Tuesday November 17th, 2009

There were certain parts of Chicago where it was not safe to be a squirrel last summer. That's because Evan Turner, Ohio State's 6-foot-7 junior forward, could often be found dribbling a basketball around his neighborhood and stopping at certain points to fire the ball at a variety of targets -- walls, street signs and yes, the occasional unsuspecting mammal. "I'd do the same thing while walking around on campus in Columbus," Turner says. "It's so beautiful at night. Sometimes I'd get bored, walk around, dribble down the street and try to hit targets."

(Read daily hoop thoughts from Seth Davis in his blog)

There was a purpose to this strange exercise. Turner was preparing to do something he had not done since grade school: Play point guard fulltime. Ohio State coach Thad Matta had been telling Turner since his freshman year that he might someday take over the position, but it wasn't until last August, as the Buckeyes were practicing for an exhibition tour to Canada, that Matta officially handed Turner the keys to his offense. "I told him after last season was over, 'Hey, you need to be ready,'" Matta says. "I think that was the first time he realized I wasn't messing around."

When the season began on Nov. 9, Turner was ready. During Ohio State's 40-point drubbing of Alcorn State, he posted the second triple-double in school history by putting up 14 points, 17 rebounds and 10 assists. Turner followed that up with 24 points, 17 rebounds and four assists in a win over James Madison. On Thursday night the stakes get higher as Turner and the Buckeyes will play North Carolina in the first of two nights in Madison Square Garden, site of the 2K Sports Classic to benefit Coaches Versus Cancer. The reigning NCAA champs are in the field along with Syracuse and California, but this is New York City, where people know their hoops and value their stars. There is no doubt the biggest star in town will be Turner -- and he's not coming for the squirrels.

"I'm pumped," Turner says. "That's something you really dream about when you're a little kid is to play in one of the best basketball arenas in the world. Everybody is going to be watching."

What they will see is a player with impressive versatility yet much room for improvement. Though Matta has always pushed Turner to develop his all-around game, the decision to play him at point guard was borne out of necessity. Two of Turner's teammates, 6-1 senior P.J. Hill and 6-2 senior Jeremie Simmons, rotated at the point for most of last season, but neither fared well and both are more comfortable on the wing.

The player whom Matta recruited to be his point guard, Anthony Crater, transferred last December because Matta had the temerity to make him earn a starting position instead of giving it to him from day one. Moreover, because this program scored such a low rating in the last Academic Progress Report (which was partially the result of having lost so many players early to the NBA draft), Matta only has 11 scholarships to give instead of the usual 13. Thus, he was unable to recruit a freshman to play the point. (There are no freshmen on this team.)

Matta has used Turner as a de facto point forward in the past, but he was reluctant to shift him to the lead spot until Turner proved he could handle it. Last spring, Matta asked Turner to throw 10 passes with his left hand at a target. He missed all 10 times. A couple of weeks later, Turner came to Matta and pointed at a spot on a far wall. Then he fired the ball with his left hand and nailed it. "I said wow, how did you do that? He said when he walked through campus, he picked up rocks and threw them at street signs with his left hand," Matta says. "That shows you the type of kid he is."

During his first two seasons in Columbus, Turner had nearly as many turnovers (216) as assists (229). His most obvious weakness has been his long-range shooting. (After shooting 33.3 percent from three-point range as a freshman, Turner made just 11 threes all last season. He is 1 for 3 this season.) His game evolved over the summer as he played for USA Basketball at the World University Games in Serbia. Though he only averaged 4.0 points and 3.7 rebounds, he led the team in assists and had a 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. "He contributed in every area. He handled the ball, he scored, he rebounded. Defensively he did a good job whether he was guarding who was smaller or a guy who was bigger," says Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan, who coached that team. "He also really likes to compete. So it doesn't surprise me he got a triple double."

Turner's initial foray at the point during the Canada tour was not exactly a smashing success. "He forced situations a little too much," Matta says. The improvement since then, however, has been steady as Turner figures out the nuances of the position. "He's 10 times better now than he was in Canada," Matta says. "He's just got more of a pace about him. He's more patient, more explosive. It's mostly because he's just getting a lot of reps."

Matta has also emphasized that Turner will not be a traditional point guard. For example, while most point guards flare to the wing to receive an outlet pass off of a defensive rebound, Turner aggressively crashes the boards. "I feel like once that ball goes up, it should be mine," he says. This gives the Buckeyes a devastating weapon. Once Turner snares the ball, he can power dribble down the middle of the floor and lead the fast break without needing an outlet pass. With 6-5 junior David Lighty and 6-5 sophomore William Buford filling the lanes, and with junior sharpshooter Jon Diebler ready to spot up from behind the three-point line, Ohio State has one of the most lethal transition games in the country. "I wish we could run every single possession," Matta says. "I'm advocating for a 24-second shot clock in college basketball."

Then there's the swagger factor. Turner is a laid-back, cerebral young man who is still assuming the persona of the vocal, domineering point guard, the kind who will chastise a teammate in the name of leadership. "I think he may still have some work to do in that regard, just the surrealness of thinking, 'This is my team,'" Matta says. "I want him to always have that in his mind. I tell him, 'You're the coach on the floor right now.'"

Slowly but surely, Turner is warming up to that role. It helps that his confidence has never been higher -- for good reason. "For once, I feel like I'm totally free on the floor," he says. "Coach Matta has instilled confidence in me, and he trusts that I'm doing the right thing."

Now it's time for him to take his thing to Madison Square Garden, one of the few stages that is big enough to hold his supersized game.

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