How Evan Turner got his hoops mojo back

AP Photo/Charles Krupa

WALTHAM, Mass. -- The 2013-14 season left a bitter taste in Evan Turner's mouth.

The Philadelphia 76ers, the team that had made him the No. 2 pick in the 2010 draft and enjoyed a sustained playoff run two seasons earlier, had gone into full-blown tank mode that season. Turner got shipped to the Indiana Pacers at February's trade deadline and appeared in 39 forgettable games while playing sparingly in the playoffs. Still, Turner drew heavy criticism for disrupting Indiana's chemistry and for being a nonfactor in the postseason.

Not surprisingly, the Pacers declined to extend an $8.7 million qualifying offer to Turner that summer, making him an unrestricted free agent. Turner, burdened by the lingering expectations of his draft position and stung by the Indiana experience, admitted he was "leery of basketball." His agent helped steer him to Boston, where coach Brad Stevens had already developed a reputation for getting the most out of his players, having turned Jordan Crawford into a player of the week-winning ball handler during his first season on Boston's bench.

The Celtics signed Turner to a modest two-year, $6.7 million contract and Stevens pledged to accentuate his strengths. In a season in which the Celtics traded away Rajon Rondo and brought rookie Marcus Smart along slowly on the offensive end, Turner emerged as the primary ball handler. He appeared in all 82 games -- starting 57 -- and produced a string of late-season triple-doubles that left many wondering if Turner was Boston's MVP last season.

A little more than a year removed from basketball purgatory, Turner is all smiles. He's rekindled his love of basketball in Boston.

"It's not that I lost a little confidence. It was just being irritated and tired of stuff -- a lot of stuff that occurred and a lot of negativity," Turner said. "I had to take a step back and realize how blessed I am and it's never that bad. When it came to basketball, if you love it so much, and there's so much negativity around it, sometimes that's the furthest place you want to be. I've had fun [in Boston] and I'm still having fun and it's a great time."

Turner didn't pinpoint the Pacers experience as the root of his anger, but he didn't have to. He gushed about the early part of his career in Philadelphia and glowed about Boston's surge to the postseason last season. The Celtics identified that Turner thrived with the ball in his hands and often paired him on the floor with Smart after the Rondo trade in December. But Turner was ultimately a jack-of-all-trades and he averaged a modest 9.5 points, 5.5 assists and 5.1 rebounds over 27.6 minutes per game.

Asked if it was his best season as a pro, Turner pondered a moment before replying, "I think all-around, maybe. I had some pretty good years prior ... But I think this was my most happiest year because I think, mentally and stuff, as a unit, we saw a season all the way through. I thought that was the coolest thing about it. We traded people like three or four times and we still made the playoffs and we were still able to join together and do some amazing things. I think that's my best year from that standpoint."

The Celtics actually made a total of 11 trades and carried 41 roster players overall last season. But Turner's role never really changed throughout the chaos and Stevens felt comfortable leaning on the versatile swingman at multiple positions.

“I think the biggest thing -- there's multiple things that stand out about Evan -- and people will certainly look at his game and say it may not be the traditional or typical now for an NBA wing," Stevens said. "The guy loves basketball, he makes good plays, and he brings it every day. He's a reliable guy to have on your team."

The question facing Turner entering the 2015-16 season is whether he'll maintain such a robust role. The Celtics worked Smart at point guard during summer league and seem ready to toss him the point guard keys. Boston also re-signed Jae Crowder to a five-year, $35 million contract and he had elevated to starting small forward by the end of Boston's brief postseason appearance last spring.

Turner, a career 31.5 percent 3-point shooter, does much of his damage in the midrange and that runs counter to what might be ideal in Stevens' pace-and-space system. So where exactly does Turner fit this season?

"Same place that I saw him fitting in last year: He's a basketball player," Stevens said. "And I anticipate he'll find the court a lot and in big moments because he's a basketball player."

Indeed, Turner had a knack for big late-game plays (his last-second 3-pointer in Portland in late January might have kick-started Boston's turnaround). Turner produced three triple-doubles after Feb. 25 -- helping Boston to three wins on its road to earning the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference.

"Last year was a great fit, obviously," Turner said. "I thought I was getting better through each game, and when you get minutes and you get an opportunity to play, things are completely different. There's a lot of times when guys in this league can make something happen with great rhythm and being utilized the right way."

And it helped to have Stevens' support.

"It's cool, man. I think in the league there's going to be three or four superstars and then the rest of the players, to a certain extent, are only as good as the coach thinks," Turner said. "I think, obviously, as long as you come in and you play hard and you are there for your teammates, I think he'll respect that. I think he gives us all confidence and [has] done a lot for all of us."

Some have wondered if Turner's job is secure this season. Boston has 16 guaranteed contracts and must trim down at least one player before the start of the season. Working in Turner's favor: Boston is overstocked up front and is thinner at the positions he plays. Working against him: The Celtics acquired versatile big man Perry Jones this summer and are giving him every chance to prove he deserves a roster spot.

But you get the sense from team brass that, while Turner defies the conventional, the Celtics like what he showed last season. Stevens, in particular, has a fondness for versatile players who can be called on in different spots. Turner's ability to create off the dribble and rise in crunch-time situations makes him more valuable than maybe is obvious at first blush.

Turner, playing in a contract year, acknowledged that nothing is certain moving forward.

"I'm not a GM. Honestly, I don't look past -- what time is it, 4 o'clock or 4:30? -- I don't look to 4:31, you know what I'm saying?" said Turner. "I just go with the motion. Even Kareem Abdul-Jabbar got traded. It is what it is. I don't really take it like that. I would definitely love to stay here, but teams have to make sense. [Celtics president of basketball operations] Danny [Ainge] has to do what's best for the organization and we'll leave it at that."

Until told otherwise, Turner is going to keep enjoying his time in Boston, the city that rekindled his love of basketball.

"I like Boston. I like the city and the restaurants are pretty good, too," he said. "I like Boston. I genuinely would like to stay here. It's not like none of that nonsense, because I've been places where I hated."

Added Turner: "I enjoy coming to the gym again. I enjoy just being here. It's cool, it's fun."