One on One with Chris Dortch: Texas A&M’s Elston Turner

Texas A&M guard Elston Turner swept national and Southeastern Conference player-of-the-week awards this week after his stunning 40-point performance in an upset at Kentucky last Saturday, but a better example of his ability as a scorer—and his confidence in that ability—came nearly two months earlier.

It was a game in which, with 17.5 seconds to play, Turner had made one basket.

Washington State led 54-52 in the third-place game of the CBE Hall of Fame Classic. With those scant seconds left, the Cougars’ D.J. Shelton was at the free-throw line with a chance to give his team a three-point cushion. But he missed, and the Aggies’ Ray Turner rebounded and passed the ball to guard J’Mychal Reese, who raced up the floor.

Trailing Reese, Elston Turner took a dribble hand-off in front of Texas A&M’s bench and made his way to a spot midway between the center circle and the top of the key. Shelton quickly moved toward Turner, and Ray Turner was right behind Shelton, preparing to set a screen. But Elston Turner waved it off.

By now Turner had backed all the way into the center circle. With the seconds ticking down—seven, six, five, four—Turner took two dribbles to a spot about 25 feet from the basket, jumped as high as he could, and, with the 6-foot-10 Shelton flying at him, released a high-arching shot, fading away ever so slightly as he did.

The ball barely brushed the back rim as it made its way to the bottom of the basket. Texas A&M won, 55-54, because its leading scorer couldn’t have cared less that, before that last shot, he was 1 of 12 from the field.

That old line about shooters having to have short memories isn’t applicable to Turner, because he’s always used a bit of reverse psychology when his shots aren’t falling. In the Washington State game, he knew it hadn’t been one of his better performances, but he also knew his job. And a cold shooting night didn’t stop him from doing it at crunch time, when the Aggies needed him most.

“That goes all the way back to when I was a little kid,” Turner said. “My dad [former NBA player Elston Turner, Sr.] told me I was gonna have good shooting games and bad shooting games. But every shot I take, I have to approach it like I’ve made my last five or six shots. That’s the approach I always take.”

“He just exudes confidence,” said Texas A&M assistant Mitch Cole, a former head coach at Birmingham Southern. “He shows an incredible amount of confidence at crunch time. When he’s got to take the big shot, he’s got no problem with that at all.”

Washington State found that out, and nearly two months later, so did Kentucky, as Turner went over, around and through the Wildcats for a career-high 40, handing the Wildcats their first home SEC loss in coach John Calipari’s four seasons.

More impressive than his point total was the fact Turner needed just 19 shots to get there. He made 14 of those shots, including 6 of 10 from behind the 3-point line. More impressive still? Turner also handed out a team-high tying four assists, grabbed six boards and didn’t commit a turnover in 37 minutes on the floor.

Box score stat lines don’t come much cleaner or more efficient than that.

“What he did was off the charts,” Calipari said. “When we put a big on him, he stepped back even farther and shot it. There were no layups. There were one or two runners, one runner that wasn’t bad. The rest of them were bombs and shots that he could make. He played an unbelievable game.”

Not bad for Turner’s first SEC road game, played at the most intimidating arena in the league.

“Nobody could have seen that coming,” Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy said. “It was just a special performance, especially when you score 40 points at Rupp. The only other players that have scored over 40 at Rupp [were] great NBA players [Davidson Robinson, 45 in 1985; Chris Jackson, 41 in 1990]. It was just a special feat. But he prepared himself. He’s been getting in more shooting practice at the gym.”

It’s safe to say Turner had been preparing all his life for that game. As the son of an NBA player, he had impeccable coaching from the second he fired his first basketball toward a rim. Elston Turner, Sr. played at Ole Miss, which he led to its first SEC championship and NCAA Tournament in 1981. The elder Turner averaged 20.6 points that season.

“My dad taught me everything I know,” Turner said. “We still talk pretty much every day.”

What did dad think of that 40-point explosion at Kentucky?

“He said it was the best game he’d ever seen me play,” Turner said.

There’s more. Elston Turner, Sr. noticed something about his son before the game.

“He said he thought there was something different how I approached that game,” Turner said. “A lot of my friends and family noticed it as well. They told me to keep playing with that attitude.”

Whatever that attitude is, Turner has been chasing it, and the job description that goes along with it, his entire college career. It began at Washington, where for two seasons Turner was used as a situational 3-point shooter. He shot 38 percent from behind the arc as a sophomore in 2009-10 and scored 14 points and knocked down four 3s in an NCAA tournament game against Marquette.

But after the season, he knew he had to transfer.

“I was getting 20, 22 minutes a game,” Turner said. “But I was more of a spot-up shooter, standing in the corner waiting for somebody to pass me the ball. I felt like I could do more. In order to showcase that, I had to leave.”

Turner did so with no animosity toward Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar.

“There are times when kids leave with hard feelings and [say] ‘I’ve got to get out of there and they didn’t treat me right,’ ” Romar told the Seattle Times when Turner left his program. “I don’t think that’s the case with Elston. I just think it was, ‘I want to look for another opportunity where I’ll have more of a chance to blossom.’ ”

Turner has been able to do that at Texas A&M despite the fact the coach who recruited him, Mark Turgeon, left for Maryland before Turner became eligible. But Kennedy’s up-tempo system may be even better suited for Turner than Turgeon’s slower-paced style.

Turner’s game has been elevated during his time spent under Kennedy and his staff.

“He’s changed his body,” Cole said. “He’s gotten leaner so he can play for longer periods of time. And he’s gotten quicker. … He’s become a pretty good pick and roll player. He’s gotten a lot better at coming off screens and trying to get into the paint and even finishing with his floaters and his layup. That dimension of his game has made people honor his ability to get to the basket.”

And it’s also given Turner more of an opportunity to beat teams into submission with his deadly jumper. His shot is unique to him—he fades away rather than jumps straight up—but as Cole said, “when it comes off his hands, it’s text book. He’s got a high release, and he’s 6-5, so he can get the ball over most people. He’s got a shifty way to create space because he almost leans back when he shoots it. It’s a difficult shot to contest.”

Two SEC teams have found that out so far. Turner debuted with 15 points, eight rebounds and three 3-pointers against Arkansas. And then came Kentucky.

As if Turner wasn’t already on the first page of every opposing team’s scouting report, he’ll have a target painted on his back now.

“I like that,” Turner said. “It’s a challenge. And it means everything that you’ve worked so hard for is paying off. I accept that challenge.”