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‘I want to go in and be myself’

In high school, Justin Turner’s mid-range game was undervalued by high-major suitors. Today, it’s helped make him a coveted graduate transfer—one Missouri hopes fits its need on the wing.

How Justin Turner ended up at Bowling Green isn’t a tale marked by twists and turns. In the end, it’s centered around pure necessity. Back in April 2016, the combo guard wasn’t one of the nation’s more coveted graduate transfer prospects. Instead, he was an unsigned prospect out of Renaissance High School in Detroit.

Down Interstate 75, though, Bowling Green coach Michael Huger scoured the landscape to fill the void created by a transfer. Sitting in a meeting with his coaching staff, Huger, who fresh off a 16-18 debut at his alma matter, turned to Anthony Stacey. Huger asked a simple question: What ever happened to Justin Turner?

Before joining Huger’s staff, Stacey had been courting Turner for nearby Toledo. And like other recruiters around the Mid-American Conference, he had heard Turner, who averaged 21 points, seven rebounds and five assists per game as a senior, was locked in a stalemate with high-major programs, waiting to see if any power-conference suitors would jump in with a late offer.

When Stacey told his boss Turner was still on the market, Huger was incredulous. They needed to get on the phone. So, that Monday, they rang up Renaissance coach Vito Jordan, who confirmed Turner’s availability. They also touched base with Turner’s mother.

Initially, Turner, who was on good terms with Stacey, wanted to wait two weeks for a visit. Stacey leveled with him: Huger was eyeing another guard to replace J.D. Tisdale. If that player wanted to commit, Bowling Green would accept. Turner got the message, bumping his visit up to that Friday.

Six days later, he pledged to join Huger’s early-stage rebuild. “It was April, and time was running out,” he said. “We felt we just had to make the best decision possible.”

Today, it’s safe to say it’s panned out for all parties involved.

Over three seasons, Turner averaged 17.0 points, 3.8 rebounds, and 2.7 assists, earning All-MAC honors twice and bringing Bowling Green to the cusp of the NCAA tournament last season. In early February 2019, he sank a pair of free throws to cap a win over No. 18 Buffalo, the Falcons’ first victory against a ranked foe since 2008.

By last spring, his productivity made it sensible to test the NBA draft waters. Workouts with the Chicago Bulls and Philadelphia 76ers underscored how much growth Turner had left. Returning to Bowling Green came with a distinct goal: punch the program’s first ticket to the Big Dance since 1968. And if not for the rapidly spiraling coronavirus pandemic, the Falcons would have started the MAC tournament as the No. 2 seed, prime position to earn a spot in the field of 68.

Now, Mizzou—and five other finalists—are hoping to reap the rewards by wooing Turner. The need in Columbia is also glaring.

Last season, Torrence Watson’s shooting stroke abandoned him, making for a thin case to feed minutes to the sophomore and former four-star prospect. For his part, Javon Pickett offered a steady defense, rebounding and timely scoring off cuts and unguarded spot-ups. Yet the former Belleville East star can’t single-handedly manufacture offense.

Down the stretch, Dru Smith and Xavier Pinson took turns attacking the rim — often late in the shot clock—to help the Tigers’ offense limp along. That formula, however, isn’t sustainable.

Landing Turner would restore the semblance of balance coach Cuonzo Martin hoped would define his offense last season — and potentially lead to an NCAA tournament bid to quell growing grumbling amid the Tigers’ fanbase.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 31 Hartford at Bowling Green Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The mid-range jumper is dead. Or at the very least, it’s slowly going extinct. Today, players, coaches, and front offices are analytics converts praying at the twin altar of dunks and 3-pointers. The logic behind its extinction is well known. Why take a long 2? Step back behind the arbitrary line cutting through the floor and launch a 3-ball. And if you’re hunting for two points, getting to the rim curbs the degree of difficulty.

All of which makes Turner a practitioner of a dying art.

Last season, almost a quarter of his possessions started with a pick-and-roll and ended with a pull-up jumper or a floater, per Synergy. Far from being inefficient, Turner averaged 1.08 points per possession, which trumped the value of a a catch-and-shoot jumper (0.99 PPP) across Division I last season. “It’s just something that I’ve always had,” he added.

Jordan affirmed his former player always had an affinity for making the worst shot in basketball look like sound shot selection. “He excelled at getting in the lane and making those little teardrops, runners,” he said. “That can make you successful instead of trying to finish over a guy who’s 6-10 or 6-11. You’ve got to have something to offset not going in there and trying to dunk on people.”

When Turner arrived at Bowling Green, his skill set meshed easily with the Huger’s stylistic preferences—a fast tempo and a half-court offense build ball-screen actions. During non-conference play, the Falcons relied on lifted ball-screens, a 1-4 flat looks, and or rocket ball-screens. And once MAC play arrived, they would integrate chaser actions and hand-offs in the slot, situations that allowed Turner to make reads as a secondary creator.

Once the screen is set, though, Turner doesn’t turn tight and accelerate toward the rim. Instead, he glides and surveys. Duck under the screener in drop coverage, and he launches from deep. Recover, and he uses a jab step to open up space. What he does with the room he carves out varies.

It can set up a between-the-legs dribble to loft a step-back jumper toward the rim. Or Turner deploys a cross-over to maneuver into the lane and reach into a toolkit of runners and floaters. By last season, only 16.7 percent of his pick-and-roll possessions ended at the rim last season.

Justin Turner | Shooting After Pick-and-Rolls

Season Rim PPS Rim FG% Runner PPS Runner FG% Pull-up PPS Pull-Up FG% Dribble 3 PPS Dribble 3FG%
Season Rim PPS Rim FG% Runner PPS Runner FG% Pull-up PPS Pull-Up FG% Dribble 3 PPS Dribble 3FG%
2018 0.827 41.3 0.947 31.6 1 50 1.5 33.3
2019 1.306 65.3 0.888 44.4 0.8 40 1.218 40.6
2020 0.642 32.1 1.025 51.3 0.898 44.9 1.2 40
Career 1 50 0.893 44.7 0.877 43.9 1.238 41.2
Synergy Sports

“You can contort your body in certain ways and try to go up with trees,” Turner said. “A lot of times, if you can create space, you can get that jumper off against defenders, and if I’m on balance, it’s pretty effective.”

Timely, too. Last season, Turner’s polished mid-range repertoire bailed Bowling Green in tight tilts.

Against Ohio, he exploited a switch against Ohio’s Ben Vander Plas, crossing over the forward and working his way to the free-throw line for a step-back jumper to put Bowling Green ahead 62-61 in the waning seconds. At the Paradise Jam, Turner snagged a missed free-throw, weaved through Western Kentucky defenders lofted in a floater for an 87-85 victory. And in front of a sold-out crowd of 5,000 at the Stroh Center, he sank a pair of two free throws with 1.2 seconds left to deliver an 85-83 victory over rival Toledo.

For all the statistics at our disposal, a player’s propensity to thrive in the clutch isn’t entirely quantifiable. What’s evident about Turner is he embraces those moments. Yet it’s not innate. Turner will tell you that it was drilled into him by Jordan at Renaissance.

”He always worked on the game like a pro,” Jordan said. “It was more about developing the intangibles, understanding how he could make other guys better, and how important winning is. You’re not going to leave a mark if you don’t win, and you need to know how to bring other guys along with you.”

NCAA Basketball: MAC Conference Tournament - Buffalo vs Bowling Green Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

It might seem hard to believe, but in the summer of 2015, Turner’s pull-up game wasn’t so enticing. That summer, Jordan led Renaissance through a ritual of the offseason: barnstorming college campuses to grind out games at team camps. They stopped at Michigan State, Michigan, Oakland, Xavier, and Dayton, where polo-clad coaches roamed among the courts.

“We went to eight universities in the month of June,” Jordan said. “He would ball out every single time.”

How many scholarship offers came out of that tour?

“None,” Jordan added.

As a sophomore at Renaissance, Turner garnered preliminary interest from the Wolverines and Spartans, but neither made the 6-foot-3 prospect a priority. Instead, they cast their attention on the likes of Cassius Winston and forward Xavier Tillman, who went on to become the backbone of Tom Izzo’s program in East Lansing.

By then, area scouts authored a comprehensive assessment of Turner. No doubt, his pull-up jumper was a weapon, and he showed signs of evolving into a consistent shooter coming off screens. And at the high-school level, his size and length let him bully his way to the rim for finishes over smaller defenders.

Productive as he might be, though, questions persisted about how much of his game would translate at a power-conference school. “He didn’t necessarily have the acceleration, shiftiness, or vision to be a point guard at the next level,” one local scout told Rock M Nation. “He was an average athlete with decent size as a combo guard.”

One topic dominated the conversation when Jordan fielded calls from assistant coaches: What position did Turner play? He didn’t have an easy answer. “I just let him be himself,” Jordan recalled. “If he wanted the ball on a possession, he’s the point guard. If he doesn’t, then he’s running a lane. I couldn’t just pigeonhole him.”

Five years removed, concerns about positional fit seem quaint. Still, coaches are risk-averse by nature. What would one do with Turner if his toolkit didn’t translate? It didn’t help matters that Turner found himself boxed in on the grassroots circuit that same summer — a make-or-break three-month span to sell himself to programs.

Looking to drum up interest, Turner switched teams, leaving the Michigan Mustangs for the Michigan Playmakers. The results were poor. Turner never carved out a niche in the lineup, ultimately deciding to return to his long-time program. Yet the Mustangs had coalesced without him. Again, minutes were hard to find. All the while, recruiters speculated about why he wasn’t getting on the floor.

“There wasn’t any bad blood,” Turner recalled. “It just didn’t work out.”

Soon, Turner was on the move again. Ahead of the July period and his last chance to catch someone’s eye, he hopped onto the roster of 1 Nation. At the time, the calculus made sense. It was the third team in as many months—one backed by Under Armor and featured a pair of future NBA lottery selections in Josh Jackson and Miles Bridges. Latching on with a group with elite prospects and playing a shoe company circuit would put him in the same gym with an army of assistant coaches.

The reality was sobering.

“They already had their team,” Turner said. “We were down to the last several tournaments. Coaches were coming, and I still wasn’t playing. I had nothing to show for them. So, a lot of schools walked away.”

Ultimately, Turner’s senior season was a stalemate. He kept waiting on high-majors to be persuaded, “You know how it can be,” Jordan said. “One Big Ten school offers, and then four more do.” Except none were willing to be the first mover.

This spring, Turner’s case was certainly more compelling.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 02 Buffalo at Bowling Green Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

How seamlessly would Turner’s game integrate with Mizzou’s rotation? It’s interesting to ponder. First and foremost, MU is a stark stylistic contrast. Out of 75 high-major programs, the Tigers rank 64th in transition possessions, according to Synergy. They were also 51st in average possession length, per KenPom.

“When I watch them, I notice they space the floor really well,” Turner said. “They’re not taking the ball out of bounds and just throwing it up the floor, but at the same time, they play in transition and make plays. You can tell guys know what’s expected of them.”

Assuming Pinson and Dru Smith return to the fold, it stands to reason they’ll pilot the offense, potentially leaving Turner to play more off the ball. Now, that doesn’t mean MU wouldn’t incorporate some ball-screen situations for or operate, but would the primary source of his mid-range shots change?

“I feel I can blend right into that,” Turner said. “I can be an off-guard and still be a guy that controls the game and keeps everything organized.”

If so, Turner’s ability to drain catch-and-shoot jumpers might be a linchpin. For his career, though, he’s shot 32.8 percent (72 of 219) on those attempts from behind the arc, including 28.6 percent last season, per Synergy. In fact, Turner shoots a higher percentage (37.1) from long range when he’s playing off the bounce.

“If you’re Cuonzo, the hope is that Turner would potentially knock down 3s at a 34 to 36 percent clip, create versus mismatches, attack closeouts and be solid on D,” the Michigan scout said.

Transitioning from the SEC naturally raises another question: how much of Turner’s robust output would carry over? The evidence suggests a reason for optimism. For his career, Turner’s averaged 16.6 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 2.4 assists against opponents ranked in the top 100 of KenPom — only a slight dip from his career marks.

Justin Turner | Production vs. KenPom Top-100 Teams

2018 32.3 17 3.3 2 1 44.2 20 42.4 49 0.79
2019 31.7 16.3 4.2 2.5 0.8 47.3 27.8 45 49 0.9
2020 32.3 16.8 3.3 2.5 1 41.2 38.8 47.1 53 0.94
Career 32 16.6 3.6 2.4 0.9 44.7 32.8 43.9 49 0.88
KenPom, Synergy Sports

In his conversations with Martin, Turner has been heartened by the coach’s transparency. Turner also pointed to Martin’s recent track record of successfully melding transfers into his program, especially Kassius Robertson.

Pegged as a sniper who could space the weak side of the floor, the Canisius transfer evolved into a reliable combo guard for a roster short on ball-handling. The lone season Robertson spent in Columbia is a instructive for Turner, who’s savvy enough to understand concessions—from him and Martin—can happen without abandoning the facets of his game that make attractive in the first place.

“Sometimes, you may see transfers who really don’t look the same if they go to a different school,” Turner said. “I just want to go in and have the opportunity to be myself, play my game and not feel like I’m looking over my shoulder. I don’t want to feel like I’m on a leash.”

Obviously, Turner’s first instinct is to score, but he emphasized he wants his points to come within the flow of the offense. Ideally, the supporting cast around Turner would ease some of the workload, with Jeremiah Tilmon operating on the left block, Mark Smith spotting up and pair of point guards creating off penetration.

“Missouri is a realistic situation,” Turner said. “I can fit in and really just play my game as a scorer and become a leader.”

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