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In crowd of young modern centers, don’t forget about Pacers’ Myles Turner

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Myles Turner heard the coaches — on AAU teams, at camps, wherever he showed up.

He just just ignored them.

Despite frequently towering over opponents growing up, Turner often drifted to the perimeter. In positional workouts, he joined the guard groups.

Coaches kept telling him to get in the post.

Where did he gain the confidence to overrule them?

“My shots were going in,” Turner said, “so that’s all the confidence I needed.”

Turner, now the Pacers’ starting center, has reached the other side. Drafted No. 11 in 2014, the skilled 6-foot-11 big man entered an NBA suddenly eager to embrace his style.

No. 1 pick Karl-Anthony Towns (Timberwolves) and No. 4 pick Kristaps Porzingis (Knicks) dominate the headlines from their rookie class, and the middle ground for Joel Embiid (drafted No. 3 by the 76ers one year earlier but debuting this season) puts him in a similar spot on the growth curve. But Turner also warrants attention. He’s averaging 15.5 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game on a team rapidly improving its playoff position rather than heading back to the lottery.

If it weren’t for the red-hot Wizards (31-21) — Indiana’s opponent tonight in a nationally televised game — the Pacers’ surge would draw more attention. Indiana (29-23) just won seven in a row before falling to the Cavaliers on Wednesday.

In fact, Turner leads the Pacers in Real Plus-Minus-based wins (5.72, 27th in the NBA). That’s not to say Turner has become Indiana’s best player. Paul George doesn’t lag far behind in that stat (5.32, 33rd in NBA), and his track record of excellence more than makes up for the difference. There’s good reason George is headed to his fourth All-Star game and Turner will be relegated to the Rising Stars Challenge in New Orleans. The only other Pacer in the last decade to participate in that even was George in 2012, exposing how badly this team needed Turner to emerge.

“We’re just scratching the surface with what he’ll be able to do in this league,” Pacers coach Nate McMillan said of Turner.

In George and Turner, Indiana has two building blocks. Remember, a report about the Pacers rejecting George trade inquiries also said Turner was the only other player they weren’t open to dealing.

Jeff Teague has been exceptional since a slow start, and Thaddeus Young is solid. But both are 28, two years older than George. Teague is also headed toward unrestricted free agency this summer. Teague and Young could remain in Indiana long-term, but neither are essential pieces.

George and Turner are, and they offer endless possibilities for roster construction around them. George is an elite two-way player who can score inside and out and guard four positions. Turner is the prototypical modern center.

It’s hard now to effectively use centers who neither stretch the floor nor protect the rim. The real ideal is getting someone who can do both — and that’s Turner.

Just three centers have ever averaged 1.5 3-point attempts and 1.5 blocks per game over a full season: Anthony Davis (last year), Rasheed Wallace (four times, though he also did it as a power forward) and Raef LaFrentz (thrice). This year, six centers are on pace to do it:

  • Joel Embiid (3.2 3-point attempts, 2.5 blocks per game)
  • Brook Lopez (5.1, 1.7)
  • Al Horford (4.5, 1.7)
  • Karl-Anthony Towns (3.4, 1.5)
  • Anthony Davis (1.6, 2.5)
  • Myles Turner (1.7, 2.3)

Kristaps Porzingis and Serge Ibaka have also met the statistical thresholds in previous seasons and are again on pace to reach them this year, but both are primarily power forwards. In the new NBA, though, they could become centers in the coming years.

Of the bunch — including Porzingis — the 20-year-old Turner is the youngest. His potential is just so high.

He’s already much more comfortable beyond the arc than as a rookie, when he popped 2-point jumpers freely but hesitated to venture further out. He’s making 37.9% of his 3-pointers this year, topping any other 1.5/1.5 center.

The next step for Turner is defending the rim better when he doesn’t block shots. Though his rejections are helpful, he still allows opponents to convert at a middling clip when he’s protecting the paint. His defensive positioning should improve with time.

But don’t lose sight have how much Turner has already progressed in only a year. He would have established himself as a legitimate contender for Most Improved Player if Giannis Antetokounmpo weren’t going to run away with the award.

Turner already has more win shares this season (5.3) than last season (3.1). The only players who’ve surpassed their previous career high in win shares by more this season — Lucas NogueiraSam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell — barely played in previous years. Turner started half his games as a rookie. He’s taking a bigger role this season and playing even better within it — the holy-grail combination of improvement.

If not Most Improved Player this season, Turner is on track to receive plenty of accolades in the year ahead. Without altering his approach, Turner has come so far simply because the mindset about big men has changed around him. But he says a greater appreciation for his style doesn’t mean much to him.

“I never really cared what people thought,” Turner said. “I mean, I kind of just played my own game.”

PBT Extra: Disciplined Celtics highlight bad habits of Milwaukee Bucks

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Giannis Antetokounmpo has been every bit the top five NBA player in the postseason — 32.5 points per game on 63.2 percent shooting, plus with 11 rebounds and 7.5 assists per game.

Yet the Bucks are down 0-2 to Boston.

The Celtics have had a strong series from Al Horford and Terry Rozier, but the real difference is in the discipline this team has shown all season — Boston knows who it is. Clearly, Milwaukee does not. They turn the ball over too much and make too many mistakes.

I get into all of that in this PBT Extra, and I wonder if that’s something the Bucks can really turn around mid-playoffs.

Ettore Messina to coach Spurs in Game 3 following death of Gregg Popovich’s wife

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Spurs coach Gregg Popovich’s wife, Erin, died yesterday.

That sad news was felt throughout the NBA, and it obviously affects San Antonio most closely. That includes for tonight’s Game 3 against the Warriors.

Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News:

Ettore Messina was a longtime head coach in Europe. The Spurs lead assistant also took over for a few regular-season games Popovich missed. So, making – rather than advising – coaching decisions won’t be a brand new challenge to Messina.

But down 2-0 to defending-champion Golden State is a tough place to make an NBA playoff debut.

On the bright side, there will be no pressure. Not only has San Antonio been outclassed the first two games of the series, focus is rightly on the Popovich family. A win would be a pleasant surprise and help Messina – who’s up for the Hornets job – in his pursuit of a head-coaching position. A loss would be quickly forgotten with more important matters at hand.

To that end, hopefully the time away allows Popovich the space he needs to grieve. That matters far more than a basketball game.

Report: Knicks to interview Kenny Smith for head-coaching job

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The Knicks are casting a wide net in their coaching search.

It’ll apparently include a familiar, though surprising, name.

ESPN:

TNT analyst Kenny Smith will interview for the New York Knicks’ head-coaching job on Friday, a source told ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith.

A quality organization, the Rockets, interviewed Smith (in 2016, before hiring Mike D’Antoni). So, this isn’t proof of the Knicks’ oddball thinking. (There are plenty of better examples, if you wish).

Steve Kerr opened the door for former players to go straight from TV to being an NBA head coach without having any coaching experience. He’s been a smash hit with the Warriors.

But Kerr was also the Suns’ general manager before Golden State hired him. Smith has no front-office experience.

So, it’s tough to judge Smith, whose role on television is more to entertain than inform (though he does both). He’ll have to really wow in his interview to get the job.

But at least he has that opportunity.

Pacers coach Nate McMillan slips and falls while arguing call (video)

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Nate McMillan slipped up in his handling of Victor Oladipo‘s early fouls during the Pacers’ Game 2 loss to the Cavaliers last night.

Then, the Indiana coach literally slipped while arguing that LeBron James should have been called for offensively fouling Lance Stephenson.