Back in 2015, there were five big men that came off the board before Myles Turner was selected by the Indiana Pacers with the No. 11 overall pick. Very quickly, though, Turner leapfrogged a few of the players ahead of him and proved himself one of the three best bigs in the class.
As a rookie, Turner did not experience quite the highs of Karl-Anthony Towns or Kristaps Porzingis, but he flashed several of the skills required to be a top-flight big man in the modern NBA. Turner missed some time due to injury, started only half his games, and played just 22.8 minutes a night, but the impact-player potential leapt off the screen at times. He was a strong rebounder, showed above-average range on his jumper, and he had excellent timing when it came to blocking shots.
Midway through the season, for example, he pinned one of LeBron James’ shots against the backboard, sliding with the King every step of the way on the drive before leaping into the air to meet James at the rim and thwart the shot before it hit the glass.
That was the obvious highlight of Turner’s debut campaign, but there were others like it dotted throughout the year. It was reasonable back in the summer of 2016, then, to peg Turner for future stardom. A mobile big man who can stretch the floor and protect the paint is everything you want in a modern NBA center, and Turner — after averaging 16.3 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks per 36 minutes at just 19 years old — appeared to fit the bill.
Here we are two years later, however, and whether Turner will ever turn into that player still appears to be an open question.
After taking a small, but noticeable step forward in the second of his career, Turner plateaued last season, on both sides of the floor. With Paul George leaving last offseason one would have thought Turner was going to step forward and grab a significantly larger share of the Pacers’ offense, but instead he receded even more into the background, remaining in a complementary role, but now alongside Victor Oladipo.
It’s one thing to have some of the skills necessary to serve as a foundational offensive piece; but it’s quite another to actually do so on the floor. Turner’s ability to create space, whether as a spot-up option or out of pick-and-pops, is valuable and provides the kind of room Oladipo needs to attack the paint with abandon, but there’s more that’s necessary in order to become the type of offensive fulcrum the likes of which his 2015 draft counterparts serve.
Turner has not yet even used a considerably above-average share of Pacer possessions while on the court, for example. His career-high usage rate of 20.9 percent actually came during his rookie season, and last year he was only at 20.0 percent. Attaining above-average shooting efficiency on an average number of possessions is commendable, but not exactly the mark of a superstar. Unlike Towns and Porzingis, in other words, Turner has yet to prove himself capable of shouldering the burden of being a No. 1 offensive option for any length of time. Turner has also not shown nearly as much ability to create his own looks — 77 percent of Turner’s 2-point baskets in his three-year career have been assisted, while Porzingis is at 64 percent and Towns is at 63 percent.
Not only that, but in the playoffs, it wasn’t entirely clear that Turner was always his own team’s best center option offensively. When the Cavaliers began aggressively trapping Oladipo on pick-and-rolls, Domantas Sabonis’ ability to work as a playmaker on short rolls became incredibly valuable. Turner was not quite able to make the same sorts of plays when navigating four-on-three opportunities from the free-throw line area, and so there were times when having Sabonis on the floor was preferable. As a result, there were three different playoff games where Turner failed to crack 25 minutes played.
Turner’s defensive progress has been similarly up-and-down. His block rate is among the best in the NBA for a young big man and when he happens to make an on-time rotation, he is terrific at affecting the opponent’s shot at the rim. (He tied with Clint Capela for the NBA’s highest block rate among bigs under 25 years old last season.) The problem is he’s too often late with those rotations, or not in the right position. That’s why opponents were able to convert nearly 60 percent of their shot attempts when Turner was within five feet of both the shooter and the basket last season, per Second Spectrum data on NBA.com, while peers like Porzingis (49.4 percent) and Joel Embiid (52.4 percent) were far more effective at preventing makes.
Indiana’s defense was 1.4 points better per 100 possessions with Turner on the floor than off last season, but much of that was due to the fact that he so often shared the floor with Indiana’s best defenders. When Turner played without Thaddeus Young, for example, Indiana’s defensive rating jumped from 103.9 to 108.1 — the equivalent of falling from seventh in the NBA in defense to 20th. (It was also 108.6 when Turner played without Oladipo, who made an All-Defensive Team.)
If Turner, despite all his talents, is not yet a foundational offensive player and he is not yet capable of anchoring a defense, then what is he? That’s a question that needs to be answered, whether by the Pacers or Turner himself, fairly quickly. Heading into the fourth year of his NBA career, Turner is now extension-eligible. At this point, it’s fair to ask if the star turn that seemed destined is ever going to come, as well as how the Pacers should approach extension talks with their young big man given his obvious talent but uneven progress to date.
Given his talent and youth, one would imagine Turner’s representatives will ask for a max extension and nothing less. Given his slightly above-average production to date, one would imagine the Pacers would balk at such a price-tag. It’s difficult to see an extension happening before the season unless Turner is willing to take a discount (i.e. less than Clint Capela got), but that doesn’t seem like that big a deal for the Pacers. They rolled over some of their cap space this offseason in order to get in on the 2019 spending spree, and keeping Turner’s cap number a bit lower while also seeing what type of progress he makes in the meantime is a path that has its own merits.
For his part, Turner has gotten himself on the Oladipo Weight-Loss Program this offseason, turning to yoga and a new diet to remake his body, according to ESPN.
Cutting Popeyes fried chicken, Waffle House and Whataburger out of his diet and no longer devouring eight slices of pizza in one meal, Turner hired a personal chef; he has sculpted his body from 14 percent body fat down to nearly half that. In mid-June, Turner posted before-and-after pictures of his body, and new six-pack, on Twitter that went viral.
“I took a look at myself in the mirror last season, and I was pudgy,” Turner told ESPN after sweating his way through an hour-plus vinyasa flow hot yoga session in Las Vegas last month. “I was getting tired a lot faster, and a lot of that had to do with eating fast food, eating pizza the nights before games.
“Everybody told me about my diet, but last season it started to affect me. I guess getting older, my metabolism is not as high as it used to be. … I was getting gassed.”
Dropping weight should make Turner lighter on his feet, and that should especially be a boon to his progress on defense. Turner does not always make reads as early as possible, so reducing the amount of time it takes for him to get from reaction to action by being a bit springier is a good play. If he can scurry across the floor just a split-second faster, he can affect more shots. If he’s just a bit more mobile, he can cut off more driving lanes before they open, and hang with more ball-handlers if and when he’s asked to switch. (The Pacers, unlike many modern teams, prefer to minimize switching, but they still turn to it on occasion.) Knowing that he can move a bit quicker should also help with Turner’s foul issues, which have crept up on occasion. He’s committed five-plus fouls in nearly 12 percent of his NBA games, and not being able to keep up in space is often a reason big men resort to fouling.
It’s unclear how the weight loss will affect Turner’s offensive performance, but it seems clear that it’s that end of the floor where his game has the most room to grow.
A player with his skills should be able to use more than a league-average number of possessions. He has to assert himself more within and outside the flow of the offense, and be willing to put the ball on the floor and create his own looks on occasion. This is not to say that he needs to be backing his man down on the block every trip down the floor. That’s not practical or beneficial. But his slide into a full-on complementary role has come with a corresponding drift away from the basket over the course of his career — his average shot distance has gone from 10.8 feet away from the rim as a rookie to 12.0 feet as a sophomore and finally 14.1 feet last season — and because of that he has not gotten quite as many easy points as some other big men. Getting more looks within close range of the basket should be a priority, and perhaps being lighter will aid Turner in attempting to drive past opposing bigs more often. One hopes the weight loss does not result in Turner shying away from contact inside, as one of the areas where he has made consistent progress with each passing season is his ability to get to the line.
Turner is still just 22 years old and is thus unlikely to hit his peak as a player for several more season. But where it once seemed all but assured that said peak would see Turner turning into a two-way star who competed for All-Star berths, that now seems like a bit of a stretch that involves Turner taking clear steps forward on both sides of the floor. That’s not out of the question, of course. No 22-year-old is a finished product, and big men especially tend to take a little while before they really get going. But Year 4 is a big one for Turner, especially because finally making the star turn he, the Pacers, and fans have been waiting for could also result in his getting a much bigger payday than he seems likely to receive at this moment.
Illustrations for this article were provided by Elliot Gerard. Check out the rest of the Stepmoji series here.