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Ball Don't Lie

Doug Collins’ search for ways to ‘unlock’ Evan Turner has turned spiritual, fictional, ‘Fresh Prince’-ual

Dan Devine
Ball Don't Lie

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Doug Collins won't be smiling when he realizes Will Smith isn't *actually* Bagger Vance.

With incumbent small forward Andre Iguodala off to Denver, a starting swing spot open and plenty of playing time available, Philadelphia 76ers fans entered the season hopeful that young forward Evan Turner — the 2010 National Player of the Year at Ohio State and the 2010 NBA draft's No. 2 overall pick — would take a great leap forward in his third NBA season. But through two games — which, if Los Angeles Lakers fans have taught us anything, is a sample size more than large enough to justify panic — Philly's new starting three has struggled quite a bit.

Turner has missed 12 of his 16 field goal attempts on the young season, turning it over on nearly 21 percent of his plays and scoring only 16 points in just under 66 minutes of work. Philadunkia's Tom Sunnergren termed Turner's first game of the season "a dud [in which he] disappeared for stretches," and Andrew Unterberger of The Basketball Jones called the performance that Turner and teammate Nick Young turned in against the New York Knicks on Sunday "some of the most hideous wing play you'll ever see on a basketball court." If the likes of us bloggin' types are seeing the slow start, then it stands to reason that Sixers coach Doug Collins is aware of it, too.

Collins has spent the past two seasons trying to figure out how to translate the jack-of-all-trades game that Turner showcased in college to the pro level, and has mostly been unsuccessful. But the coach isn't licked yet — he might not be the biggest fan of advanced statistics, but he does, apparently, find value in coaching resources perhaps even more arcane and surprising. Like, for example, film adaptations of novels about golf loosely based on the Bhagavad Gita. From John Finger of CSNPhilly.com:

A couple of weeks ago, Sixers coach Doug Collins was watching the movie "The Legend of Bagger Vance" and it immediately put his mind in motion.

Collins thought, what if he could mentor third-year guard Evan Turner and help him get "unlocked" the way Will Smith's character, Bagger Vance, worked with golfer Rannulph Junuh, played by Matt Damon.

Once a great golfer, Junuh returned home to Georgia from World War I only to suffer from post-war stress. Only when Junuh returned to playing golf with Bagger Vance, honing his mental game, could he again regain his personal glory.

Now this isn't to say Turner is a down-and-out basketball pro in need of Svengali pulling the strings behind the scenes, but going into his third year as an NBA player, the former No. 2 overall pick has only shown glimpses of his potential.

First off, color me very, very surprised to learn that Matt Damon's character was actually named "Rannulph". Over the dozen years since this movie was released, I have lived under the assumption that Junuh's name was "Randolph," because that is, y'know, a name. Apparently, Mr. Junuh's fictional folks were ahead of their time in the "Let's Give Our Kid The Kind Of Name He Will Have To Explain Forever" department. They would have fit in well in the modern day, an era of Bronx Mowglis, Moxie CrimeFighters and Pilot Inspektors. They could have hit it big, child-humiliation-wise!

Back to basketball, though: While it's arguably the most troubling estimation thus far of Turner's stalled development that his coach watched a movie about a man suffering from shell shock and thought, "Hey, just like the 24-year-old millionaire I work with," there might actually be something to this.

For starters, obviously, Collins actually has access to Smith, who played the (somewhat problematically) magical Bagger in the 2000 film and last year became part of the Sixers' new ownership group. If Collins is going to have any chance of getting Turner to buy into Bagger's message of finding peace, truth and identity in the oneness of the game, it'd be a good idea to consult Smith on his approach. Better yet, he could tap Smith himself to talk with E.T. — we already know that Turner thinks it's dope that the Fresh Prince owns part of the team, so it stands to reason that he'll be receptive to the lesson.

What lesson, exactly? The idea at the heart of the "unlocking" in the film (and the 1995 novel from which it was adapted) is that in order for our hero Rannulph to re-become the golfer and human he was meant to be, he has to rediscover his "authentic swing," that unique approach and gift that lives within each and every one of us. We'll let Bagger tell you about it:

During his All-American junior season at Ohio State, Turner used about one-third of the Buckeyes' possessions and flourished in the role of primary playmaker, assisting on 37.5 percent of his teammates' field goals, averaging a shade over six assists per 36 minutes and showing an understanding of when it was time to facilitate and when it was time to press the action in search of his own offense. He wasn't lightning quick, but he could penetrate; he wasn't a knockdown shooter, but he could hit an open jumper; he didn't have blazing speed, but he could find seams and openings in transition.

Then, he came to the pros, into a team where Iguodala and point guard Jrue Holiday were already established offensive initiators, and he was pushed into an awkward off-the-ball role in which he could do hardly anything of the things he was good at, was primarily asked to do the things he wasn't good at, and forced to make his primary contributions as a defender (which he also didn't do so well) and rebounder (which he did, and continues to do, well). Entering his sophomore season, Turner worked to rebuild a subpar shooting stroke with an eye on becoming the kind of catch-and-shoot contributor who could help space the floor alongside Iguodala and Holiday, but his midrange improvement was mitigated by a further dip from beyond the arc.

He kept rebounding well and working hard on defense, but he often looked less like a player developing and honing his natural talents than like a guy trying to become somebody he isn't but thinks he has to be — a guy careening back and forth between a step too fast and a step too slow, hardly ever at the right pace. When Collins noted after Sunday's loss that Turner's "just not in a great rhythm," he was exactly right, but left unsaid was the larger point: "Like he's been for the better part of the last two years. Maybe you should try something else?"

Given the chance to see more of the ball, probe a defense and kick to some of the viable outside shooters his team added this offseason — especially in transition after clearing the defensive glass, which continues to be his lone top-flight talent on the wing — Turner might be able to rediscover that "authentic swing," giving Philly another on-ball playmaker who can compromise defenses and boost an offense that's averaging fewer than 90 points per 100 possessions so far (second-worst in the league, according to NBA.com's stat tool). I'm not sure Collins is comfortable enough with Turner's control of the game to let him take the reins of the offense more readily, but denying the player's nature doesn't seem to be working so hot so far, either. And since the Sixers seem like a team that'll only go as far as the core of Andrew Bynum, the recently re-upped Holiday and Turner will take them in the years ahead, letting him learn how to be himself again rather than trying to force him to be something he's not might be Philly's best bet on maximizing its sizable investment.

Hat-tip to Kurt Helin at ProBasketballTalk.

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