WALTHAM, Mass. -- Evan Turner is admittedly intrigued by his impending foray into unrestricted free agency, but he's not necessarily excited. If he had his druthers, he would simply sign somewhere on July 1 and be done with it. It won't be that simple, particularly if Turner gives strong consideration to returning to Boston, and he might have to exercise some patience with the process.
But there is one thing that Turner is sure of with free agency: "It's going to be way better than two years ago, right?" he deadpanned.
Two years ago, Turner barely registered on the free-agency radar. The former No. 2 pick had been dealt to the Indiana Pacers at the 2014 trade deadline, but the top-seeded Pacers bowed out in the Eastern Conference finals and Turner was criticized for being unable to make an impact.
Turner waited nearly three weeks into free agency in the summer of 2014 before the Celtics signed him to a modest two-year, $6.7 million contract.
With virtually no expectations on a rebuilding Boston squad, Turner emerged as an invaluable Swiss Army knife that coach Brad Stevens could rely on in myriad roles. Turner might have even been the team's MVP during the 2014-15 campaign (even if it was Isaiah Thomas' midseason arrival that ultimately boosted Boston into the playoffs).
The Celtics wouldn't have been nearly as successful this past season without Turner's presence. The 27-year-old swingman averaged 10.5 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 4.4 assists during the 2015-16 season. He spent most of the season in a reserve role and finished fifth in the voting for Sixth Man of the Year. Turner eventually elevated to a starting role in the postseason -- helping Boston produce its two playoff wins -- while providing balanced contributions.
Turner is set to be Boston's only true unrestricted free agent this summer, assuming the team extends qualifying offers to big men Jared Sullinger and Tyler Zeller. Turner knows there is definite interest from the Celtics in bringing him back, and he's absolutely intrigued by sticking around, but Boston's more pressing needs are likely to put Turner on the back burner on July 1.
"Coach [Stevens] definitely said [he wants me back]," said Turner. "He said he’ll be pushing for me and everything like that. And that’s pretty much it. But there’s a lot of stuff that’s going on right now. I understand it. And I understand what’s going to occur, with the draft picks and the young guys trying to develop and trying to get a superstar, stuff like that. I definitely comprehend it."
After going through exit interviews with Celtics brass on Friday, Turner said that a winning organization is at the top of his offseason wish list. He said "money's cool" but he prefers a situation where he can play and compete for a title.
The Celtics will not have the luxury of full Bird Rights to sign Turner this summer (the more limited Early Bird rights are unlikely to be enough to meet Turner's price on the open market and the Celtics would have to use an exception or available cap space). That means the team is likely to chase the bigger fish in the free-agency pond before circling back to him. It's likely the team will stress their interest and hope Turner remains patient. Just how much they can spend -- and the role they can offer -- will hinge on the moves made at the start of free agency.
Stevens has expressed a sincere fondness for Turner and the flexibility he affords with his skill set. Turner gives his teams an extra ball-handler, a skilled scorer who can create off the dribble, and has improved his defense to where Stevens could trust him against most bigger guards or smaller forwards.
"I can’t imagine anybody being more valuable off the bench than Evan," said Stevens. "He’s been extremely valuable. He guards three positions a night, sometimes four positions. Obviously we have him with the ball all the time. He’s just had a great year and really impacted us in the last two years."
Turner struggled mightily with his 3-point shot before the All-Star break this season (shooting 14.5 percent and often joking about those woes) then was one of the most efficient shooters in the league beyond the arc after the break while shooting 52.4 percent (largely while sticking to his corner sweetspot and limiting his attempts).
The Celtics had a defensive rating of 100 with Turner on the floor, the best mark on the team of the seven Celtics players who logged at least 1,400 minutes. In the postseason, Turner held the Hawks to 32.4 percent shooting in six playoff games (24 of 74). Even during the regular season, his opponents shot just 42.4 percent, or 1.2 percent below their season average, according to the NBA's player-tracking data.
Turner takes pride in his improvements as a defender. On Friday he said, "I’ve had moments where I felt like I was being picked on, early in my career, and now I somewhat feel confident versus any offensive player, to guard them. ... Whatever it takes to stay on the floor, it’s the most important thing. You never want to be a liability."
If Celtics reporters had their way, we'd pitch in and fund a (very tiny) portion of Turner's next contract. Turner received the first annual Jeff Twiss Award from the Boston chapter of the Pro Basketball Writers Association for his cooperation with the media. Turner was always available, win or lose, and never gave stock answers. Turner is one of the most quotable players in the league and mixed humor with unvarnished opinions.
Probed about his impending free agency on Friday, Turner noted he doesn't like to fly, so he's not planning any sort of league-wide trek to meet with interested teams. And he's not obsessing about how things will ultimately play out.
"I don't really know what I think about during the day, but it's not [free agency]," said Turner. "It'll be cool. Once again, I'll stay out of trouble until then, and try to keep bettering myself and growing."