HITTING THE WALL

“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

– Ronald Reagan

While most historians argue that Reagan was referring to the Berlin Wall, not the rookie wall, when he issued this portentous edict, I think we can be certain the rookie wall is a barrier The Gipper would have opposed with equal verve and indignation.

As for the wall itself: Most rooks run smack into the monolith around midseason and stumble around woozily for a few weeks, before reorienting, regrouping, and riding a second-wind to a strong finish. Some never bounce back from the initial impact though and there’s always an immediate post-wall period –for even the most highly touted, bet-the-house, rooks — where no one knows which way the thing is going to go.

Evan Turner, in one of the most extraordinarily early onsets of rookie wall ever recorded, has just hit such a wall (He also started the season with a summer league wall, then hit another in the preseason. His career so far looks like a police academy obstacle course.).  It remains to be seen which group he belongs to.

What’s Eating Evan Turner?

After performing competently, if unevenly, in the early going, Turner has since stabilized his play and become reliably bad.  Since Nov. 24, the erstwhile Buckeye’s ridden the pine for all but 18.5 minutes a night and posted a meager 3 points, 1.3 assists, and 2.3 rebounds on 32% shooting in that time.  By Dec. 3, Doug Collins had seen enough and replaced the number two overall pick in the starting lineup with the 41st overall pick from the 2009 draft (and Meeks, if Saturday night is any indication, is not going to relinquish his new role anytime soon).

The main habit underpinning Turner’s struggles is his willingness to settle for jumpers.  58.1% of his shots have come from 10-23 feet out (compared to 33.3% for association swingmen) and 40.3% of his FGAs have come from between 16-23 feet –the least efficient shot in the game.  This is problematic for what it immediately leads to, missed shots (Turner has an adjusted FG% of 42.3, compared to the 48.2 of the average SF), as much as for what it doesn’t, drawn fouls (ET shoots 4.25 free-throws per 48 minutes, while the average SF shoots 5).

All this missing has also sapped his confidence.  Lately,  Turner’s stopped shooting altogether (he’s attempted only 22 FGs in 111 minutes since Nov. 24, about half as many as an average SG/SF would have attempted in that period) and in the interest of consistency, stopped rebounding and passing too.

He won’t take it inside, and his game is suffering for it.

This apparent contact aversion is especially bizarre in light of his biography.  Before he exited toddlerhood, Turner had survived chicken pox, pneumonia, asthma, the measles, and getting run over by a car. And when his testicles dropped his fortitude only rose.  Last year at OSU he broke two vertebrae in his back and missed all of a few games.  In short, this is one tough dude: He’s no creampuff, and given his success on the boards –and the athleticism and physicality that suggests– he’s not short on ability either.

So why the timidity?  I suspect it’s in part a matter of temperament.  While I’m loath to open up a can of pop-psychological pablum, I think much of Turner’s passivity stems from the fact that in a league of domineering, alpha-male, Johnny Swagger-cock, sociopathically confident mutants, it might take some time for a beta-male to feel comfortable asserting himself.  That aspect will settle itself though, I expect.  He’s talented enough that eventually his skills will say loud and clear what he won’t: Give me the ball and get out of the way.

There’s a second half to this equation though, and it’s the more disconcerting one.  The Sixers have on their hands a scaled down version of Miami’s Lebron/Wade conundrum: In Iguodala and Turner they have a pair of redundant parts vying to perform the same function.  And because Iguodala’s better (for the time being at least) and the coveted role is rightly his, Turner is left in the dark, trying to feel out where he fits.  So far he hasn’t found it (Iggy, despite apparently having “won” the tug of war, is struggling too: he’s below his career averages in FG%, FT%, and scoring). It’s difficult to be an effective player in this league when you don’t have a clearly defined set of responsibilities.  If two super-duper stars are struggling under similiar circumstances, what chance does a rookie have? 

This isn’t a problem to which easy solutions avail themselves either.  Iguodala is in his mid-twenties and is the best player on the team by a wide margin while Turner, despite his struggles, is the future. And In the five games Iguodala missed with tenderness in his ACL, Turner played his best basketball of the season.  With the benefit of regular minutes and assignment clarity, he averaged 12.8 points, 2.8 assists, and 9 rebounds per and led the 7-6 to a 2-3 record.  Take another look at that line.  A small sample size to be sure, but those are ROY numbers.

These guys are the two best things the Sixers have going, and they effectively negate one another.  Who do you move though?  And for what?

For the time being, neither.  The only real option for the Sixers is to do their best to coach up Turner, tolerate without accepting his growing pains, instill in him the necessary confidence to take the ball to the rack, and just deal with the diminished returns you get when two of your (putatively) best guys do the same things well.  Play the waiting game until somebody calls with an established young big and a hole at the three.  And when they do, listen.

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