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March 18, 2010
Every Play Counts
Evan Turner

by Kevin Pelton

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In "Every Play Counts," Kevin Pelton focuses on one player, team or matchup in a single game, looking to explain how and why they succeed or fail. Naturally, one game isn't everything, but the results can be illuminating.

How do we define a player's role in his team's offense? There are a variety of ways, starting with the most obvious of methods, finding out how often a possession ended with the ball in his hands (usage rate, as we call it). In the past, I've used touches to account for the fact that the player creating the shot is often as important to the outcome of the play as the one who actually attempts it. Even touches, however, are slightly lacking in the sense that not all of them are created equal. A quick-passing team may get each of its players a handful of quick touches in the time a dominant point guard handles the ball.

To me, then, the best measure is something much more difficult to quantify: time. How long does a player have the ball in his hands? I don't have a good answer to that question, so I set about tracking it. My subject? Ohio State's Evan Turner, Basketball Prospectus' National Player of the Year and the likely No. 2 overall pick in this June's NBA Draft. Turner was the Buckeyes' leading scorer and played a key role in the offense long before Thad Matta decided to put his best talent on the floor by making Tuner his point guard. Now, he runs the Ohio State show as much as any player in the country.

I DVRed Sunday's Big Ten Tournament final, where the Buckeyes ran away from Minnesota in the second half, and tracked the time Turner spent with the ball in his hands. (No, I didn't have a stopwatch in my hand or anything. I either used the clock or counted in my head. These are not exact calculations.) Remarkably, of the 68 plays I tracked, Turner handled the ball on 62. The exceptions were basically all fast breaks, like David Lighty's consecutive end-to-end scores during Ohio State's second-half run.

In total, I calculated Turner had the ball for seven minutes and 24 seconds. He played 38:35, so assuming that the Buckeyes and the Golden Gophers had equal possession, Turner handled the ball a whopping 38.3 percent of the time Ohio State had it. Now, since this is the first time I've calculated this, I have nothing to use as a comparison, but that makes Turner's tendency to turn the ball over a little more understandable, does it not?

36 times, Turner initiated the Buckeyes' possession, getting the team into its offense. More often than not, that meant receiving a high pick-and-roll and probing the defense. But Turner showed tremendous versatility in terms of ways to get looks at the basket. I counted eight different ways he scored (second chance, side pick-and-roll, high pick-and-roll, spot up, cut, isolation, post up and in transition). He accounted for at least five of his 28 points on four of these (both pick-and-roll varieties, spotting up and in transition).

Turner also showed off his versatility in one noteworthy sequence with about six minutes left in the first half. He blocked a shot away from behind, corralled the rebound and threw a perfect outlet pass that led to a layup. Few if any college players could combine all those plays in an entire game, let alone in a single play. Also worth noting was the stretch late in the game where Turner simply outclassed Minnesota. In a span of four possessions, he came within a missed free throw of putting together three and-ones. Since he added two free throws in between, he scored 10 points in four possessions.

Turner isn't an off-the-charts athlete, but he has the skills of a combo guard packed into a frame several inches taller. That combination makes him extraordinarily difficult to defend. Turner also plays at a controlled pace that explains the frequent comparisons to Brandon Roy. I'd add Oklahoma City's James Harden to this group of wing players with above-average ballhandling and the ability to get into the paint without an exceptional first step or extraordinary speed. All three players get where they want on the floor and are capable of finishing in traffic thanks to their size.

What may ultimately separate Turner from those players--not bad ones, one a three-time All-Star and the other the No. 3 selection last June--is his defensive potential. On defense as on offense, Turner combines his size with guard-type ability. In particular, he moves very well laterally, which allows him to defend smaller players on the perimeter and is an underrated key to Ohio State's ability to play him at the point. The other thing that stood out to me watching Turner on defense was the quality of his help radius--the amount he can range away from his man while still being able to close out when the ball is reversed. His size and length both help him here.

Though John Wall may be the better prospect, Turner is the most NBA-ready player in college basketball and stands an excellent chance of winning Rookie of the Year honors. Still, there will be some areas he'll need to work on to thrive at the next level. Though the Big Ten is a physical league, I still think Turner will have to adjust to playing a more physical game, especially if he is used as a small forward and has to defend (and be defended by) bigger players. I was struck by a couple of plays where Minnesota's posts simply powered through Turner's help defense as he flew by. Adding strength will allow Turner to cause even more problems from the weak side on defense.

In the NBA, Turner will probably want to take down his aggressiveness a notch. Turnovers are acceptable in the name of making plays, but Turner has a tendency to dribble himself into trouble in traffic, explaining his high turnover rate. Also, he'll have to become more diligent in boxing out on the defensive glass. Right now, he's more of a "go get it" rebounder, which has been very effective against smaller college opponents but will not work as well in the NBA. Lastly, I'd like to see Turner improve his ability to play through screens defensively, since he often seemed to get hung up on them instead of cleanly going over the top.

The lone black mark on Turner's season, of course, was the fractured vertebrae he suffered in a December fall that sidelined him for a month. Turner's back must be fine now, since he has put Ohio State on it and carried the Buckeyes in position to aim for a spot in the Final Four. Turner's large role in the Buckeyes offense has worked very well for both him and his team.

Follow Kevin on Twitter at @kpelton for more made-up terms like "help radius."

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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Every Play Counts (02/05)
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65 Teams, 65 Thoughts (03/18)

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