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Why Evan Turner Might Not Be So Bad In Portland After All

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When Trail Blazers GM Neil Olshey signed Evan Turner on July 1, many fans wondered how he'd fit in as a third primary ballhandler next to Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. He may not be as ball-dominant as some think, however.

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I've been struggling for weeks to come up with the perfect metaphor to describe what it's like seeing your basketball team sign Evan Turner. I've grappled with a few ideas; none of them have been quite right. The two most reasonable facsimiles I've come up with so far, I guess, are seeing your boyfriend/girlfriend leave you and seeing your car stolen.

I can explain. Both, on the surface, seem like pretty terrible events. Having an important person walk out of your life can be devastating, and losing your vehicle means taking a tremendous hit in either your lifestyle (having to survive with no car) or your wallet (buying a new one isn't cheap). In either case, things are gonna be pretty lousy for a while as you deal with the repercussions and go through the stages of grief, thinking about how life used to be.

Then again, both events can end up being good for you in the long run. In the case of the significant other, you eventually get over the heartbreak, and you may well discover that you're happier being single and exploring new opportunities. As for the car, your future is bright either way. You might eventually get a new one - and who doesn't appreciate a new car? - or you might start walking and biking more, enjoying the active lifestyle and getting into better shape. See? In the long run, a silver lining always emerges.

The optimist in me says we'll see a similar turn of events with Turner in the coming months. Yes, the Trail Blazers made a bold move to sign him this summer, committing $70 million over four years to making him their new small forward (and doing so on the morning of July 1, no less). Yes, this move angered a lot of Blazer fans who were hoping their team would either land a bigger star or exercise some fiscal responsibility. But I'm hoping that in the long run, we can all come out of this fiasco with a bit more of a positive attitude. Right now, much of Portland is going through the four stages of grief regarding ET, and they're somewhere between bargaining and anger. I'm hoping we can soon reach acceptance.

So. The criticisms of the Turner signing. As for the money, I'm honestly not sweating that one much. If Paul Allen wants to throw down $70 million (plus the inevitable luxury tax payments) to add another rotation player, that's his prerogative. Who are any of us to tell him what to do with his cash? As for Neil Olshey's decision to spend the money on Turner specifically, I trust that the Blazers' GM did the best he could. If there had been a better player available to him, Olshey would have signed that player, but there wasn't, so he didn't.

I don't care about the money thing. I also don't think Turner is a bad player per se - he's a respectable perimeter guy who gets you 10 points, five rebounds and five assists per game. There's nothing wrong with that. I think the only Turner-bashing that really merits attention is the "fit" discussion. Does Turner make sense on a roster that already has Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and a bevy of solid small forwards? That question is a topic for serious debate.

I get why people say no. Their argument makes intuitive sense - Lillard and McCollum are already ball-dominant players, and Turner spent much of his two-year stint in Boston functioning as a point forward who required the ball in his hands to be successful. Adding Turner to the McLillard mix, they say, leads to a "too many cooks spoiling the offense" situation. There's only one basketball.

Critics have said that Turner isn't a good fit and the Blazers are better off giving more minutes to guys with other skill sets - for example, perimeter players who can catch and shoot, like Allen Crabbe, or use their strength down low a little bit, like Al-Farouq Aminu. A third ball-handling guy, they say, is redundant and pointless.

It's a reasonable position, but here's my response. How sure are you, really, that Evan Turner is a ballhog? Have you watched him play enough to say this confidently, or are you just following the lead of the media members and Twitter echo-chamberers who tell you so? Is it possible that Turner's not the ball-dominant player you think, and really he's a multi-talented guy who can thrive on the ball or off it?

If you're gonna level criticisms like this in 2016, you'd better have the facts to support your case. Problem is, in the case of "Evan Turner The Ball-Stopper," the facts aren't exactly on your side. Here's what the NBA's SportVU data has to say:

The above chart gives you a statistical measure of just how point-guard-y each Blazer perimeter guy is. "TOP" refers to time of possession - in a 48-minute basketball game, how much time the player had the ball in his hands last season. "Touches" is touches of the basketball per game, and the other three columns are the length of each touch and the players' point and assist averages on a per-touch basis. The conclusion is pretty clear. Lillard and McCollum were by far the two most ball-dominant of the five players; Aminu and Crabbe were at the other end of the spectrum, as they often did little more than catch and shoot. Turner was neither. He was a tweener. Not a point guard, but not a Crabbe type either - at 3.68 seconds of ball-handling per touch, he ranked roughly No. 100 in the NBA. He was comparable in this respect to other wing players like LeBron James (3.88), Dwyane Wade (3.94) and Jimmy Butler (3.64).

This is interesting because Turner is basically the only player on the 2016-17 Trail Blazers roster with a track record of being moderately ball-dominant. Most of the Blazers have tended toward one extreme or the other. This means Turner is likely to carve out a unique role in Portland this season. It won't necessarily be a bad one.

When he's motivated, Turner can carve out a nice little role for himself as a pick-and-roll creator. He doesn't do it as the traditional point guard, the guy bringing the ball up the floor - instead, he starts out off the ball, letting the point man probe the defense a little bit before he does his thing. Watch above as the Celtics put Orlando's Evan Fournier through multiple screens, forcing him to fight his way through first Kelly Olynyk and then Amir Johnson as Turner sneaks into open spaces on the floor and create seams in the defense.

While Turner isn't a knock-down shooter across the board, he is dangerous from certain spots on the floor. Per SportVU data, he actually averaged 0.556 points per touch when he got the ball at the elbow, a staggering figure that far outpaced the other four Blazers last year. While Turner isn't good from 22 feet, he's dangerous from 15, and opponents know it. This forces them to bend - and often break - to deny him open space. Watch as Olynyk pops out on this play and both Magic defenders, Ersan Ilyasova and Nikola Vucevic, are powerless to close out on him. It's Turner's gravity on the defense that makes this happen, and he only needs about 4 seconds with the ball in his hands to work his magic.

Now, here's a thought exercise. Imagine the Blazers running the same play, except with Damian Lillard probing the defense at the beginning and Meyers Leonard popping out for an open 3 at the end.

Yeah - I know. I'm excited too.

One of the things I've really come to like about Turner, the more I've watched him, is his court vision. When he has the open man available to him, as he does with Olynyk in the example above, he finds him. When he doesn't, he's quick to recognize it and fire that mid-range jumper when it's his best option. Here's the same play, only with ET calling his own number:

This play looks like it's going to unfold similarly to the Orlando example, except unlike Vucevic above, the Raptors' Luis Scola is lingering near Olynyk on the perimeter, ready to close out if need be. So instead of kicking out for a 3, Turner keeps the ball himself. He's fortunate on this possession because the communication between Toronto's DeMar DeRozan and Bismack Biyombo is just a tiny bit off, and he takes advantage. This is something that will happen a lot when Turner runs pick-and-rolls, because he's assuming the role of the ball-handler against guys who are used to guarding wings. It's not usually DeRozan's job to guard the point guard in PNR situations - that's Kyle Lowry's gig. So when DeRozan is forced to chase Turner around a screen, his timing is just a little bit off, and Biyombo drops back into the paint just a little bit early. Turner finds open space and fires away.

The Blazers are going to have opportunities to create lots of little scoring chances like this. With Turner's ability to create at the elbow, they'll have the ultimate diversity of scoring threats. Lillard, McCollum and Crabbe can launch from 3. Ed Davis, Festus Ezeli and Mason Plumlee are great around the rim; Maurice Harkless can slash to the hoop in a nanosecond. When you throw Turner's in-between game into the mix, you've got an offense that's potent from just about every spot on the floor. Having Turner as a threat will be yet another reason for opposing defenses to stay on their toes.

Everything we've gone over so far relates to Turner's abilities with the ball in his hands. But again - he doesn't have to play that way. Really, he doesn't. He's equally content to let his more ball-reliant teammates do their thing while he sets up around the perimeter:

The Celtics emerged as one of the best teams in the NBA last season at playing a five-out style of offense in which all five players on the floor had the ability to pass, shoot and handle the basketball. Turner, I'd argue, was one of the primary reasons that gambit worked so well for Brad Stevens. Because his vision and passing ability were so sharp, the Celtics were able to use Turner as a perimeter double-threat. He was always dangerous because of his ability to dribble in to 15 feet and nail the jumper, but he could also make really slick passes like the one you see above. Once Jonas Jerebko catches Monta Ellis sleeping for a moment and creeps into the paint, it's lights out.

Plays like this are the reason I'm skeptical when people say Turner is redundant, or that his skills aren't useful in Terry Stotts' system. Of those critics, I ask: How can you ever have too much of this? Since when is "too many guys who can see the floor and make snap decisions with the ball" a bad thing? Wouldn't Stotts and the Blazers be in basketball utopia if they had five guys who could play like this?

Well, maybe not exactly like this. A little extra shooting would be nice, of course. Then again, Turner's not horrendous in that area either:

It would be a bald-faced lie to suggest that Turner is a master 3-point shooter, but at 30.5 percent for his career, he's just barely competent enough that defenses usually have to close out on him just to keep him honest. When they don't - or in the case of Charlotte's Kemba Walker here, they make a half-hearted effort at the last second when it's too late - Turner's not afraid to fire.

Turner doesn't shoot from distance often - he had 83 attempts last year, a figure that would have ranked him eighth on the Trail Blazers - but he makes just enough of them that posting him in the corner has value to your offense. When Turner plays off the ball and lets the primary ball-handlers run the show, he has a few ways to make himself useful - he can shoot the jumper, run side pick-and-rolls when called upon and of course create offense as a playmaker from the elbow. Alternatively, he can do none of the above and still come in handy as a decoy. As Turner himself put it earlier this season, you've gotta respect a 15 percent 3-point shooter. A guy like that is always lethal.

OK, maybe that last part is a little overboard. Evan Turner is very unlikely to be a knock-down 3-point shooter for the Blazers this season (or in any other season). Even under Terry Stotts, whose system has been known to help mediocre outside shooters blossom into better ones (see: Aminu, Al-Farouq), Turner's probably not about to become a marksman. But does that alone make him a major bust candidate in Portland? I'm not convinced of that. I think, all things considered, Turner has enough skills to make himself a useful player here for the next few years.

So is all the gloom and doom talk justified? I don't know about that. I do know this - I know I don't feel the same way about Turner now, on Aug. 26, that I did only July 1. I hope you don't either. July is a time for emoting and overreacting to free agency. That's part of the game. But in the months that follow, it's time to settle down, get some perspective and prepare to give Turner an honest chance. (And hey, even if you don't, tough. You can bet Terry Stotts will.)