Myles Turner: The Forgotten Unicorn

— October 18th 2017

Just How Good Is Myles Turner, and Are Expectations For 2017–18 Too High?

By Paul Headley

The Paul George-era in Indiana finally ended in the summer of 2017. The surly superstar huffed and puffed his way all the way to the bright lights of Oklahoma City, fetching a modest return of Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. A roster once destined to ride PG13’s wing dynamism and Roy Hibbert’s verticality (remember that?) to a slew of Eastern Conference Finals berths is now history.

The rebuild is in full effect, at its center is Myles Turner. Is the former number eleven pick ready to take the reigns? With so many changes across the roster, how will his game be affected?

Turner is a very good defender. Equipped with excellent length and instincts, he can defend the rim at an above average rate (49.4 percent on an amazing 9.6 attempts defended per game, second most attempts in the league behind Rudy Gobert). He scaled back his fouls last season (from 4.2 to 3.7 per 36 minutes), and finished 29th in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus Minus. Turner’s defensive effectiveness will at worst stay par with last season. It could be argued that a season free of the wretchedness of Monta Ellis could actually improve his defense (less scrambling to cover for turnstile point guard penetration).

The more interesting side of the floor to project is offense.

How good Turner can be on offense without the spacing George (as well as veterans CJ Miles and Jeff Teague) provided is unknown. The pair logged 2177 minutes together in 2017 (+4.1 points per 100 possessions according to basketball reference’s line-up data). George isn’t quite in the company of Steph Curry as a floor-spacer, but he’s a damn fine one. Turner will be thrust into a role as a number one option, something George insulated him from during his first few years.

A few aspects of Turner’s approach seem certain to change. Here are Turner’s play frequency numbers per NBA Math:

Over 45 percent of Turner’s offensive possessions in 2017 came from the pick-and-roll or spot-ups, with a further 18.5 percent cutting to the basket. Which is to say Turner subsisted on offense WITHOUT the ball most of the time. Such is the life for a young big playing with a high-usage wing like George. Luckily, few fives in the league are as effective at both rolling and popping. He has great hands and understands angles and positioning. Though not an elite athlete, Turner still runs the floor well and can get up and finish with his length.

Turner’s not a guy who’s just going to get up and dunk everything in existence. Intelligent cuts, timing and hustle were the mark of a player who understood where he ranked on the offensive pecking order. The following play-a block on Derrick Rose on one end followed by a put-back dunk on the other- is a typical example:

Turner block and putback – Streamable

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Look for his isolation/post-up frequency to increase as more and more of the offense is run through him. The question is not will he get his touches, he will, rather it’s can he maintain his efficiency and actually translate said touches into winning basketball.
Turner was effective in those other play-types when called upon:

Turner ranked from good to great in every category except for handoffs. Such consistency across play-types is rare, particularly so in a second-year player. Turner has the goods to excel in isolation and the post. Watch him hit Gortat with the beautiful footwork before fading from the double-team with the sweet little left-handed-hook:

Turner nifty hook – Streamable

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While he only totalled 107 post-ups and 23 isos on the year, a relatively small sample size, the numbers and film are very encouraging.
Turner was a below average three point shooter by league standards in 2016–17 (34.8 percent on 1.4 attempts per game). Most of his success came from the top of the key where he shot a solid 38 percent on 1.4 attempts. Teague was Turner’s main source of clean looks from three, accounting for over fifty percent of his attempts.

Turner catch and shoot – Streamable

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Teague won’t be mistaken for LeBron James any time soon, but he’s an above average playmaker. Who generates those looks for Turner this season? Victor Oladipo hasn’t touched a basketball on offense in fourteen months, and might be suffering from Westbrookian PTST for quite some time. Collison was decent at creating threes for his teammates in Sacramento (4.8 per game), but he’s had trouble staying on the court in recent years and doesn’t really excel in a high-usage role.
Shot-generation is probably going to be a problem for the Pacers in general. In 2016–17, 54.6 percent of Turner’s shots were defined as “open” or “wide-open” (per NBA.com), a number that should drop significantly as he adjusts to life post-George. As he attracts more attention from defenses, it’s critical Turner can punish teams that over commit with passes to cutting teammates.

Though he ranked near the bottom of the league in assist percentage among centers, Turner showed considerable improvement as a passer last season, particularly as the season wore on. As noted by ESPN’s Zach lowe back in February:

“Turner is making more advanced reads, and he’s making them faster — even while gliding through heavy traffic. Turner can map the floor in the heat of a pick-and-roll. He’s increasingly confident flinging cross-court lasers to corner shooters, or dropping slick interior dimes to a big man partner ….Don’t overlook this guy in the big man unicorn discussion. If he played in New York, he’d be a household name.”

That last point is unassailable. Porzingis is great, but the difference between him and Turner at this point is negligible. One could argue that given his edge in mobility defending smaller players on switches, durability (the history of guys Porzingis’ size is not inspiring from a health stand-point) and equally impressive skill-set, Turner is the player you’d feel more confident hitching your franchise wagon to.
Preseason didn’t do much to illuminate things for Pacers’ fans. It’s time for the real season to finally shine a light on these questions.

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