25-under-25, Indiana Pacers

25-under-25: Myles Turner at No. 23

Myles Turner has demonstrated that he can be great at both ends of the floor. But can he be great for these Indiana Pacers?

Every year when our writers begin working on the profiles for our 25-under-25 list, I always remind them to focus on the player, not the list itself. The list is the list, ranking for the sake of ranking, but it’s all a vehicle to explore the players themselves. And what makes each of these young players unique and compelling on their own is way more fun to explore than how they hypothetically compare to each other.

But I’m going to break my own rule for Myles Turner.

He debuted at No. 7 after his rookie season, forcing his way into the unicorn conversation with Karl-Anthony Towns, Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic and Kristaps Porzingis. The next year he was at No. 13, before moving back up to No. 10 last season, just behind De’Aaron Fox and ahead of players like Kristaps Porzingis, Trae Young, Jamal Murray and Bam Adebayo. We were wrong about a lot of stuff, because we’re wrong about a lot of stuff every year, but I distinctly remember what the thinking was with Turner and where he was in his career. I remember because I wrote this in his profile last year:

Last season, he averaged 13.3 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.6 assists per game. He led the league in blocked shots and made 38.8 percent of his 3-point attempts, once again flashing that unicorn potential. In the span of a few months, Turner changed his story from “asset the Pacers might need to sell high on” to “future Defensive Player of the Year candidate and indisputable cornerstone.”

And this:

Turner has arrived as one of the most intimidating rim protectors in the league. In addition to his league-leading block totals, opposing players shot just 54.4 percent on shots inside of six feet when Turner was the closest defender — a number better than Capela, Al Horford, Anthony Davis, Marc Gasol or Draymond Green. He was also much more aware and decisive in his defensive rotations and for the first time in his career had more blocks than personal fouls.

Turner didn’t necessarily make a liar out of me, but he certainly turned those paragraphs into hyperbolic bombast. Yes, last season was weird and everything from it should be taken with a grain of salt. But Turner did not do much to elevate the Pacers’ offense or general spacing with his jumper — he made just 34.4 percent of his 3s and still demonstrated a frustrating proclivity for rolling or spotting up a step inside the 3-point arc. His rim protection was a bit less effective — he blocked fewer shots per game, per minute and per possession, and went back to a negative ratio of fouls to blocks — although his defensive field goal percentage of 51.1 indicates he was at least as intimidating.

What is the ideal role for Myles Turner?

The bigger issue is that the Pacers were fine but unspectacular (plus-2.1 points per 100 possessions) when he and Domantas Sabonis were on the floor together but lost his solo minutes. Indiana was minus-2.9 per 100 possessions when Turner played solo, plus-5.6 per 100 when Sabonis was in the middle by himself. It appears more and more that Turner’s ceiling is as a high-level complementary piece and the Pacers might not be the context for him to hit that. For all the two-big experimenting Indiana has done (1772 minutes across three seasons) they’ve outscored opponents by a grand total of 33 points in 3558 possessions.

In a perfect world, the two-big set-up with Sabonis is either a huge advantage for the Pacers or a positive compromise that allows them to thoroughly dominate the minutes when they’re separated. Right now it’s neither.

Maybe new head coach Nate Bjorkgren has some wrinkles to add, he certainly has a reputation for innovation and flexibility which were not necessarily Nate McMillan’s strong suits. Maybe there’s simply some progression to the mean coming for Turner, or a few more open shots to be had with Victor Oladipo, Malcolm Brogdon and Jeremy Lamb healthy and T.J. Warren fully empowered. Or maybe Turner is destined to live in those in-between places, a player with obvious talent, clearly defined skills and respectable production he never really seems fully formed.

Turner will turn 25 in March and so this is his last appearance on our list. I suppose there’s a world where he plays with a little more fire, where answers slights, real and perceived, with ambitious dunk attempts and heat-check pull-up 3-pointers. But I don’t think we need another Rasheed Wallace and watching Turner do hot yoga head-stands is delightful recompense for things he takes off the table.

I guess what I’m saying is, we’ve seen Myles Turner be great and that matters more than the times we’ve seen him be less than that. I hope he gets to be great for the Pacers this season, and I’m going to really miss him when we make next year’s list.

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