Turner transformed his game to become difference-maker for Celtics

WALTHAM, Mass. -- It should have been a badge of honor, not an emblem of shame. Evan Turner, the No. 2 pick in the NBA draft, was supposed to be celebrated, not derided.

"It's what you work your whole life for, you know?" Turner said.

His lofty draft status with the Philadelphia 76ers earned him millions of dollars and thousands of headaches. Turner was a decorated player but not a transcendent one, a solid rebounder but an erratic scorer. He was set up to be a savior but departed as a colossal disappointment.

"I didn't come out and average 25 [points a game], and that was a problem," he explained.

Turner's tenure in Philadelphia was so rugged that fans followed him to his car after games screeching, "Get lost, we don't want you!" and heckling him with chants of "Bust, bust, bust!" They expected a superstar and wouldn't forgive him when he didn't deliver.

"There was no sympathy," confirmed former Sixers president Rod Thorn.

Last summer, after 3½ uneven seasons in Philadelphia and a brief, disappointing stint with Indiana, Turner rightfully wondered what options he had left.

He memorized the knocks on him: can't shoot, too thin-skinned, inconsistent defensively, unwilling to upgrade his conditioning.

Turner needed someone to give him a chance, and Celtics vice president of basketball operations Danny Ainge happily obliged.

"I didn't even feel like we were taking a chance," Ainge insisted. "I felt Evan was a good player, especially if he was utilized in a certain way.

"He's not a poster child for the 1, 2 or 3, yet he can play any of those positions, and can guard any of those positions.

"His versatility and his IQ were his greatest strengths."

Eight months after his summer of discontent, Turner is in the playoffs with the Boston Celtics, an everyman starter and a leader for a young, upstart team.

He has reinvented himself by quelling the negative perceptions that had been pinned on him, some unjustly.

"I think Evan is misunderstood," offered Sixers coach Brett Brown. "First of all, he loves the game. He studies it, watches it. He wants to get better.

"But he got confused. He was asking himself, 'Why am I not better than everybody thought I'd be?' He was searching for answers.

"The weight of expectation, coupled with the city of Philadelphia, which is pretty unforgiving, that's hard to recover from."

Turner's career has been reborn under the tutelage of coach Brad Stevens, who handed him the ball and told him, "I don't care what you can't do. Show me what you can do." No one in Boston expected 25 points a night. The team just wanted him to share the ball and play the right way.

Turner has registered three triple-doubles this season, joining a small, elite group of Celtics who have accomplished that feat: Larry Bird, Antoine Walker, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo.

He also joins Bird, Pierce, Walker, Rondo, Bob Cousy, John Havlicek, Bill Russell and Jo Jo White as Celtics who have posted at least 400 rebounds and 400 assists in a season.

"We felt the prescription for restoring his credibility in the league was to find a place where he'd be happy playing again," said his agent, David Falk. "Boston has been that place. Brad Stevens understands Evan's psyche. He's self-critical, so you don't need to yell and scream at him. Just encourage him and he'll respond."

Turner has averaged 8.3 assists in the month of April, gladly operating as a playmaker so rookie Marcus Smart and wing player Avery Bradley can thrive off the ball.

Although his shooting percentages remain dismal (a career 3-point mark of 31.6 percent and a field goal percentage hovering around 44 percent), he has exhibited a willingness to hit and a knack for hitting big shots in clutch situations.

"I know everyone downplays the midrange shot, but there's so many possessions when you need a shot like that," Ainge said. "And Evan has the ability to create it."

Turner believed his skills would translate into a golden, perhaps even career-saving opportunity with the Pacers last spring. Turner was a late add to a tight-knit team that had championship aspirations. He battled for minutes with Lance Stephenson, an impending free agent, and lost. Stephenson didn't conceal his displeasure with Turner's presence (and the insinuation that he would replace him if he left). Turner tried too hard to fit in and tried to do too much in the limited minutes he was given.

Even so, Pacers president Bird was sorry to see Turner go.

"Evan Turner is one helluva basketball player," Bird declared. "Every team needs a guy like him.

"He does a little bit of everything. He can play multiple positions, and he can make a play at the end of the game, whether it's him shooting it or passing it.

"It just wasn't a good fit for him here. The timing was a little tough. It had nothing to do with him -- it wasn't his fault." When the season ended, Turner circled back around to Brett Brown to ask for some blunt analysis from his former coach. Get lean, Brown implored him. Improve your 3-point shooting. Stop pressing and trying to make too much happen. Commit to the defensive end.

"I believe in him," Brown said. "He could take me getting stuck into him when I thought he was being a poor defender, when I was harping on him to move his feet. There was a toughness there that I liked and I wanted to see more of.

"After saying all that, I looked across and I saw someone who wants to be coached, who wants to make it right."

Turner fielded a number of interesting calls last summer, including ones from Heat president Pat Riley and Knicks president Phil Jackson. Both expressed interest, yet New York was waiting on other prospects it had rated ahead of Turner. Riley inquired about what went wrong in Indiana and, according to Turner, quipped, "Whatever happened there, it means your legs are rested."

Boston made sense because Stevens, who had been tracking Turner since his Ohio State days, believed the way to get the most out of Turner's abilities was to give him the ball and allow him to create.

That decision changed everything.

Turner said one of the biggest drawbacks of his tenure in Philadelphia was the team's insistence on playing him off the ball.

"When I got there, they tried to transform me into a spot-up shooter, which I had never been a day in my life," Turner said. "I was completely out of my element."

In his rookie season, Turner struggled and eventually lost his starting job to shooter Jody Meeks. His relationship with Collins was volatile. Thorn served as an intermediary and encouraged Turner to bolster his defense as a way of getting back into the rotation.

Thorn showed Turner how to lower his stance, fight harder to get over screens and hold his ground when players took him into the post. He also counseled him on maintaining his composure .

"Sometimes I've had moments of immaturity on big stages," Turner conceded. "I wear my emotions on my sleeve. I need to get better at that.

"But to this day, the one thing that bothers me, it bothers me so much, is the people who said I wasn't a winner -- that I didn't care about winning. You can say anything you want about me as a basketball player, but you don't know me as a person."

Turner claims winning matters so much to him that he got into a fistfight with his childhood friend over a Monopoly game this past fall. His Celtics teammates, he said, share that same edge and will be gunning to crease a wrinkle in Cleveland's championship plans when their first-round playoff series tips off Sunday (3 p.m., ABC).

"I feel so fortunate to have landed here," Turner said.

Turner said he slimmed down to 215 pounds, a full 15 pounds lighter than the weight he carried in Philadelphia. He acknowledges it was one of the very things Collins had nagged him about nearly four seasons ago.

"Doug always meant well," Turner said. "He knows a ton about the game, that's for sure. He's a very competitive guy.

"And, I think, he was a little like me in terms of being very emotional. Honestly, I think he just got tired of answering questions about me. I got tired of it my damn self."

Collins declined to be interviewed for this story.

Turner's defensive numbers have improved in Boston, but that doesn't stop Stevens from giving him the hook whenever Turner even contemplates letting up.

"He's proven he can be a good defensive player," Ainge said. "So if he doesn't defend, Brad pulls him and says, 'Hey wait, you've already shown your hand. We know you can do this.'"

There has been little drama surrounding Turner in Boston. His teammates have embraced him, and the fans have accepted him. He's so secure with his coach that, when he missed two free throws in a close game in Denver back in January, Turner joked that he clanged them because "I wanted to give [Stevens] some gray hair. He already looks like he's 15. I wanted him to be able to do bars and not get carded."

Turner's numbers for 2014-15 are modest yet meaningful: 9.5 points, 5.1 rebounds and 5.5 assists. He still turns the ball over too much (2.4 miscues a game) and his player efficiency rating is 12.88, well below the league average. His real plus-minus (minus-1.56) won't earn him any plaudits, but he has found his niche as a versatile performer in a league that can be very unforgiving. It isn't always pretty, but it's been effective.

"I think he understands what he needs to do now," Thorn said. "He's come to grips with it. Just fill the stat sheet up. It's not how many points you score -- it's all the other things you do that will get you minutes."

Thorn has delighted in watching Turner flourish in Boston. He took note the other night when his former No. 2 pick drove the lane, then dished off to Tyler Zeller for an easy no-look basket.

"He got down the middle and, rather than float up an off-balance shot, he got it to Zeller," Thorn said. "His shooting is always going to come and go, I suspect, but he's not afraid. There's no fear in him.

"When he plays with confidence, he can really impact a team."

The past needs to be forgotten because a glance back to those days is clearly counterproductive. Turner is feeling good about himself and his team, regardless of what the stat sheet says.

"There's a lot of truth to the idea that players' draft positions can have a negative impact," Ainge said. "But I feel once they re-establish themselves as a different player, and expectations are fair, that can be fixed.

"One of the reasons we signed Evan to a two-year contract is we wanted to give him a chance to settle back into the league. We thought that might take a little longer to find his place.

"We wanted to lower the expectations around the NBA so he could play and have fun again."

The game is back to being simple, Turner said. He is done trying to emulate someone else's idea of what he should be.

"I gotta stop thinking about being a former No. 2 pick and just be a basketball player," he said.