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The Biggest Surprise of the Trail Blazers Season So Far: All Hail Evan Turner

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The Blazers are using Turner better, and it shows.

NBA: Preseason-Portland Trail Blazers at Toronto Raptors Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers are 2-1 in the 2018-19 NBA Regular season, having notched wins against the Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs, falling to the Washington Wizards in a narrow, overtime loss. The sample size is small, but the season appears to be off to a good start nonetheless. Like every season start, these three games have carried surprises, which is the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.

Dave,

The season is young, but what’s your biggest surprise so far? Stauskas, I’ll bet!

Keith

The most surprising development of the first week of the Trail Blazers season has to be the bench play. Though Nik Stauskas is getting most of the attention, credit for that revival goes to Evan Turner...or rather to the system the Blazers have developed around Turner. Portland has changed personnel and philosophy surrounding their oft-maligned swingman, and so far it’s paying off.

In a nutshell, the Blazers have committed to getting Turner the ball in the center of the floor, usually towards the basket, whenever he’s in the game. In years past, he’d be an ancillary ball-handler, getting touches out on the wings. This left him a choice between shooting long or taking twisting drives into the lane to try and score. The first is not is strong suit. He’s always been good at finding his own shot, but the distance he needed to go in order to get it (plus the relative rarity of his touches) left little doubt as to his intentions. It wasn’t hard for the defense to figure out what was going on. If Turner did pass the ball, it was usually a bail-out swing pass on the perimeter or an “oh crap, I’m stuck” prayer after his scoring drive got blunted.

So far this year, the Blazers have put Turner in position to catch the ball closer to his scoring area. When single-covered, he’s often matched up against a smaller player. Putting his back to the basket, he can get up an efficient scoring attempt. If the opponent sends a perimeter defender to help, Turner has a clear pass to one of the shooters who now populate the court with him.

In three games, Turner is shooting 53.8% from the field. Last year he shot 44.7%, the year before 42.6%. He’s attempting only 0.5 three-pointers per 36 minutes, 1/4 to 1/5 his rate from the last two seasons. He’s averaging 7.6 assists per 36, double his average from the last two seasons. Portland’s bench is getting up significantly more three-pointers too.

So far, the plan is working like a charm. It’ll fall apart a little when an opponent fields defenders who can keep Turner from scoring easily. If Turner isn’t a big threat and the defense remains in single coverage, his scoring and his teammates’ open shots dry up. Fortunately that kind of defender doesn’t grow on trees, especially off the bench. Chances are the Blazers will have a little bit longer to enjoy their bench bounty before the league adjusts to it, and even then they’ll hopefully be better off than they were last season.

Thanks, Keith! Keep the Mailbag questions coming to blazersub@gmail.com!