Five nights into the NBA season, when the Pacers dismantled the Chicago Bulls, a number of Indiana players left their imprint on the contest.
Former Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon finished with 18 points and six assists. Two-time All-Star Victor Oladipo caught fire, going 5-for-5 from deep en route to 22 points. Domantas Sabonis, an All-Star himself, logged 22 points of his own and had a triple-double. Swingman T.J. Warren, continuing his NBA bubble-based flamethrowing, managed to outscore everyone, logging a game-high 23 points.
What makes LeBron James so great | FiveThirtyEight
Far less distinguishable in the lopsided box score that evening was center Myles Turner, who tallied 9 points, five rebounds and one assist on 4-for-8 shooting — a performance that wasn’t all that far off from his seasonlong averages of 13.7 points, 6.7 boards and 1.1 assists on 51 percent shooting from the field. And a closer look at Turner’s metrics shows that his statistics this year are near-carbon copies of his four prior seasons, a span in which he averaged 13.2 points, 6.9 rebounds and 1.3 dimes on 49 percent shooting.
The 24-year-old’s numbers haven’t budged, showing a Gorilla Glue-style consistency from one year to the next. While that could be spun as a negative — teams clearly prefer when young players improve their scoring by leaps and bounds, like Jerami Grant or Christian Wood — there’s evidence that Turner’s game has evolved immensely, even as his counting statistics have hardened in historic fashion.
Among NBA players who had logged at least five seasons by the age of 25,1 Turner’s total year-over-year “movement” in points, rebounds and assists per game is tied with Greg Monroe for the second-lowest of any player in a five-year span in modern NBA history.2 (We measured a player’s “movement” by adding together the absolute value of change in each per-game statistic from year to year.)
In that sense, Turner is a bit like basketball’s version of Khris Davis, the Texas Rangers slugger who once hit exactly .247 in four consecutive seasons. But while Davis’s reaction to his lack of year-to-year change was largely sanguine, Turner objects to the implication that his game hasn’t evolved.
“If people are going to judge me on my numbers and not watch how I’m performing on the floor, I think they’re doing themselves a disservice. You can deep-dive all you want, but it doesn’t fully translate,” Turner said. “I’ve grown on both ends, year in, year out.”
Turner’s claim that he’s more than just his box score is undeniable. Take that blowout win over the Bulls back in December. He managed to swat four shots, including two in the first five minutes of the game, but the full story went deeper. Chicago, which shot a season-worst 37.4 percent from the field that evening, never found a rhythm from close range when Turner was nearby.
After the first two swats, players grew more mindful of Turner’s presence. Both Tomáš Satoranský and Coby White dished the ball off quickly to teammates mid-drive after seeing Turner step up to protect the paint. In another situation, Turner’s presence changed a shot from White, who lofted an awkward runner a tick or two earlier than he otherwise would have, prompting a miss from the second-year guard.
At 57.9 percent from inside the paint, the Bulls have been one of the NBA’s most efficient teams from that part of the floor this season. But against Indiana, they connected on just 31.8 percent, or 7-for-22, of their shots from the paint with the rangy, hawk-like Turner on the court. (Further highlighting Turner’s impact: Chicago shot far better, 10-for-20, in the paint that night when Turner was off the floor.) Aside from making the close-range shots more challenging, he also forced players to make kick-out passes that took the Bulls out of prime scoring range. On some level, this explains how Turner finished that game as a plus-15 in plus-minus without having monster box-score stats.
The outing was far from an outlier. Much like they did with Roy Hibbert before, the Pacers’ guards funnel opposing ball-handlers into the lane, allowing them to challenge Turner at the rim. They aren’t shy about the strategy: Indiana allows more drives to the basket per 100 possessions and more close-range attempts than any team. Yet the Pacers are also the best at stopping those point-blank looks. And Turner, an early Defensive Player of the Year candidate who averages an NBA-best 3.6 blocks per game, can single-handedly take credit for the elite goalkeeping.
So far, Turner has held opponents 16.5 percentage points beneath their averages when shooting from within 6 feet of the rim, second among players who defend at least four such shots per game, according to NBA tracking data.3 And in a sign that points to his evolution, this is the third year in a row he’s improved in the metric. After holding foes 4.5 percentage points below their normal shooting averages around the cup in 2017-18, he held them 8 points below their average in 2018-19, and then kept them 10.9 points under that threshold in 2019-20, per NBA Stats.
Taking advanced metrics like those into account, Turner’s defensive contributions stand out far more than his traditional offensive numbers do. FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR metric — which leans on a high-level combination of box score metrics, tracking data and plus-minus — has the Indiana big man rated as the league’s second-most impactful defender this season, behind center Clint Capela.
None of this even touches on the refinements Turner has made on the offensive side of the ball over time.
Most noteworthy: The 6-foot-11 big man, who used to take 97 percent of his shots from 2-point range, now takes almost half his attempts from behind the 3-point arc, giving his team more space to operate within. He appears to have a greater awareness of when to run from one rim to the other in transition, versus when it’s better to fan out to the corner in those situations. And heading into Wednesday night’s games, he was taking a bigger chunk of his threes from the corner, where he’s shooting a respectable 38 percent.
A mere box score wouldn’t explain the context behind these shifts: That Turner has been a part of three largely different regimes, from the one with Paul George, to Oladipo, and now with Sabonis. Or that there have been serious questions about whether Turner and Sabonis fit together dating back to 2017-18, when the Pacers got drilled by 8.7 points per 100 possessions in the 270 minutes the duo shared on court together.4
First-year coach Nate Bjorkgren, who came over to the club as an assistant from the Toronto Raptors — a team that frequently played two bigs at once — has quickly altered the dynamics of the Pacers’ offense. Much of Bjorkgren’s attack is predicated on being able to play the two bigs together. Where former coach Nate McMillan embraced taking quick, midrange shots if they were left open, Bjorkgren has encouraged his players to pull the trigger from outside far more often. And in Turner’s case, being more comfortable from the perimeter allows more breathing room for dribble-handoffs and playmaking chances with the ascendant Sabonis, a screen machine who operates from the same elbow area that Turner once occupied.
Even if box scores fail to capture the tweaks and triumphs Turner has made in his game, that doesn’t mean there aren’t clear areas for improvement still. If Sabonis shines as a passer, Turner’s passing represents something far more dull, where logging a 1:1 assist-to-turnover ratio would be a positive development.5 At the same time, the Pacers certainly won’t complain about his 62.2 percent true-shooting mark so far — fueled by vastly improved 2-point shooting — which is the best of Turner’s career by a sizable margin.
From where Turner sits, he doesn’t mind if the most widely used numbers paint him as static. He sees a downside in trying to change them. “If you start looking at your numbers and stuff as a player, you start getting in your own head and maybe start doing things that are out of character that your team doesn’t need you to do,” he said. “As long as my numbers translate to winning, that’s all I care about.”
Neil Paine contributed research.