How Evan Turner became the biggest punchline in the NBA

May 20, 3:07 PM

It's hard to remember now, but there was a time when Evan Turner was seen as one of the can't-miss prospects in the NBA - a stats machine who could play multiple positions. He was seen as a guy worth gearing your offense around, who could go out and get you 20 a night while also making teammates better.

Coming out of Ohio State (where he averaged 20/9/6 on 52% shooting his junior year), Evan was viewed just below John Wall as the second-safest pick in the 2010 draft, and was drafted accordingly by the 76ers. He was supposed to give a middling Sixers team a focus, a leader, an All-Star. He was supposed to be really, really good at basketball.

Didn't work out like that, obviously. Over the weekend, Evan was ruled out for Game 1 of the Pacers' Eastern Conference Finals series with strep throat. Rather than speculate as to how his absence might hurt the Pacers or how his rotation minutes would be filled by coach Frank Vogel, most basketball fans - at least those on Twitter - had a roundly different reaction to the news, instead jokingly - maybe seriously - declaring a premature victory for Indiana due to the Villain's absence. Some samples I had previously culled:

If this seemed unfair or cruel to Evan, it wasn't helped by the game's result - a decisive victory in which the Pacers clicked on all cylinders and seemed to get key contributions from every player that touched the court. Consequently, the chorus of Evan Turner mockery grew even louder post-game:

And yesterday, from Grantland's NBA Playoffs Overnight column:

From Grantland.com

How did we get here? It's incredible to me not only how far Evan's stock has fallen in four NBA years, but the glee fans and bloggers tend to take in his tumbling. And I don't even mean to say that judgmentally - as a Sixers fan, I've certainly done a fair of chuckling at certain ET moments over the years myself - but I think there's something to Evan's reputation among league obsessives that goes far beyond his failings as a pro.

Of course, those failings have been considerable. From his earliest Summer League games it was obvious Evan would struggle to adjust his all-around game to the pro level. He didn't have the length to score over opponents, the quickness to get past them, the range to outgun them. He also had defensive faults that were exacerbated at the next level, an inability to work through screens or rotate out to open shooters, a tendency to get beaten off the dribble. He rebounded and passed well for a wing, but usually not an elite level, and while he learned to work to get the shots he liked, he never made them with enough consistency to make up for his lack of three-point shooting or foul-drawing.

The disappointment of Evan Turner's career has been occasionally overshadowed by unexpected bursts of production and efficiency, one of which occurred early this year for the, ahem, rebuilding Philadelphia 76ers. For the first month or so of the season, Evan's numbers were All-Star worthy, and though regression dragged him down to the mean as the year progressed, by the trade deadline, his counting numbers were still shiny enough for the Sixers - who needed someone to put up those shots - that Pacers management deemed him worth trading longest-tenured Pacer (and former franchise player) Danny Granger and a second-round pick for him. 

The Pacers experiment did not go well. Always a volume shooter, Evan struggled to fit into a bench role on the Pacers, and as a player who needed the ball in his hands, he made for an awkward second-unit fit alongside Lance Stephenson, an over-dribbler in his own right. Meanwhile, for a team whose identity is built on their defensive cohesion and toughness, Evan's addition never made sense, and the Pacers' defensive rating was 7.4 points better in the regular season with him on the bench then when he was on the court. Meanwhile, the team went into a months-long funk, which began - mostly coincidentally, but perhaps not totally unrelatedly - just before the trade for Turner went down.

In the playoffs, things got worse. Evan struggled to get out to shooters playing the triple-happy Hawks, and by the end of the series, he had proven such a liability that Vogel stopped playing him altogether for Game Six and Seven, both of which the Pacers won to stay alive in the playoffs. Against Washington, he again struggled when matched up with Bradley Beal, and only played 14 minutes a game in the series. He also saw his offensive responsibility stripped to nil, and he scored just 13 points for the whole series--over four less than he averaged per game for the Sixers in his first 54 games of the season. 

It's been proven pretty conclusively at this point: Evan just doesn't work with this Pacers team as currently constructed. As bad as they were for the regular season, his on/off numbers for the postseason are downright staggering: Indy's offensive rating is 15 points worse when he's on the court, and their defensive rating is 12 points worse. (The numbers look a little worse than they actually are because the rest of the bench is also pretty bad, but ET doesn't exactly pass the eye test either.) And we haven't even seen him against Miami yet - the thought of how his defense might look against a team that moves the ball like the Heat do is a little scary. 

This all explains why Evan's play has been roundly disparaged for this Pacers team, and why - even going back to his Sixers days - he was never an on-court favorite of most analytically minded basketball fans. But as to why NBA Twitter seems to love laughing at Evan's expense, there's a couple other factors at play here, many of which have to do with Evan's personality in general, and most of the rest have to do with the kind of Old World vs. New World NBA analysis debate that's been going on for some time, and which ET himself has sadly little control over. 

From pretty early on in his career, it was obvious that Evan Turner was a unique character among NBA players. Like most of the funniest NBA types, he was a huge presence on social media, sharing goofy and occasionally overshare-y tweets (and in time Instagrams) about himself, his teammates and the kind of minutiae of everyday life that seemed more like it was coming from one of your oddball college acquaintances that you keep forgetting you're still friends with on Facebook than a much-hyped NBA prospect with endorsement deals and millions of dollars at his disposal. 

Most of the time, Evan's internet presence was endearing, but it had a sort of aloofness, occasionally bordering on outright cluelessness, that made him an easy target for NBA fans, particularly those from Philly. No Sixers blogger will ever forget the time Evan tweeted "HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO THE NOTORIOUS B.I.G.!" on what was actually the anniversary of the rapper's death, or the time he cursed very loudly and dramatically during an interview soundcheck without realizing the camera was rolling, or when he Instagrammed his and Andre Iguodala's limo breaking down on the way to then-teammate Jrue Holiday's waiting.

These moments were not isolated incidents by any stretch. When Evan was traded in March, I eulogized his Sixers career with a countdown of my 40 favorite ET moments from his time in Philly, and while there were certainly a handful of memorable on-court moments included - a game-winner against the Celtics in the playoffs, a crossover on Dwyane Wade from his NBA debut, a huge showing in the 2012 Rising Stars game - most of the list was culled from his time on social media, where even a throwaway tweet about Taken 2 could be more memorable than anything he'd do in-game for weeks or longer. 

Although you occasionally felt bad as a Sixers fan for harping on Evan's struggles and bloopers both on and off the court, you never felt too guilty, largely because even at his lowest moment, Evan Turner's self-confidence could still fill the Superdome. Even as statistical evidence would mount to the contrary, Evan never revealed even the slightest lapse of belief in his basketball supremacy, going on record on multiple occasions this year calling himself "one of the best perimeters in the league" or talking about being "on my way to being one of the best players in the game." 

You couldn't even call it arrogance, since he seemed to view it so bloodlessly: When Evan Turner talked about his boundless hoops acumen, he didn't seem like he was trying to puff himself up or get himself hyped, he merely never tried to comprehend what the other side to the argument could have been. On the rare occasions he bothered to respond to his critics, he did so with typical insouciance, memorably dismissing all naysayers with one unforgettable Instagram: "Lame bloggers should get a life. #writeaboutthat" 

This combination of general fumbliness, occasional on-court myopia and a complete lack of self-awareness would eventually resign Evan to the same kind of role in NBA discussions as players like J.R. Smith, Jordan Crawford, and just about anyone who played for the Washington Wizards between the years of 2009 and 2011. It's not exactly what you hoped for - what hoped for - from Evan when he came out of Ohio State with those incredible stats, but at least there remains a sort of immortality one can achieve among NBA fans on those terms that can be just as long-lasting as a legacy of more conventional NBA greatness. 

But whereas the Basketball Internet's reception of those players is often a touch on the affectionate side, just because they're so ridiculous you can't possibly take them seriously, the perception of Evan got a touch nasty, even vindictive, upon his trade to the Pacers. That's mostly the doing of analysts like former ESPN scribe Chris Palmer, who claimed that the Pacers would be "basically unbeatable" with Evan on the team, or Charles Barkley on Inside the NBA, who said that the acquisition of Turner wrapped up the East for him. 

Sixers fans and writers who had watched Evan for nearly four years reflexively catalogued these types of quotes, as did advanced-stat-oriented NBA heads who saw behind Evan's superficial numbers to the flawed player underneath, waiting for the chance to rub them in the faces of the supposed experts who failed to look deeper at the Pacers' trade-deadline acquisition. Those chances would arise, repeatedly, and sure enough, it's hard to get through a Pacers game these playoffs without seeing someone drudge up that Palmer tweet. It's almost become the "Bucks in 6" of this postseason. 

Is this Evan's fault? Of course not. But through no conscious doing of his own, he's come to represent the NBA old guard's hanging on to the most old-fashioned types of player analysis - looking solely at points, rebounds and assists per game without taking efficiency or team context into account, overvaluing offensive shot creation while overlooking defensive deficiencies, believing in a player's reputation in high school and college branding him as a "winner" for all-time - rather than the more advanced stats (PER, offensive/defensive rating, Win Shares) that have been developed to better evaluate how much a player actually helps a team win ballgames, under which Evan has always rated poorly. And so, on behalf of the Chris Palmers and Charles Barkleys of the world, Evan continues to invite further mockery. 

It's gotten to the point where it's hard for me to take joy in it the way I used to, because as much as I loved laughing at or with Evan's perpetual silliness, I did still care about him immensely as a basketball player and a person. He's never been less than frustrating as a baller, but he did often achieve the sublime with the Sixers to go with the ridiculous, and he was always a great teammate and a gracious team ambassador. To see him like this, where the on-court product is so negligible and all that remains is the goofy personality and lack of self-consciousness to define his worth as an NBA presence...I never wanted Evan to be Adam Morrison, certainly. 

So join me, if you would, in rooting for Evan Turner to rise one more time this postseason. He doesn't have to be Finals MVP or even a regular rotation guy for these Pacers, I just want one game where Lance Stephenson gets in foul trouble or tossed altogether, and Evan comes in for a six-minute stretch and hits a couple key buckets, celebrates awkwardly and gives a deeply feeling-himself post-game interview. (Hell, hedid it once before against the Heat this season.) After all he's given basketball these last four seasons, on and off the court, I don't think that's too much to ask.

He should be back for Game Two tonight, sufficiently rid of his strep. Let's see what happens. I don't believe - don't want to believe - that we've heard the last from the Villain just yet.

Feature photo courtesy of USA TODAY Sports/Brian Spurlock