Evan Turner is a savior.No, hes a bust.The coaches are jerking him around.No, he needs to grow up.
The second-year guardforward has inspired as much debate among 76ers fans this season as anybody on the roster. The pendulum has again swung in his favor this week, after a terrific 19-point, seven-rebound, six-assist performance in the Sixers victory over Chicago in Game 2 of the teams first-round playoff series Tuesday night.
With Game 3 looming Friday night in the Wells Fargo Center, theres no telling how this series turns out for Turner or the team. And no telling how his career might unfold.
Though he would like to know, and soon.
Evan, said assistant coach Michael Curry, wants to be a star yesterday.
Turner doesnt deny that, either.
One of my brothers told me I dont even like waiting for microwave popcorn, he said. Thats how impatient I am.
Goodness knows there are signs that somethings starting to pop. Coach Doug Collins, who has grown visibly frustrated with Turner on more than one occasion this season (and vice versa), was effusive in his praise after practice Thursday. While careful to label Turner a playmaker as opposed to a point guard (the designation he lavished upon him earlier this season, much to his regret), the coach made note of Turners smarts, confidence and improved conditioning.
Im very proud of Evan, Collins said. I think hes made great growth.
Collins went on to say that Turners inconsistent minutes this year were due not so much to the players shortcomings as the coachs ongoing efforts to figure out the pieces of the puzzle and how it all fit.
Seems like hes figured some things out now, though.
Theres no question Evan Turner is one of our best players, Collins said. Hes got to be out there.
Curry was renowned for his preparation during 11 years as an NBA journeyman; Celtics Hall of Famer-in-waiting Ray Allen, for one, credits Curry with teaching him how to be a pro when they were teammates for two years in Milwaukee (1997-99), early in Allens career. And this season, Curry has taken Turner under his wing. He has given him a routine to follow, involving on-court drills and conditioning. And the two of them have engaged in film study, so that Turner might better familiarize himself with the tendencies of an upcoming opponent.
But the bigger point Curry has tried to get across is this: Embrace the process. Understand that progress is gradual, that things are not going to happen overnight.
I told him he was like Doogie Howser, Curry said, naming the fictional teenage doctor (played by Neil Patrick Harris) in the old sitcom Doogie Howser, M.D. He wants to be Doogie Howser.
Meaning, of course, that Turner wants to be a prodigy something the coaches wouldnt mind in the least.
We probably get impatient with him, and he probably gets impatient with us as a staff, Curry said. It probably goes both ways.
Certainly Turner has an unusual skill set. At 6-7 he can handle the ball, distribute, create shots for himself and others. Collins and Curry have both anointed him the teams best defensive rebounder, and he is sound defensively as well. Curry said no one on the team guards such players as Denver point guard Ty Lawson or Miami star Dwyane Wade as well as Turner. In Game 2 against the Bulls, Turner played Chicago point guard C.J. Watson, while backcourt mate Jrue Holiday, ostensibly the Sixers point guard, chased Rip Hamilton around screens.
Curry believes it is unrealistic to believe Turner will be the player he was at Ohio State, where he monopolized the ball while being named National Player of the Year in 2009-10.
Youve got to be pretty much Chris Paul or Deron Williams to dominate the ball like that, Curry said. Rather, Curry envisions Turner becoming a 15-, seven- and five-type guy as in, points, rebounds and assists, respectively.
He wont just dominate one area of the game, Curry said, but he can do a lot of different things in the game really well.
Will that be enough to end the debate? And more importantly, will it happen quickly enough to satisfy Turner himself? Those are the unanswerable questions.
Sometimes, he said, echoing Curry, youve got to really calm yourself down and enjoy the journey.
If the game has brought its share of frustration, Turner doesnt seem to have any problem enjoying himself in other ways. He was seen wearing a toy hockey helmet in the stands at a Flyers game last year, one that was orange in color and had an ersatz puck embedded in it. And he was photographed donning an imaginary championship belt i.e., doing the discount double-check alongside Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers after a recent game in Milwaukee.
He also has a Pizza Hut app on his cell phone (because, he said, hes always in search of pizza on the road) and no fewer than two Collins bobbleheads on the shelf of his locker-room cubicle one showing the coach in his playing days at Illinois State and one of more recent vintage.
(Turner had just the first of those last year, and was joking, probably, when he said one night that if he ever grew frustrated with Collins, he could spike the thing off a wall.)
And after a game earlier this season Turner was surrounded by ballboys as he was getting dressed. It had been a tough night. The Sixers had lost, and Turner had not played well. Yet he seemed unfazed.
You know Im Irish, dont you? he said to the ballboys. Top of the mornin to ya.
Asked about all that, he said, I dont try to take myself too seriously. Theres nothing really amazingly cool about me, you know?
Which is no small admission for an NBA player, if you think about it.
You can step out there and kind of fall on Cloud Nine, Turner said. When you see other people do it, youre like, I dont want to fall into that."
His carefree approach belies a trying upbringing. According to a feature story that appeared in the Columbus Dispatch three years ago, Turners dad, James, was a presence in his life as Evan was growing up in Chicago. But Evan and his two older brothers, Richard and Darrius, were for the most part raised by their mother, Iris James.
Iris, retired now after spending 25 years with a utility company, said she worked a lot of nights.
I never had any sleep, she told CSNPhilly.com earlier this season.
She did have a lot of worries, courtesy of Evan. Before his first birthday he had been afflicted with measles, chicken pox, pneumonia and asthma.
You name it, Iris said, he had it.
Then, at age 3, he was struck by a car in full view of Iris and Darius, having dashed away from them as they stood on a curb. His mom remembers with horror the sickening sight of Evan flying through the air and landing on his head.
Hes lucky to be here, she said. I was like, Lord, please dont take my baby, please dont take my baby. He didnt, thank God.
Evan came through it with a concussion and stitches, and to this day has a small scar on the left side of his head, near the hairline.
Then there was his speech, garbled because he was born with oversize baby teeth and an overbite. He endured years of speech classes, not to mention the taunts of classmates.
It kind of made me insecure for a while, he said. I overcame that. I still kind of talk a little weird, but it doesnt make me insecure anymore. Thats life."
Through it all not to mention the familys six moves, all over Chicagos West Side Iris tried to keep her boys out of trouble. If they went anywhere, she needed to know where. If they hung out with anybody, she needed to know who.
She had played small-college basketball in Michigan, and the boys father had been a high school star in Ohio, so it was no surprise the boys were drawn to the game.
The couples oldest son, Richard, played at St. Joseph, the high school power in suburban Chicago seen in the documentary Hoop Dreams, before moving on to junior college, then Robert Morris University. While Darius went to another high school, Evan, seven years younger than Richard, would later follow him to St. Joseph, rising at the crack of dawn for the hour-long bus ride to the school.
There he came under the tutelage of legendary coach Gene Pingatore a no-nonsense guy, Evan said, but not the tyrant he might have seemed in the documentary.
They did kind of make him look bad, Turner said. If he helped one person, he helped everybody.
That includes Turner. When he was still a struggling sophomore (and before he had so much as made a varsity start, something that wouldnt come until the following year), Pingatore told him he would one day be an NBA point guard. And Pingatore knew a future pro when he saw one, having coached Isiah Thomas.
Makes me look like a genius, right? Pingatore said with a laugh over the phone earlier this season.
Pingatore saw that Turner had a great feel for the game, and that he retained his guard skills even as he grew from 5-10 to 6-5 during his high school years. (He would grow two more inches in college.) And there was never any question about his confidence, that he always thought he was the best player in the gym any gym. It is something Collins mentions about him even now.
All the good ones think that way, Pingatore said. If they dont think that way, theyre not going to achieve. He doesnt have it to the point of arrogance; I dont think that at all. Hes just very confident in what he does.
Turner was knocked back early in his high school, and knocked back in a big way, when his friend and teammate, John Moll, committed suicide by stepping in front of a moving train. According to an ESPN.com story, Moll had experimented with drugs, and he suffered from mental illness as well.
Turner knew nothing about his friends problems. He knew only that Moll was a good friend, that he had a kind heart and always wanted the best for everybody. He was the one who came over to Turner as he sat by himself in the lunchroom one of his first days at St. Joseph. Moll joined him at the table, and reminded him they had played against one another in AAU ball years before. Just like that, a friendship was kindled.
The night Moll died Dec. 11, 2004 Turner reached out to Molls mother, Barbara. He would become, Iris said, her knight in shining armor. And he paid tribute to his friend by wearing Molls uniform number, 21, at Ohio State.
Discovering that Thaddeus Young had that number with the Sixers, Turner merely flip-flopped the digits after the team made him the second overall pick in June 2010, so that he now wears No. 12.
The jersey was hanging behind him as he sat at his cubicle one night earlier this season, chatting with a reporter. It offered mute testimony that nothing is ever promised anyone.
Evan Turner nonetheless has the highest of hopes. And hes in a rush to realize them.
Gordie Jones is an award-winning journalist who has worked in the Philadelphia market for 28 years. He also co-authored a book about the 76ers' 1982-83 championship team with former Sixers general manager Pat Williams.