BOSTON — Where most free agents last summer saw a subpar Boston Celtics team with a crowded depth chart, Evan Turner saw an opportunity for a fresh start.
After a disappointing stint with the Indiana Pacers in the final half of the 2013-14 season, Turner surprised many around the league by electing to rebuild his career on a rebuilding team.
The 26-year-old swingman signed a two-year contract in September and earned a role as a top reserve in the Celtics rotation early in the 2014-15 season. Over 19 contests, Turner has averaged 9.2 points, 3.9 rebounds and 3.4 assists in 22.8 minutes per game.
Perhaps more importantly, Turner is quietly silencing the critics following his struggles with the Pacers and Philadelphia 76ers.
"I don't know how that really happened," Turner told Bleacher Report, when asked about his damaged reputation last offseason. "I mean, sometimes when the smoke clears you look back on it and one thing I try to do is see what I did, or how I could have handled it differently and just worry about that.
"A lot of people write stuff and don't take people's character into consideration. Sometimes people write stuff for that story for that one day. I still knew who I was and still know I tried to play the game the right way. I fit in where I could, and that was it."
Celtics head coach Brad Stevens likes how Turner has responded to last year's adversity in his new home.
"He's got even more hunger added to his norm, just because of the way last year ended for him," Stevens said. "And I think he's looking at it as a fresh start and a start that he can take advantage of."
A Victim of Tanking
Turner was drafted No. 2 overall by the Philadelphia 76ers in the summer of 2010 and almost immediately provided a nice bench spark for what was then an up-and-coming franchise.
The former Ohio State star helped the Sixers make back-to-back playoff appearances in 2011 and 2012, but the team's progress ended quickly when new general manager Sam Hinkie dismantled an underperforming roster in the summer of 2013. The Sixers traded Jrue Holiday for draft picks, let Lou Williams go in free agency and brought no adequate replacements in.
With the top guards gone, Turner graduated to a leading role in the team's offense, averaging a career-best 17.4 points over 54 games in Philadelphia through mid-February of the 2013-14 season. His productivity was marred by ineffective shooting (42.8 percent from the field), however, as much of the team's offensive onus fell to him nightly.
With Philadelphia's front office focused on the future, the losses piled up. With nobody else to point fingers at, Turner became an easy target for fans and critics, as Grantland's Andrew Sharp documented.
"It was a tough place to play," Turner told Bleacher Report. "Philly's so tough, you really gotta give them a reason to support. As opposed to most times in Boston, they're supporting us regardless. Philly, once you get going and prove something to them, then they'll show up and support. But as soon as you fall off, they might not be as cool [with you]."
The Sixers traded Turner to the Pacers on the day of February's trade deadline, and suddenly he had a chance to shine with potential contenders.
Falling Below Expectations
On paper, Turner appeared to be a smart fit for the 2013-14 Pacers, a final puzzle piece for one of the Eastern Conference's top championship contenders. He'd give the team's bench a scoring boost and bring invaluable playoff experience.
But a curious thing happened.
From the start of February, Indiana closed out the regular season on a mediocre 21-16 run, barely clinging to the No. 1 overall seed in the East.
Turner struggled to assimilate in the Pacers' offense, unfamiliar with an off-ball role. His points-per-game average dropped from 17.7 to a meager 7.1 with the Pacers (and still inconsistent with 41.1 percent shooting). Defensively, Turner failed to pick up Indiana's complex schemes.
"In Indiana, I was trying to learn everything on the fly," Turner said. "The biggest thing was defensive reads, so that was definitely tough."
Off the court, things went awry as well. Pacers head coach Frank Vogel told Grantland's Zach Lowe back in October that the team's chemistry was disrupted following Turner's arrival and the coinciding departure of longtime Pacer Danny Granger.
On the eve of the playoffs, Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports reported that Turner got into a fight with Lance Stephenson during practice.
The report opened Turner up to more criticism from fans and media during the postseason, as Candace Buckner of The Indianapolis Star chronicled. Turner's on-court role diminished as the Pacers faced the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. The swingman appeared in just four minutes of that series, which Indiana lost in six games.
Turner's underwhelming stint in Indiana ended abruptly last summer when the team elected to not tender the guard a qualifying offer, making him an unrestricted free agent. Turner's agent, David Falk, told Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald he believed his client was a $10-million-a-year player, but the trade to Indiana decimated Turner's value on the open market.
Reflecting on his Pacer stint, Turner pointed to the media as responsible for inaccurately portraying his tenure in Indiana. He would not address Stephenson by name or speak about the fight when asked about the incident, electing instead to speak in broader terms about his situation.
"It was, whatever," Turner said of his time in Indiana. "We were able to win a bunch of games and get to the Eastern Conference Finals. Once again, when you are in that type of [situation], lots of media people take advantage of making stories. There were a lot of stories coming out on this, that and the other. You can't really control that. The only thing you can control is what is going on and how you deal with it."
New Celtic teammate Tyler Zeller didn't buy into the media scrutiny that Turner received in Indiana.
"I heard some of it," Zeller admitted to B/R. "I don't really believe most of what I heard. Until I see it, I don't want to believe it. I think he did get a bad rap from what I've seen. I don't know what it was, though. He's a great guy and easy to get along with."
Despite the adversity, Turner still takes the high road when discussing his time with the Pacers.
"I always respected Coach Vogel and the way he approached things—how his players responded to him and stuff. Coming from the start he had, from the bottom up, I'm just thankful I had the chance to play for him and the organization."
The swingman also gave some advice for players who have to make the midseason transition to a contender.
"I think one of the biggest things is trying your best to crawl before you walk," Turner told Bleacher Report. "That's the biggest thing. Keep your normal repetitions each day and maintain your routine. Try to learn the most about what [your new team] is going after and how they do things. You have to blend in, instead of trying to stick out."
A Fresh Start
Given Boston's youthful depth in the backcourt, it was a bit of a surprise to see the front office target Turner, especially after his rocky finish to the year. However, the Celtics looked at the former lottery pick as a great buy-low opportunity.
A league source told B/R that the Celtics simply felt Turner was dealing with tough situations in Indiana and Philadelphia over the past couple years, and at just 26 years old, still had plenty of room to grow.
Boston also wasn't concerned with any chemistry issues in Indiana last season involving Turner, according to the same source, who noted that Stephenson didn't exactly have a stellar reputation himself.
The Celtics, as expected, have struggled out of the gate with a 7-12 record due to a tough early schedule, but Turner has no regrets about signing a two-year, $6.7 million deal.
"[The Celtics] stood out to me [in free agency] because I knew Brad [Stevens] prior, and Jeff [Green] and Jared [Sullinger]. I was a big [Rajon] Rondo fan. We had a lot of battles with them [when I was with Philadelphia], and when we'd come and play, the fans were always cheering. I know that people around here are crazy about the Celtics, and I thought that Boston is much more than just a regular organization. This is history here."
Many players who looked at Boston in free agency may have wondered about the uncertain future of Rondo, but Turner did not take that situation into account upon choosing Boston.
"I thought I had an opportunity to play and that was it," Turner bluntly said. "The Rondo stuff is whatever. I just mind my business."
After being joined by a fellow Ohio State grad in Boston, Sullinger has raved about Turner's influence. The third-year forward spoke to his teammate's true character earlier in the season.
"I think everybody's down on him because of how the trade happened [with Indiana], and what happened in the trade and how Indiana played," Sullinger said. "I think people misunderstand Evan. He's a great basketball player, great teammate. I've known him for years, so I know he's all about winning. That's his main goal: He wants to win. I think we bring a great opportunity for him."
One of Turner's biggest fans in Boston has also been Stevens, who kept a close eye on the wingman throughout his career.
"When you're a former national player of the year who is a guy that wasn't all that heavily sought-after coming out of high school, he's got a little chip on his shoulder," Stevens said.
The young head coach has played Turner deeper in contests as the season has progressed, showing confidence in the guard's ability to create late-game scoring opportunities. That's an area in which the Celtics have desperately struggled over the first quarter of the year.
"Evan is another ball-handler," Stevens said about Turner's increased playing time. "He's a bigger guy who can switch defensively or guard shooters. Evan likes to be in at the end of the game. That's kind of Evan's thing. He plays pretty well in those moments. I think he's still growing and getting familiar [with us], but he's been great so far."
"I'm definitely getting comfortable, and I think minutes definitely help a lot as well," Turner added about his late-game role. "I try to take it play-by-play and not press. I think I play the best when I don't press and let the game come to me. I think I've done pretty well."
The Celtics front office will soon have an interesting choice to make about the guard's future. Like most other veterans on the roster, the team could endeavor to raise Turner's trade value, much like it did with point guard Jordan Crawford last season. But given his youth and talent, it's a better bet Boston keeps Turner for the duration of his deal and hopes he continues to develop.
The former No. 2 overall pick still has a lot of work to repair the damage done to his name over the past few years. With a supportive new coach and teammates in place, Boston appears to be the right place for him to try to rebuild his reputation before re-entering free agency in 2016.
Brian Robb covers the Boston Celtics for Bleacher Report and CelticsHub. Follow him @CelticsHub on Twitter.