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March 23, 2011
Rough Rookie Year
Can Turner Bounce Back?

by Kevin Pelton

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This time a year ago, Evan Turner was the toast of college basketball. The consensus national player of the year, Turner led the Ohio State Buckeyes into the Midwest regional final as the favorites to reach the Final Four. Tennessee's upset win in the Sweet 16 to knock out Ohio State began a rough 12 months for Turner. Though he was the No. 2 overall pick in last June's NBA Draft by the Philadelphia 76ers, Turner has struggled to translate his dominance of the NCAA to the pro game. Turner has rated as 2.1 wins below replacement level, meaning just six guys in the league have hurt their team more than him.

More troubling is the fact that Turner just doesn't seem to be getting any better. His shooting percentage is up since the All-Star break, largely because he's removed the three-point shot from his arsenal, but his other numbers are down. Turner is something of an afterthought in the Sixers' playoff push, having averaged less than 20 minutes a night in the month of March.

It's probably too late to salvage Turner's rookie season, but is his career doomed as well? Turner's performance has been compared to that of Gonzaga bust Adam Morrison, and while Turner hasn't been nearly as bad as Morrison--who owns the single most negative score in WARP history--that points to what could happen to Turner. Despite his NCAA accomplishments, Morrison lasted just four years in the NBA and was a deep reserve after being traded to the Los Angeles Lakers.

Looking at the entire pool of rookies whose performance has been comparable to Turner's provides somewhat more optimism. Among the group of players who were at least two wins below replacement as rookies are All-Stars like Richard Hamilton, Allan Houston, Chris Kaman and Glen Rice as well as others who went on to long, productive careers.

Comparing Turner to unheralded players like Junior Harrington who logged heavy minutes on poor teams makes little sense. His draft status clearly provides some meaningful information about Turner's NBA potential. So I cut the list to only include lottery picks, which yields 30 players. One more of these, Toronto's DeMar DeRozan, was thrown out because he is just a sophomore and cannot really tell us much about Turner's long-term future. Here's the remaining list, sorted by career WARP:

Player              Year   WARP_1 WARP_car
------------------------------------------
Glen Rice           1990    -3.0    58.3
Troy Murphy         2002    -2.5    45.0
Antonio Daniels     1998    -3.3    28.6
Jim Paxson          1980    -2.3    25.3
Reggie Williams     1988    -2.1    21.8
Allan Houston       1994    -3.9    19.6
Richard Hamilton    2000    -2.6    19.2
Rex Chapman         1989    -2.2    11.4
Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf  1991    -2.5    11.4
Lamond Murray       1995    -2.5    11.3

Player              Year   WARP_1 WARP_car
------------------------------------------
Chris Kaman         2004    -3.2     7.6
Jeff Green          2008    -4.1     1.0
Willie Burton       1991    -2.4    -0.8
Bo Kimble           1991    -2.7    -3.3
Ed O'Bannon         1996    -2.6    -3.4
Corliss Williamson  1996    -2.1    -3.5
Marcus Fizer        2001    -3.4    -4.1
Corey Brewer        2008    -3.6    -4.2
Rafael Araujo       2005    -2.1    -4.7
Nikoloz Tskitishvili2003    -3.0    -4.9

Player              Year   WARP_1 WARP_car
------------------------------------------
Jarvis Hayes        2004    -3.6    -5.0
Sebastian Telfair   2005    -2.1    -5.3
Courtney Alexander  2001    -2.6    -6.9
Adam Morrison       2007    -5.8    -8.0
J.R. Reid           1990    -2.4    -8.3
Mark Macon          1992    -5.1    -8.5
Vitaly Potapenko    1997    -3.0   -10.0
Jeff Malone         1984    -3.1   -16.3
Ron Mercer          1998    -2.0   -21.4

Whatever conclusion you want to draw about Turner, there's some evidence for it there. Though it's certainly possible to overcome a start to your career like Turner's, most of these players ended up washing out of the NBA relatively quickly. That's even true of guys who were almost as big stars in college as Turner, like Morrison and Ed O'Bannon.

But Turner must get his game going before long. Though age was not a major factor in separating the successes on this list from the failures (and Turner himself is of average age among the group as a rookie), performance in year two has a strong correlation with career performance. Players who at least reached replacement level in their second season averaged 15.0 career WARP. Everyone else averaged -2.3 WARP. So we should have a pretty good idea whether Turner can play by this time next year.

How can Turner improve his performance? The obvious first step, as explained by David Thorpe on ESPN Insider, is to develop his range. Because he's playing with several ballhandlers (Jrue Holiday, Andre Iguodala and Louis Williams), Turner has the ball in his hands far less often than he did at Ohio State. Without three-point range, Turner is not much of a threat on the weak side.

Beyond that, Turner's poor shooting allows defenders to sag off him. Since he lacks the quick first step that allows most players to create off the dribble, Turner needs his opposing number to play him honestly in order to get by them. That's the difference right now between Turner and Brandon Roy, a player to whom he was frequently compared (including in this space) while a Buckeye. It's not just three-point range that Turner needs either. He's made just 35.0 percent of his long twos, according to Hoopdata.com.

Turner has also failed to make the impact at the defensive end suggested by his NCAA performance. An elite rebounder at Ohio State, Turner has been no better than average on the glass for a small forward so far in the NBA. His steals and blocks are down too, suggesting that Turner's athleticism has been an issue. That has to be Turner's biggest concern. He can develop his skills, especially his shooting, but it is difficult to make up for athleticism.

Credit M. Haubs of The Painted Area for making the case last June that Turner looked better than he was in college because he rarely faced elite athletes in the Big Ten. At this point, Haubs' pessimism looks understated. It's not too late for Turner to live up to expectations for a second overall pick, but the early returns are still discouraging.

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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