Before they started their college careers, Jahlil Okafor, Karl-Anthony Towns and Myles Turner were widely seen as the three best freshmen big men in the country. All three were near 7’0 and all three were blessed with a rare combination of size, skill and athletic ability. In the week of practices leading up to the McDonald’s All-American Game, the 1-on-1 showdowns between the future NBA big men were the talk of the camp. But while Okafor (Duke) and Towns (Kentucky) went to two of the marquee programs in the country, Turner wound up staying close to home and playing for an embattled coach at Texas.
Before he signed Turner, Rick Barnes was fighting for his job in Austin. He made his name by bringing in a wave of high-profile recruits in the mid 00’s - TJ Ford, LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Durant - but he had never been able to get past Bill Self and win an undisputed conference championship in the Big 12. Things began to go south in 2010, when a team that started the season 17-0 and was ranked No. 1 in the country wound up collapsing down the stretch and losing in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The program bottomed out in 2013, when they finished below .500 and missed the Tourney for the first time under Barnes.
Barnes was able to save his job in 2014, squeezing Texas back into the field of 68 on the backs of an unheralded freshman class led by Isaiah Taylor, who emerged from obscurity as a three-star recruit to become an NBA prospect after being given the keys to the offense by Barnes. With Taylor leading a strong core of returning talent that would be augmented by Turner, the Longhorns entered the season as a preseason Top 10 team, with many predicting they would finally end Self’s decade-long streak of Big 12 titles.
Instead, just about everything that could have went wrong did for Texas, who are now on the outside of the NCAA Tournament bubble with less than a week left in the regular season. With an 18-12 overall record and a 7-10 mark in conference play, the Longhorns will probably need to win at least two games in the Big 12 Tournament to be a play-in team, a humbling fall for a program with as much as NBA talent as anyone in the conference, including Kansas.
Myles Turner was in the wrong place at the wrong time, an unwitting victim of the slow-motion collapse of Rick Barnes program, one that has been years in the making. For as much success as the Longhorns have had in Barnes' 18-year tenure in Austin, he has had trouble adjusting to the modern game and the growing importance of spread offenses, which you can see in his far more talented team losing two games to Fred Hoiberg’s Iowa State program this season.
Barnes philosophy has always been to recruit as many elite athletes as possible, yell at them within an inch of their lives to get them to play high-level defense and then score going from defense to offense. Spacing the floor and running crisp offensive sets has never been a huge part of his identity as a coach. But while he has one of the biggest and most athletic teams in the country this season, their inability to generate consistent offense in the half-court has been their downfall in conference season, when opposing coaches intimately know all of your strengths and weaknesses.
The Longhorns never really recovered from the wrist injury Taylor suffered in the first few weeks of the season, which kept him out for most of non-conference play and forced them to create a new offensive identity without their main shot creator. He was a shell of himself when he returned and he wasn’t a great jump-shooter even before breaking his wrist. Despite having the ball in his hands for most of the game, Taylor takes only 1.8 3’s a game and shoots them at a 30.6% clip.
It’s the same story with the rest of the Texas guards. DeMarcus Holland takes only 1.4 3’s a game. Javan Felix takes 4.4 a game, but he’s coming off a season where he shot 37% from the field on 11.4 FGA’s a game, so no one really respects him from the perimeter. Kendal Yancy, a sophomore guard who could barely get off the bench to start the season, has found his stroke in recent weeks, but he’s still shooting only 32.4% from 3 on the season.
Compounding the problem of a bunch of small guards who can’t shoot 3’s on the perimeter is a group of 5 big men who get in each other’s way around the rim. Texas has too many talented big men for their own good, as Barnes has tried to start three at a time for most of the season, even though the sport on the whole is moving towards a world where only one big man plays at a time. The Longhorns have almost zero floor spacing for the vast majority of the game, which makes it fairly easy for the other team to defend them.
Turner could not be in a worst position to succeed. He doesn’t start because he is playing behind three 6’8+ upperclassmen - Cam Ridley, Connor Lammert and Jonathan Holmes - who all have an outside shot at the NBA. When he gets in the game, he is generally sharing the floor with two big men who can’t stretch the floor and clog up the lane and two guards who can’t shoot 3’s and who have no idea how to control tempo, run half-court sets and get the ball into the paint.
The amazing thing isn’t that he has been relatively unproductive for such a highly-touted big man but that he has managed to do anything at all at Texas. Unlike Towns and Okafor, Turner almost never gets the space to go 1-on-1 on smaller players on the block. He has been forced to play all the way out to the three-point line to get any shots at all and while his range shows potential (16-56 for the season) it’s not something you necessarily want your 7’0 freshman All-American to be doing.
In an ideal world, Turner would be the only big man on the floor, in a role similar to Jameel McKay at Iowa State. Turner is an stupendously large 18-year old who can anchor a defense, score out of the post and stretch the floor. A coach running a program with a coherent offensive identity would have been able to get more out of Turner than what Barnes has done this season. It’s hard to say what he would have done in Towns and Okafor’s shoes, but an 18-year old LeBron James might not have been able to fix what is ailing the Longhorns. Barring an unlikely run in the NCAA Tournament, it’s looking increasingly that Barnes will be fired at the season.
So what does this mean for Turner? According to the latest mock drafts, he is a fringe lottery prospect, a steep fall from the Top 5 selection he looked like he would be after facing off with Okafor and Towns in Chicago. He’s still a young player with a lot of holes in his game, but it’s important to remember that someone playing for Rick Barnes is going to put up far worse numbers than someone playing for John Calipari or Coach K. The latter two are future Hall of Famers. Barnes is not.
If you were to draw up a situation where you wanted to bury a young big man and depress his statistics, you couldn’t do much worse than what Barnes has done to Turner in his one season in Austin. It’s not the end of the world, as Barnes would literally have to put Turner in a wheelchair to seriously jeopardize his financial future. The point is that a savvy NBA team at the end of the lottery may be able to squeeze a lot of value out of their pick because of the incompetence of Myles Turner’s college coach.