When people talk about the fit of Evan Turner they almost exclusively evaluate his offensive game. Can he play off the ball and still space the floor for Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum? Is he efficient enough to lead bench units? Will the offense improve giving Dame and CJ more opportunities without the ball or is it better for the Blazers to stick to their strengths? All of these are very important topics, but defense is half the game and we should ask the parallel question as well:
How will Evan Turner fit on the defensive end?
To offer an answer, we have to know what kind of defender Evan Turner is. The preseason has just started but it's giving us our first chance to see Turner in action within coach Terry Stotts’ system. Against the Suns, Turner showed us a wide variety of skills and versatilities along with a fair number of weaknesses.
In the modern NBA, any defensive evaluation should start with the pick-and-roll. As a perimeter defender, Turner’s job is usually to send the ball handler away from the screen and towards the help. This requires Evan to angle his feet and to overplay the ball handler, forcing him to dribble a specific direction. While many Blazers’ guards struggle with this, Turner did it effectively and consistently against the Suns.
In this clip, TJ Warren has the ball up top with Evan Turner defending. Alex Len sets a screen and Evan angles his feet to force Warren to the sideline. Normally, Warren would dribble right, try to draw two defenders, and find the open man. Instead, Warren goes middle, testing Turner’s ball control.
Notice where Warren has to go to avoid Turner. He has to dribble backwards because of Turner’s positioning. If he takes a more aggressive angle, he’ll run right into Turner’s chest. Turner made it impossible for Warren to use the screen. When Warren goes middle, he has to go so far around Turner that he can’t get close to rubbing shoulders with his big man. As a result, Turner doesn’t fall behind the play and the Suns can’t penetrate the defense. Warren has to swing the ball around the perimeter and their pick-and-roll is completely neutered.
If anything, Turner is overly focused on forcing the ball into his help. He overplays so much that the ball handler can often create an excessive amount of space. Watch what happens in this clip:
Turner is defending Brandon Knight and the Suns send up a double screen. Evan decides which way he wants Knight to go but falls a full two steps behind the play. This allows Knight to attack Noah Vonleh one-on-one and he uses that space to dribble all the way to the sideline. As Turner recovers, there’s now an excessive amount of space between Knight and the screener, Dragan Bender. Vonleh has no chance to recover in time and Portland is lucky Bender misses the wide-open 3-pointer.
A lot of this has to do with Turner’s lack of foot speed and subpar footwork. He bounces a lot, hopping from one place to another when it would be better to chop his feet. This gets him in trouble and occasionally leads to comedic results.
Arm flailing is never a good look on a basketball court.
This one clip aside, Turner’s still about average, maybe even a little bit better, when defending the pick-and-roll. Plus, his strengths lineup with Damian Lillard’s weaknesses. Lillard perpetually struggles to force the ball to the right place so it will be nice to have someone who can control the ball a little bit better. Turner’s pick-and-roll defense isn’t perfect but he offers a different flavor that the Blazers didn’t have last season.
His ability to guard positions 1-3 makes Turner especially useful when defending small-ball pick-and-rolls. Lillard is also adept at defending in the post, even against larger players, so the Lillard-Turner combo should be able to switch most point guard-small forward actions. That’s a major asset.
The problems will arise when trying to switch onto bigger post players. Marquese Chriss is a dynamic rookie but he’s still a long way from being an established player. Look at how easily he gets to the cup after Turner switches on to him:
Turner has said he can guard the occasional four but I wouldn’t call it one of his strengths. This clip highlights the difference between Turner and Al-farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless. Chriss never would have been able to back down either of those two larger forwards. However, Aminu and Harkless can’t guard point guards as well as Turner. You might say Harkless and Aminu can guard 2-4 and occasionally point guards while Turner can guard 1-3 and occasionally power forwards. That’s a new defensive skillset the Blazers didn’t have last year.
Playing off-ball has fewer physical demands but requires additional awareness and understanding of angles. As you might expect from Turner’s strengths and weaknesses as an on-ball defender, Turner does quite well tracking players off the ball. He reads angles well, avoids screens, and gives maximum effort to deny his man the ball. Watch him go back and forth with Brandon Knight on this play.
Unfortunately, that jumpiness still gets him in trouble occasionally. After playing the angles perfectly for 10 seconds, denying Knight at every turn, Turner takes a big jump rather than a small step in response to one of Knight’s fakes. This jump gets Evan way out of position and Knight gets a wide-open look. Again, Turner’s understanding of team concepts, angles, and effort makes him a solid off-ball defender but his footwork prevents him from becoming truly elite.
Perhaps Turner’s biggest strength as a defender is on the help side, which emphasizes awareness and positioning over athleticism. Evan is constantly tracking the ball and his man, anticipating the play and making sure to be in the right position a split-second before he needs to be. Watch how Turner expertly sags into the paint to take away the rolling Len but doesn’t overcommit, allowing him to recover to his man:
This inside-out movement is the most important skill for a perimeter help defender since it happens almost every play.
Often times players are so focused on their help assignments that they lose track of their man. This happened to Turner against the Suns but he was lucky that they couldn’t make the pass to a wide-open Warren under the basket.
But I only saw this happen once and even the best defenders ball watch occasionally. It’s something to keep an eye on but not something to be concerned about until it happens more frequently.
Last but not least is perhaps the hardest thing that a perimeter defender has to do. Staying in front of NBA players is incredibly challenging in even the best of circumstances. Staying in front of them when running full speed in the wrong direction is nearly impossible. It takes an exceptional amount of effort and footwork to prevent both a shot and penetration. Turner works hard and runs shooters off the 3-point line but, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, his foot speed prevents him from also containing penetration.
In this clip, Turner has a relatively easy close-out considering the distance he has to cover is relatively short. He doesn’t get beaten completely but Warren manages to get a step and a bucket as a result:
Again, close-outs are extremely difficult and it would be unreasonable to expect Turner to prevent penetration on every play. This is more of a misdemeanor rather than a felony. Evan is a solid team defender but can’t claim to be one of the best. No one will mistake him for a liability but, at the same time, no one will be writing him in on their All-Defensive Team ballot.
The unfortunate part of this whole story is that Turner’s defense becomes much more valuable when he’s paired with great rim protection. If we think through this analysis as a whole, a few consistent themes emerge. First, Turner effectively guards shots along the perimeter. He’s not lazy. He doesn’t close out short and his positioning prevents the easiest looks.
Second, when he does allow penetration, it’s usually predictable. What I mean by that is team defenses are designed to control penetration, not prevent it entirely. When a perimeter defender is supposed to send a ball handler away from the screen, the expectation is not that he won’t allow any penetration at all. The defense, in a sense, is allowing penetration to happen as long as it’s in a specific direction. If the penetration is predictable, then the defense can have help defenders ready and waiting.
Third, Turner’s lack of quickness means he allows more separation between himself and his man than you would like. This prevents him from becoming an elite defender and it puts additional stress on the rest of the defense, especially the rim protectors. Compare how difficult Plumlee’s job is in the two clips below.
In this first clip, Plumlee’s job is super easy. Turner has played absolutely perfect defense staying attached to Devin Booker’s hip. All Plumlee has to do is shade a little, allowing Turner the time to get back in front. This would be exceptionally good defense under normal circumstances but at this point in the game Booker was on fire making this play truly incredible.
In the second clip, Turner can’t stay attached to Booker who gets a full step on him driving towards the rim. We see Turner jump again to force Booker left and Plumlee is all alone on an island. He makes a great play but these clips raise the question of consistency. For Turner, how consistently can he defend like the first clip rather than the second? Unfortunately, from what I saw against the Suns, the former was the exception and the latter was the rule. For Plumlee, can he consistently prevent layups when left on an island? And if not, do the Blazers have someone who can? Barring surprising health from Festus Ezeli, I’d have to say no on both counts.
The takeaway is that Turner is an average to above-average defender who can be part of an elite defense if paired with the right players. If Plumlee improves so he can consistently defend the rim in those types of situations (or if Festus Ezeli can get healthy) then Turner’s limitations matter a lot less. As a team, they’d be able to defend both the perimeter and the rim.
Turner showed us he’s a solid defender who’s capable of making incredible plays. He adds a new defensive skillset and versatility the Blazers didn’t have last year. But he also showed us some weaknesses and he’s not the type of player who can lift a defense by himself. As a result, he’s a useful but imperfect fit for the Blazers, much like he is on offense.