Andrew Unterberger is a famous writer who invented the nickname 'Sauce Castillo' and is now writing for The Rights To Ricky Sanchez, as part of the 'If Not, Pick Will Convey As Two Second-Rounders' section of the site. You can follow Andrew on Twitter @AUGetoffmygold and can also read him at Billboard.
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Nearly a decade later, and there’s still no prospect memory that haunts Sixers fans quite like Evan Turner. If noted Wells Fargo Center regular M. Night Shyamalan remade The Sixth Sense for the Process era, it’d be prospect comparisons to Turner that suddenly dropped the room temperature 20 degrees -- there’s not a single name you want to hear less when discussing your young guys than ET.
It’s not because he’s the worst draft bust in Sixers history. Hell, I have no memory of Shawn Bradley, but I’m sure there are some ‘90s Sixers heads out there (proto-proto-Process? B.H.E.?) who could make the argument he wasn’t even the worst No. 2 pick in modern team history. In more recent years, Jahlil Okafor was certainly a worse player and less-logical pick, Nerlens Noel turned out to be a more wasteful situation, and Anžejs Pasečņiks… well, at least we get a lifetime’s worth of punchlines out of his name. Turner wasn’t a bad player; he wasn’t even a bad Sixer, really. He could do some things. He averaged 17-6-4 for us one season. He went on to sign a (stupidly) big contract with Portland, and he’s a useful player there today in his ninth year.
But the Turner memory really lingers because -- for me, anyway -- it was impossible to let the dream of him go. He came to us at our neediest, when we improbably jumped up in the 2010 draft to land him, and he seemed like the dude that was going to bust us out of the post-Iverson morass the team was mired in, a do-everything player, a proven scorer and a good guy who would define the next decade of Sixers ball. And so we bled with him for three-and-a-half seasons, praying for jumpers to go in, getting too excited by mini-hot streaks, believing all statistical improvements to be the result of permanent player evolution instead of small sample size theater… until he was eventually traded for Danny Granger’s corpse and a protected second-rounder. No player broke my heart like Evan Turner, because I never stopped letting him back in. I still haven’t, even today -- I have a shirsey of his No. 12 that I invariably end up wearing a couple times a month.
That’s why I really, really didn’t want to hear it when Spike first compared Markelle Fultz to Turner on the pod a couple weeks ago. Even though the Sixers’ situation is so different in 2018, we need Fultz now as badly as we needed Turner back in ‘10 -- we just need him to be the final foundational piece rather than the first one -- and as with Turner, if Fultz doesn’t turn out to be the guy, we might not get another chance to find the actual guy. If Markelle turned out to be ET 2.0, that would be devastating -- not just because it’d potentially seal the ceiling of this Sixers core as not-quite-title-competitive, but because it’d mean years of heartbreak in the meantime, of straining to believe he could be something more, even as we knew it in our gut that he really was who he really was.
And, well, here we are 11 games into the season. Let’s compare Fultz’s per 36 numbers to Turner’s in his rookie year (thanks BB Reference!):
And their advanced stats:
Not identical, perhaps, but not exactly a world apart, are they?
Now, I’m not saying at this point that Markelle Fultz is definitely Evan Turner. I’m not saying he’s definitely anything this early in his career. He very well might not be Evan Turner. All I’m saying is that he’s not definitely not Evan Turner, either. That might seem a thuddingly obvious observation, but at this point in Joel Embiid’s career, he was definitely not Evan Turner. Ben Simmons was definitely not Evan Turner. Even Nerlens Noel was definitely not Evan Turner. Markelle? Jury’s still out.
But while said jury prepares to deliberate -- and they might be sequestered on this thing for a damn long time, so hope their hotel gets HBO -- let’s present the cases for Markelle Fultz being and not being Evan Turner, as they stand 11 games into his quasi-sophomore year. Still love you always forever, Evan.
MARKELLE FULTZ IS EVAN TURNER
He can’t shoot.
An obvious one but a pretty fundamentally important one, natch. The thing that would’ve allowed Evan Turner to linger long-term on the Sixers even if he never developed into a first-option scorer would’ve been if he could reliably knock down an open jumper, allowing him to be effective playing off-ball while the likes of Andre Iguodala and Jrue Holiday handled. But it never quite happened for Evan -- he made just 25 triples combined his first two seasons, and even though season three saw his percentage spike to 37% (still making fewer than a three a game), that quickly regressed to the mean, and he ended his Sixers tenure shooting under 30 percent from deep in his final season. (Mid-range wasn’t much better, though he did at least shoot 40% from 10-16 feet for a couple seasons.)
Markelle obviously, famously, struggles from a more dramatic version of the same problem. He’s already made four triples this season, which is four more than many expected him to ever make for Philly this time last year, but his form looks iffy, his pull-up is inconsistent, and his overall jumper still seems at least partly burdened by the weight of the world. It’s clear it’s going to be a long time before he’s even comfortable shooting on a consistent basis -- let alone effective -- if ever even gets to either. Without a reliable jump shot, Markelle’s potential for being Evan Turner will always remain high.
His stuff that worked in college doesn’t necessarily work in the pros.
You saw the thought practically tattooed across Evan’s furrowed brow from his very first games with the Sixers: Hm, that used to work. His variety of shot-fakes, swoop dribbles and mini-crossovers that used to get him the space needed for clean jumpers at Ohio State didn’t clear as much room against the size, length and speed of the NBA, and while his own size, length and speed was enough to get him by against the wing defenders of the Big Ten, even against the Orlando Summer League, his natural gifts weren’t quite so advantageous. The results were a lot of stilted drives, a lot of semi-forced turnovers, and a lot of blocked shots.
Markelle Fultz frequently finds himself in a similar quandary as a pro. Like Turner, he’s had to rely more on his craftiness -- which, while occasionally imaginative, isn’t quite enough yet to avoid a similar combination of drives going nowhere, coughed-up dribbles and general misery around the basket. The spin move is nice, but only occasionally does it seem to actually result in him scoring or playmaking -- too often, what he spins into is just as precarious as what he’s spinning out of. It’s a steep learning curve as a pro, and without blow-by athleticism, a reliable jumper, or the ability to consistently draw fouls, it’s especially hard on players like Turner and Fultz.
He lacks an easily defined elite skill.
The thing that perhaps should have set off alarms for drafting Turner in 2010 was the fact that, for all his production at Ohio State, there wasn’t one thing you could really point to as the thing he’d definitely be able to do at a high level in the pros. He was a solid handler and shot-maker but he wasn’t Kyrie Irving, he was a good passer but he wasn’t Ben Simmons, he was a good rebounder for a wing but really how much do you need rebounding from your wings, anyway? John Wall, taken a spot before Turner that year at No. 1, was an absolutely elite athlete, likely an elite passer and finisher, and potentially even an elite defender. Turner just seemed like he’d be pretty good at everything, which is a dangerous thing to bet on in the NBA without a guaranteed top-tier skill to fall back on.
And now with Fultz, even in a best-case scenario, it’s hard to point to what that top skill would be that guarantees him a long, effective NBA career. He might’ve seemed to be an elite shotmaker at Washington but that’s clearly a long way from where he is currently, and while his distributing is often impressive, it’s hardly undeniable, either -- he’s only averaging about five assists per 36 minutes currently. He’s not a turnover-creating terror on the other end, he’s not a blinding end-to-end speedster in transition -- he doesn’t even rebound as well as Turner did. So without that one obvious elite skill, he’s got to be pretty good at everything to be of use, and that’s a big ask for a guy that’s not currently very good at much.
You feel yourself reading too much into the positive moments to make up for their overall paucity.
This is personal and anecdotal, obviously, but it’s the thing Spike brought up with his comparison a couple weeks ago that really served as the proverbial Kinetic Footwear to the groin. Recovering Turner addicts will of course remember that first high of the crossover against Dwyane Wade in his Sixers debut at Wells Fargo Center, talking ourselves into that being his AI-over-Jordan moment, clinging to that memory as he went scoreless six times across the 23 games that followed. There were other flashbulb moments like that in ET’s early career -- the dunks, the game-winners, the alley-oops -- that we let ourselves get unnaturally excited about. But the problem was that at the end of the homestand, they were always wildly outnumbered by the clanked jumpers, the careless turnovers, the poor closeouts. You hung onto these moments so tight because so often that was all there was worth hanging onto.
And yeah, it’s hard to say we’re not now doing the same with Markelle. The dunks in transition, the good passes to cutters, the handful of actually made threes -- we celebrate them all like they’re the Rock the Baby dunk, because they’re such a relief from the tentative paint forays, the pull-ups off the front rim and the whatever this shot was, and because we don’t know how long it’ll be before we get the next one. It’s better to have the few-and-far-between highlights then no highlights at all, of course, but sometimes we can confuse them for actual overall production -- or worse, straight-line player evolution and improvement -- and that can be a very dark and dangerous path to go down with players such as Fultz.
MARKELLE FULTZ IS *NOT* EVAN TURNER
There is some legitimate explosiveness.
Even with ET’s handful of highlight plays in his first season or so, I can’t remember a ton -- maybe any -- that actually made me go, “Whoa, he can actually do that?” His body wasn’t necessarily Okafor-esque in its ploddingness, and in the open court he could build up enough steam to maybe look slightly imposing, but he never really moved impressively; you could always see what he was going to do as he was doing it. Ultimately, his athleticism was about on par with that of Nik Stauskas -- it wasn’t going to inherently prevent him from being an effective pro, but it wasn’t going to give him very much help either.
Markelle, on the other hand, is legitimately impressive in bursts. He’s already perfected the art of the chasedown block, sizing up opposing drivers as they cross the three-point line, laying back as they slip into a false sense of security, and then exploding for the block seemingly out of nowhere -- it’s a very random skill for a young player to have, but one for which Turner had no real equivalent. We’ve seen it on the offensive end, too, when he takes off for a one-handed slam from eight feet out or accelerates past the outstretched help of the gigantic Boban Marjanovic. It’s not jaw-dropping, it’s not superhuman, but it’s enough to give you a second’s pause and go, “Huh, I wonder what it’d be like if his entire game was played that way.” There’s hope in that, in a way there wasn’t with Evan.
He’s had stretches of being an effective, tenacious defender.
If they erected a statue of Evan Turner outside the WFC, the bronzed image would be of Turner lunging off-balance with arms outstretched at a shooter pulling up from beyond the arc, having just died on a screen seconds earlier. He wasn’t an Okafor-sized liability; defense just wasn’t Evan’s thing. He had the size but not the length, the strength but not the drive. His rebounding helped, as did frequently being paired with Iguodala on the wing, but there weren’t many sequences when Turner impressed on defense, and they were wildly outnumbered by those where he was eye-roll-worthy.
The same could’ve been said for Fultz for the first eight games of this season -- he was easily out-muscled or out-maneuvered on defense, and was constantly baited into fouls. His overall impact was just kinda soft. But a switch seemed to flip for him against the Clippers, and all of a sudden he was staying step-for-step with Lou Williams -- one of the league’s toughest covers -- while cutting off driving angles, fighting through screens, and not bailing anyone out with fouls. He was similarly effective on D against Detroit over the weekend, and while it still remains to be seen if he can do it consistently against the highest competition, it’s already basically more than we ever saw from Evan -- and offers a defense-first mentality he can embrace to make himself useful to the Sixers even as he struggles to round out his offensive game.
He’s under-confident, rather than over-confident.
Perhaps there was an early period of bashfulness whose memory has since eluded me, but as far as I can remember, wishing he could be more assertive was not an issue I ever had with Evan Turner. ET always seemed to believe that he was the same guy he was at Ohio State, never stopped being The Villain in his own mind. Even today, if you were to ask him if he was disappointed in how his pro career turned out, he’d probably look at you like he had absolutely no clue what you were talking about. He always wanted the ball with ten seconds left and the game on the line, even if or when his coaches and teammates were reticent to put it in his hands.
Fultz, however, would probably rather abdicate such responsibilities to his teammates for the time being, happily passing out of shots whenever possible and only pulling up when actively dared to. He’s actually shooting more often per 36 minutes than Turner did early in his career, partly because he usually is the team’s primary ball-handler when on the court, and because defenders are playing so far off him that often he has no choice but to shoot. But Fultz simply doesn’t seem ready for shot-making in pressure situations -- and Brett Brown certainly seems to agree with that, since he’s yet to put Fultz on the floor in a crunch-time situation.
Is Fultz’s insecurity inherently a better thing for a prospect than Turner’s supreme self-belief? No, but it does suggest greater room for improvement, and presumably, confidence is something that can legitimately be helped by accrued NBA experience. And given that Fultz has seemed to generally play better when he’s looked more self-assured, there’s reason to be slightly hopeful there. (Of course, perhaps the biggest reason he’s underconfident is that he mysteriously lost one of his signature skills before his rookie year, but that doesn’t seem worth dwelling on particularly here.)
He’s only 20.
For me, this is probably the most concrete thing you can point to when discussing the potentially different trajectories for Turner and Fultz. Part of the reason that the former was so disappointing in his first couple seasons as a pro was because he was sold to fans as a readymade near-star, a three-year guy at Ohio State who turned 22 the night of his NBA debut. It was harder to buy into the idea of Turner being a raw talent that just needed NBA refinement because he was already pretty old for a rookie; if he still wasn’t anywhere near ready to contribute as a pro, it seemed unlikely stardom would be in the cards for him at any time later.
However, despite this already technically being his second NBA season, Fultz is still just 20 years old, with only 25 games of (largely tumultuous) NBA experience under his belt. It’s rare that players of Fultz’s age and experience are effective NBA pros; yes, Jayson Tatum was in last year’s playoffs, but that was an extreme case, and anyway his stats are pretty back down to earth this regular season. Fultz should be further along than this, sure, but for a player like him to struggle is hardly unprecedented, hardly a death sentence. He might still end up being Evan Turner when all is said and done, but he certainly doesn’t have to be, and for now that might be enough.