CHICAGO - At this time of the year, homecomings are about as customary as live, decorated Christmas trees filling front windows.
Getting to reunite with some family and friends is coming at the perfect time for 76ers rookie Evan Turner. The Chicago native, who grew up only 5 miles from the home of the Chicago Bulls and his idol, Michael Jordan, will play his first game as a pro at the United Center tonight at 8 as the hot Sixers (11-16) take on Turner's favorite childhood team.
If you talk history of the game with Turner, it pretty much begins and ends with Jordan. Like many others of his generation, Turner said he patterned his game after Jordan's, though his game became more comparable to that of Jordan's sidekick, Scottie Pippen.
He attended St. Joseph High School, the same school that produced Isiah Thomas and was chronicled in the movie "Hoop Dreams." What makes this homecoming even more special is that Turner will face Bulls point guard Derrick Rose, who also hails from Chicago and whose Simeon High School team beat Turner's in the state playoffs their senior years. Rose was named Illinois' Mr. Basketball, while Turner came in third.
Turner, of course, took his basketball talents to Ohio State, where he was named the national college player of the year after his junior season, while Rose played 1 year at Memphis with coach John Calipari, then bolted for the NBA, where he was the first overall pick in 2008. Last year, he was named to his first All-Star team.
After being taken by the Sixers with the second overall pick last summer, Turner has largely struggled with the pro game. A horrible showing, by his own admission, at the NBA Rookie League in Orlando in July startled Sixers fans - and Turner. He appeared slower than his days at Ohio State, not as fluid with his all-around game and lost at his new position of shooting guard.
Admittedly out of shape after months of inactivity for fear of injury before the draft, Turner seemed a jogger in the sprint that is the Summer League. Shots didn't fall, ballhandling was awkward, defense a step slow. His outside shooting, an area that was questionable to begin with, was bad, at best.
There were signs, at times, of the player he was at Ohio State. He rebounded very well, something that very often allowed him to start his own fastbreak when he was a Buckeye. Though his shot and handle were somewhere else, Turner did do enough to put up some points.
Then came training camp, where it became painfully obvious that if this kid was going to get meaningful minutes on coach Doug Collins' team, it would have to be at point guard. Only Collins had slotted 35 minutes a game to second-year guard Jrue Holiday.
For a stretch, when swingman Andre Iguodala missed time with a strained Achilles' tendon, Turner stepped into the starting lineup and produced. In five games with Iguodala sidelined, he averaged 12.8 points, 8.2 rebounds and shot 45 percent in 37 minutes. But when Iguodala returned, and the Sixers' play improved, Turner was taken out of the starting lineup, and now is pretty much out of the rotation altogether. He got his first DNP Friday night in a home loss to the Lakers, then played only 9 minutes in Saturday's win at Orlando. He has played more than 20 minutes only once in his last nine games, and is averaging only 2.9 points during that span.
He is at his best when he is active on the court, particularly grabbing rebounds and getting things started on the offensive end. The problem is, when he's not doing that, Turner often becomes lost. His outside shooting is still not where it needs to be for an everyday "two" guard, and might never be. He still looks so much more comfortable with the ball in his hands, either directing traffic or going to the rim himself. Problem is, this Sixers team has enough players who already do that. So where does Turner fit in?
"That's been the biggest struggle for me," Turner said when taken out of the starting lineup on Dec. 3 in Atlanta. "The ups and downs were expected. I just didn't expect to still be trying to figure out where I belong."
His struggles aren't unfamiliar to those who have been around him during his basketball career. He didn't start until his junior year in high school. Ohio State coach Thad Matta has told Sixers coach Doug Collins that Turner is a sponge, remembering everything he is taught early, then implementing that into his game down the road.
No doubt when the schedule came out, Turner looked to see when he would encounter the Bulls and Rose in his hometown.
No doubt he probably thought he would be further along than he is.
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