The Pacers are a mystery at the moment, having added another handful of new players and losing one extremely significant player. But this much we know for sure: They are Myles Turner’s team.
It’s a dicey proposition to claim a team “belongs” to one player, unless that player is of the Magic-Larry-Michael-LeBron vintage. You know, the guys for whom the Hall of Fame is barely enough to recognize their greatness. Ideally, a team is a communal effort.
Even communes need leaders, though, and Turner is next in line for the Pacers. He’s 21 years old, barely old enough to buy a bottle of champagne to pour over someone’s head in a celebrating locker room, and as a veteran of merely two seasons is still figuring things out for himself. Still, he’s best-suited among the returning and arriving players to be the voice of the locker room.
He’s also eager to be that voice, and that counts. Some players — such as Paul George, or, before that, Jermaine O’Neal — have leadership thrust upon them because they are the team’s best player. Others want it and are meant to do it.
It appears he’ll have a compatible collection of teammates to speak for, too. Monta Ellis, the Pacers’ second-oldest player behind Al Jefferson, and arguably the most vocal player the past two seasons, has been waived. Two of the new additions, Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, acquired in the trade that sent George to Oklahoma City, are young newcomers and in no position — yet — to claim ownership of anything.
They should fit well with Turner’s enthusiasm. Neither are of the “cool” variety, but neither are demonstrative. Oladipo, who averaged 15.9 points last season in Oklahoma City – also his career average – plays the game like a greyhound: quietly, intensely and modestly. Watch a highlight reel of his dunks and you rarely see a hint of ego. No chest-pounding, staring down opponents or fans, or jersey-puffing. Just a guy who gets back on defense. Indiana University fans remember him fondly for the way he attacks the game without lapsing into narcissism.
Sabonis, the key to the trade because of his unrealized potential, is of a similar mindset. However good he becomes, he seems sure to give his best effort and adapt to any environment. He averaged just 5.9 points on 40 percent shooting as a rookie with the Thunder, but showed a variety of skills near and far from the basket. His most relevant stat: 21 years old.
He’s just five weeks younger than Turner, but far from being ready to assume command of anything beyond his own improvement. Turner, meanwhile, is eager to step forward. The uproar over the leak that Paul George’s agent had told the Pacers that George would not re-sign with them after next season was still reverberating when Turner stepped up in an interview with Alex Kennedy of The HoopsHype Podcast. Asked if he was ready to be the face of the Pacers’ franchise, Turner did not hesitate.
“Without a doubt,” he said. “…I want to become a leader – why not start early? I’m really looking forward to our future. I feel like with the right pieces, we can go young and build for the future. And I’m ready to lead this young movement.”
Turner backed that up by addressing the players on the Pacers’ Summer League team and traveling with them to Orlando for their games. That’s a rare display of leadership for any NBA player, especially one who was playing on the Summer League team just two years ago.
Turner will be surrounded by older teammates next season. Some of them could be considered more established than an NBA sophomore whose greatest honors to date are a second NBA All-Rookie team selection and a Rookie of the Month nod in February of 2016. His promising future justifies his leadership role, though, particularly if nobody else cares to do it. He’s shown a knack for it from the day he stepped onto the Bankers Life Fieldhouse practice court before the 2015 NBA Draft.
Turner stood out that afternoon during half-court scrimmages and in media interviews for his confidence and communication skills. Although he was going up against Wisconsin’s four-year player (and the 2015 National Player of the Year), Frank Kaminsky, he was the one carrying himself with swagger.
He’s stood out since then as well for his maturity, but has always deferred to his older teammates. That’s been a frustration he’s admitted to at times. He’s clearly wanted to say more and more among his teammates, but didn’t feel it was his place to do so. He’s always chosen his words carefully, especially after losses, careful not to offend.
His upbringing prepared him for this moment. His parents, David and Mary, demanded academic performance, citizenship, and work ethic. Television and video games were off-limits on weeknights. He won an Optimist Club award for being the best all-around student at his high school. He’s also taken advantage of various NBA educational opportunities since joining the league. He attended All-Star Weekend this past season, where he mixed with some of the game’s legendary players, and was in Brooklyn for the 2017 Draft as part of the NBATV broadcast.
He’s also made his presence felt in the Indianapolis community, looking for ways to help beyond the league-mandated appearances.
“He’s one of those rare human beings,” one of Turner’s basketball mentors in Texas, Ken “Slim” Roberson, once said. “…Myles, what a beautiful human being. When he does things in the community, it’s literally from the heart. His mom made sure he did that type stuff when he was 10 years old.”
Ultimately, Turner will be judged by what he does on the court. And what he does on the court should be enhanced by his expanded role. Larry Bird said in January he believes Turner can become the greatest Pacers player ever. If there’s any chance of that happening, Turner will have to be a leader, not a sidekick showing deference to teammates.
He — and the franchise — might as well get started on it and see what happens.
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