in Indiana are sky-high going into his second season. To get a feel for what comes next, I focused on three games from last season that presented different types of challenges for the young big man.
January 22 vs. Golden State — 31 points, 8 rebounds, 2 blocks, and 3 fouls on 12-of-17 shooting
This game was Turner’s coming-out party on a national stage. The Warriors are the toughest matchup in the league for traditional big men, and Turner was one of the only big men in the league who had the physical advantages to counter the Lineup of Death with Draymond Green at the 5. He was long and active enough to extend out defensively, while still being quick enough to get back to protecting the rim. With a quick release and soft touch (and that mammoth 7-foot-4 wingspan) he easily got his shots off against Golden State’s swarming defense. Turner scored a few times on post-ups, but he did most of his damage moving into open spots and playing off the ball.
Turner has mismatch potential few players with his size possess. He can score over the top of smaller defenders and take bigger ones out on the perimeter. His ability to catch and finish from all over the floor means he doesn’t need a ton of offense run through him, but it’s something he can develop as he gets older. Improving as a passer will be huge, as he wasn’t able to figure out the double-teams and defensive coverages the Warriors sent at him. He should get better with time and more opportunities to be a featured option, although playing with more 3-point shooting around him would help.
February 6 vs. Detroit — 16 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 block, and 2 fouls on 8-of-13 shooting
The matchup against the Pistons is a good example of how Turner’s skills were wasted at the power forward spot, particularly on defense. Under Stan Van Gundy, the Pistons are a team that wants to spread the floor as much as possible, and Turner was forced to guard either Ersan Ilyasova or Anthony Tolliver 25-plus feet from the basket. While he was quick enough to stay in front of Ilyasova, the threat of his 3-point shot meant Turner couldn’t protect the paint. The Pistons used their 4s as decoys, so he spent most of the game as an observer on defense.
Turner got most of his points against the Pistons within the flow of the offense, either running the floor or rolling to the rim. Doing both would be easier without another traditional big man on the floor, something which rarely happened for Turner as a rookie. Ian Mahinmi, Jordan Hill, or Lavoy Allen appeared in seven of his 10 most frequently used lineups. Without those players in the game, Turner’s usage rating jumped from 20.6 to 22.3, his field goal percentage went from 49.3 to 56.7, and his points per possession increased from 1.06 to 1.19, per NBAwowy.
The typical rule of thumb is the more a player is used on offense, the less efficient he becomes. When Turner played in smaller lineups, not only were the Pacers able to feature him more often, he became a much better player when they did.
March 7 vs. San Antonio — 9 points, 10 rebounds, 1 assist, 2 blocks, and 3 fouls on 3-of-11 shooting
Detroit and Golden State were tests for how Turner would fare against new-age offenses; San Antonio was a master class in trench warfare. The Spurs had one of the most formidable big men rotations in the league, and they do a great job of exploiting the weaknesses of any individual defender. LaMarcus Aldridge and Boris Diaw attacked Turner in isolation, Tim Duncan and David West attacked on the offensive boards, and Tony Parker and Patty Mills attacked in the pick-and-roll. It was a learning experience, with Turner’s athleticism neutralized by the superior strength and savvy of the San Antonio front line.
After starting the game on Aldridge, Vogel moved Turner to Duncan in the second half in order to lessen the burden on his young big man. That was one of the main advantages playing with Mahinmi offered Turner. At 6-foot-11 and 250 pounds, Mahinmi is a versatile defender with the strength to match up with the league’s biggest centers and the speed to guard perimeter-oriented big men like Aldridge away from the basket. He doesn’t have Turner’s length or innate shot-blocking ability, but he’s a much better all-around defender at this stage in his career. If Turner is struggling with a difficult matchup next season, neither the newly acquired Thaddeus Young nor Al Jefferson will be much help to him.
The Pacers will be a much different team next season. Vogel was let go in favor of assistant coach Nate McMillan, and they are replacing some of their best defenders in George Hill, Solomon Hill, and Mahinmi with more offensive-minded players like Young, Jefferson, and Jeff Teague. Figuring out how to play Monta Ellis with those guys will mean a lot of lineup juggling for McMillan. The Pacers have a lot of guys who need the ball in their hands and don’t offer much resistance on defense, and they don’t have a lot of 3-point shooting on their roster.
Making it work will fall primarily on Turner’s shoulders. He’ll have to space the floor out to the 3-point line and become the team’s primary rim protector, two of the most demanding roles in the league. It’s unclear if he’s ready for that much responsibility: Turner took only 14 3s last season, and playing quality interior defense is one of the toughest skills for a young player to master. For as much potential as he has defensively, he didn’t move the needle much on that side of the ball as a rookie: the team’s defensive efficiency when he was on the floor (100.6 points allowed per 100 possessions) was more or less the same when he was off it (100 points) last season.
The clock is ticking in Indiana. Paul George has a player option on his contract at the end of the 2018 season, and Turner is one of the only potential sources of upside on a veteran roster. His ceiling is a hybrid of Roy Hibbert in his prime and LaMarcus Aldridge, a player who combines the size and shot-blocking ability of a traditional 5 with the agility and scoring prowess of a stretch 4. That version of Turner makes the Pacers a contender, but that version could still be several years away, if he ever gets there. Aldridge and Hibbert didn’t start peaking until their mid-20s. Turner has already developed faster than anyone imagined, but the Pacers need him to develop even faster next season.