Celtics fans saw a bit of the versatility of the 76ers’ Evan Turner Saturday night, such as when he easily made a midrange jumper over Rajon Rondo or soared for a rebound to begin a Philadelphia fast break.
While Turner may have struggled against some other NBA clubs, he has turned into a problem for the Celtics. At 6 feet 7 inches, Turner is a difficult matchup because he can play point guard, has the offensive skills of a shooting guard, and the size of a small forward.
While he is one of a handful of potential cornerstones for the 76ers, he is the most intriguing. Picked second out of Ohio State (behind Kentucky’s John Wall) in the 2010 NBA draft, Turner was criticized for his slow adaptation to the NBA. While Wall was racing down the court whipping the ball to teammates, Turner was stuck on the Philadelphia bench, a player with no position, not in premium condition, and lost in Doug Collins’s defensive-minded system.
Turner averaged 7.2 points and shot 42.5 percent from the field in his rookie season. His numbers improved this season as he gained playing time, averaging 10.6 points following the All-Star break on 45.6 percent shooting.
The 76ers lack a true floor leader and fell apart down the stretch of the 92-91 Game 1 loss to the Celtics Saturday night because they lack a dependable late-game scorer. Turner missed both of his shots in the final quarter and did not score as the 76ers missed 13 of 21 shots.
Philadelphia was at its best when Turner or Andre Iguodala was running the point forward position, making Rondo and Avery Bradley work on defense. At times Turner (16 points, 10 rebounds) made the game look easy, draining jumpers or using his height or guile to maneuver his way to the basket.
Turner makes the game look easy when he is flourishing, and his three-year career at Ohio State was filled with those type of moments. But that difficult first season paled in comparison with those of other high draft picks, and he had to regain his confidence.
“When you know you are going to play a lot, it’s a little bit easier,’’ he said Sunday following the 76ers’ practice at the Garden in preparation for Monday night’s Game 2. “Once you’ve been through something before, it’s easier to go through it a second time or third time. I played some big minutes last year in a playoff situation and this year, too. Every transition’s going to be rough and you have to pay your dues to get to where you want to go. And once you get that comfortability, that’s key and you can fully start developing more and sometimes start taking risks and not worry about messing up a little bit because you understand what you did.
“Last year when I would mess up, I wasn’t too sure what I did wrong or if I was good enough to do that. Now I’m starting to get more comfortable.’’
Turner was a first-team All-American and won the Wooden, Naismith, and Associated Press Player of the Year awards as a junior at Ohio State. Wall was considered a better pro prospect because of his speed and his potential to be a franchise point guard. Turner was considered more of a solid prospect who might have a 10-year pro career.
The 76ers already had Iguodala on their roster as a small forward and Thaddeus Young and Lou Williams eating up playing time, too, leaving Turner without a defined role. He was out of shape during the team’s Orlando Summer League appearance and made little impact during his first 50 games, shooting 40.9 percent. It was too early to tab Turner a bust, but the transition to the NBA was definitely taking longer than he or the organization expected.
“It was rough, man. I asked what [the critics] expected me to do [and it] wasn’t possible for the situation I was in,’’ he said. “They want me to be a 20-point scorer and our leading scorer was 14 points. They wanted me to be a star and a focal point and that’s not how we play. They’re comparing me to what other rookies are doing and I’m playing on a playoff team. I was confident enough to know I was what I was.’’
Turner heard the criticism, especially in a tough sports town such as Philadelphia, where fans are searching for the 76ers’ first legitimate superstar since Allen Iverson.
“Once you are down, people like to kick you,’’ Turner said. “I kind of had the confidence that I would be fine in the end and once I started showing people what’s going on. And once again, you have to pay your dues. Aaron Rodgers was on the bench five or six years and people are saying, ‘Why is he so cocky?’ And then he starts doing all this [great] stuff and you see why he’s confident. You can’t get mad at people because ignorance is bliss, they don’t know what’s going on. They don’t know what’s inside of you and the work you put in. It’s just words, it’s not reality.’’
Turner said he formed a bond with Aaron McKie - an assistant coach, former NBA player, and Philadelphia native - who stressed patience.
“He told me the best stories are the comeback stories,’’ Turner said. “Not the ones where you start [fast]. You’ve got to enjoy the journey, and I have been trying to enjoy the journey. When you have so many bad times, you definitely appreciate the good times.’’Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe.