Commentary

Ready for takeoff

St. Joseph's alum ready to take on McCamey, Illini

Updated: February 12, 2010, 4:27 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

[+] EnlargeTurner
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesOhio State's Evan Turner is averaging 19.2 points a game with 9.3 rebounds and 5.7 assists this season.

Asking star college athletes about their major is always interesting. After all, how many euphemisms are there for communications or liberal arts in the wild world of jock-o-cracy?

When Evan Turner, a breakout star guard for Ohio State, told me he was majoring in family resource management, an impressive jumble of academia that apparently has something to do with retail and consumer studies, I asked politely, "What are you going to do with that degree?"

"I'd like to work for Nike," he said.

Now, we're playing a little game here, reporter and athlete. We both know that if Turner, nice and polite and smart, ever works for Nike, his only job will be to wear its shoes, shirts and hats and to star in the occasional commercial. That is, unless he signs with adidas or brings back Fila.

Nike, adidas, British Knights -- they could one day, soon, vie for the rights to pay Turner, a stat-sheet-filling, slick-passing, rebound-grabbing combo guard and potential top-five pick in this summer's NBA draft, to work for them because he is very, very good at basketball.

So that degree in family whatever will have to wait. (Although it will happen, he said, because "My mom will kill me if I don't graduate.") Because in truth, it's easier to say that Turner, like most big-time Division I athletes, majors in his sport.

Turner is a notorious gym rat, a self-effacing model for self-improvement. He could have declared for the draft last year, and almost certainly would have been a first-rounder, but he came back to work on aspects of his game because he knew he wasn't as good as he can be. So he strengthened his left-handed dribble, worked on his pull-up jumper and his transition game, and continued to build muscle on his lithe 6-foot-7, 205-pound frame.

But if he's majoring in basketball arts, he's also minoring in respect management. He's practically a doctoral student in getting "props."

Turner, who grew up about five miles southwest of the United Center in the oft-dicey West Side, has always been good, but he has never the "it" player. He's always been second or third or in the discussion. Growing up, it was Derrick Rose, who was recruited just as much in middle school as he was in high school, was from the same class, beat Turner's team in the state playoffs their senior year and handily won the state's Mr. Basketball award.

Rose went from Simeon to Memphis to the Bulls, all with great fanfare. Turner went to suburban powerhouse St. Joseph, riding two buses to get there, as Isiah Thomas and William Gates had before him, then to Ohio State, committing during Greg Oden's lone season. Turner was a big deal back then, no doubt, but never the biggest. Don't think that's not an inspiration as he finally is making a name for himself on a national level.

"Respect is always the key thing," he said in a long phone conversation from Columbus on Thursday. "Basketball is my craft. It's something I take pride in. If you're not respecting my game, you're not respecting me. Basketball is a big part of who I am.

"Like, when I'd see a magazine and they'd be talking about certain people, and I'm like, 'Are you serious?'" he said. "That kind of stuff definitely helped drive me to be a better player."

Versatile Turner is being compared to guys such as Brandon Roy now, and I liken him to a taller Dwyane Wade, or perhaps a more polished Scottie Pippen, for his more gradual development and late-breaking ascension.

"Evan was not the best middle school player in the city or things like that," said Mike Mullins, his AAU coach. "He didn't start varsity until he was a junior in high school. But he always yearned for more. He always had something to prove."

Turner, the local boy made good, is coming home -- or close to it, anyway -- for perhaps his last matchup against high school teammate Demetri McCamey and Illinois on Sunday. The Illini have rocketed up the Big Ten ladder with impressive back-to-back wins against Michigan State and Wisconsin. Ohio State has won five straight, the past four by double digits.

"It'll be fun to go up against him, head to head," Turner said. "He's played well. He's been playing confidence; he's on a hot streak."

Turner said he hadn't talked to McCamey, who's on a bit of a heater right now, lately, but he did text him a "Thank You" for beating Michigan State and shaking up the top of the conference. Ohio State, Illinois and Michigan State are all tied for first, with Purdue a game back in the win column and Wisconsin waiting in the wings.

McCamey and Turner, the St. Joe's products, are two of a handful of Chicago area products having standout seasons, and Turner said he knows they all keep tabs on each other, as a matter of provincial pride and as inspiration.

"I saw Jon Scheyer doing his thing last night," he said of Duke's win over North Carolina. "I'm a big fan of John Shurna. I see Jacob Pullen putting his team on his back and Sherron Collins doing his thing over there. "

Chicago basketball players have a well-earned reputation for being tough and, for many, of being real. And Turner sees the similarities. He thinks Chicago kids have to work harder to stand out. It's a crowded metropolis of gyms and playgrounds, and word travels fast.

"Basketball is a way of life," he explains. "Out here, we do it big because you've got to be a big deal in order to get a reputation, to get a big-time rap. Some guy from South Carolina might have a big head, but in Chicago everybody's good. If you're not the cream of the crop, you're not going to get respect. That's why Chicago players are down to earth. Because we've always got to be hungry. We all want to be at the top."

Turner is having a better year than all the rest. A hard-charging surprise candidate for national player of the year, he is very close to a statistical anomaly of averaging 20 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists. After missing nearly seven games with a back injury, he's putting up a line of 19.2 points, 9.3 rebounds and 5.7 assists. (The only area of his game that is lacking is his long-range shooting. He has hit just 7 of 28 3-pointers this season.)

Turner is leading the conference in scoring and rebounding, and he is second in assists to McCamey. He has 10 double-doubles this season, including two triple-doubles.

"He's almost averaging double figures in rebounds," Mullins marveled. "I'm 52; the only two guys I remember approaching that from his spot are Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson."

That's heady company.

Turner's game has exploded since a complementary freshman year, when he helped Ohio State win the NIT as Rose and Collins dueled in the NCAA title game. When team linchpin David Lighty went down in Turner's sophomore year, he stepped up.

Turner wound up leading the Big Ten in scoring, and was third in rebounds, while leading the Buckeyes in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals. Pretty good for a guy who wasn't even picked for the preseason All-Big Ten team that season.

"It's been a great fit," Turner said of Ohio State. "Coach [Thad] Matta definitely trusts me with the ball to make decisions. That really helps. It gives me confidence. I'm really fortunate to have my team supporting me and trusting me to do my thing."

Turner is having fun in Columbus, a town that lives and dies by Ohio State sports. He has a girlfriend, a point guard on the women's team, Samantha Prahalis. (Both wear No. 21.) He's also playing along as the comedic foil for many of Buckeyes reserve guard Mark Titus' hilarious stories in his popular (2 million hits and counting) blog, "Club Trillion." Titus, who has been featured in The New York Times and on Bill Simmons' popular podcast, has dubbed Turner "The Villain" and often harasses him on Twitter, which Turner recently has embraced.

(Turner's Twitter handle is @thekidet, and, with about 1,800 followers, he's trailing Titus by almost 9,000. He's pretty funny and even poked fun of Kobe Bryant's wardrobe choice recently, which I'm sure Bryant, known for his sense of humor, would appreciate. )

After a summer tour with a national team, Turner's decision to come back for his junior season got off to a fast start with two triple-doubles in his first five games, but it hit a major bump in early December, when he got fouled on a dunk and fell hard on his back.

"You could hear all the air leave the arena," said Mullins, who was at the game and rode in the ambulance with Turner and his mother, Iris, to the hospital.

Although initial X-rays were negative, he was diagnosed with fractures in his lumbar vertebrae. The team initially figured he would be out six to eight weeks, but he was back in a month, missing just six full games. Six days after his return, he scored 32 points and added nine rebounds in a 70-66 win at Purdue.

Turner said that his back is "perfectly fine" now and that his girlfriend's coach, Jim Foster, inspired him to come back strong.

"He said if you're hurt and you can play, it shows how good you are," Turner said. "The best players play well when they're hurt. That really stuck in the back of my mind."

Turner said the Buckeyes (No. 16 in the ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll; No. 13 in the AP poll) aren't your typical Big Ten, half-court, grind-it-out team, which is why he thinks they can make some noise in March.

How far can they go this year?

"All the way," Turner said. "I don't do anything not trying to win. I want to win the Big Ten championship and the national championship. We're blessed with versatility. We have a pretty old group that's been through some troubles. We've been through some tough times."

Turner said that he'll think about the NBA later and that his decision could depend on how the Buckeyes do in March. With a labor battle brewing, he would be foolish to miss a chance for guaranteed money now. I'm sure his family resource management professors would agree, not to mention his mother.

And his stock will never be higher. Only Kentucky freshman John Wall (another point guard stealing his thunder!) is considered a stronger prospect in the draft right now, with Turner almost a lock to be the second guard picked.

Turner isn't asking for the hype, but he knows he has earned it. This season is like his dissertation in respect.

"People ask me if I'm surprised," he said. "I wish they could see how hard I work. Only my teammates see that. I want to win, and I work hard so I can be successful and my team can be successful. No, I'm not surprised. I know what's in me."

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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