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The Misuse of A.J. Turner

After 13 games, it looks like the Boston College transfer is out of position playing point guard. Unfortunately, he might be NU’s best option.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

It’s no secret that Chris Collins doesn’t have a true point guard.

Collins has designed an equal-opportunity offense predicated on off-ball cutting and screening in order to make up for this problem. However, someone still has to bring the ball up the floor to initiate the offense. So far this year, A.J. Turner has largely been filling that role. The problem is, he’s never done that before, and that’s not his game.

Collins used the word “committee” to describe how ball-handling duties would be distributed in the beginning of the season. That word implies that whoever got a defensive rebound, with a few exceptions, would have the green light to bring the ball up the floor. That hasn’t been the case as of late as most of the time players look to outlet the ball to either Turner or Vic Law, but mainly Turner. Even Law oftentimes gives it up to Turner to bring up the floor.

Law also initiates the offense sometimes, but the difference between him and Turner is that Law is far better at creating his own shot.

After watching Turner’s Boston College and AAU highlights it’s easy to see that he’s at his best in catch-and-shoot situations. So far his career at Northwestern has confirmed that, but his role as the team’s de facto point guard negates his opportunities to spot up from deep. Why can’t the same off-ball actions that get run in order to free up Ryan Taylor be applied to Turner?

Another thing Turner’s pre-Wildcat highlights tell you is that he is a solid passer and can create his own shot. These two attributes are essential to being a good point guard, but possessing them doesn’t necessarily make one cut out for the position.

The fact of the matter is that Turner is at his best on the wing. From there, he is a good 3-point shooter. At Boston College he was able to use the threat of his 3-point shot to attack close-outs and get to the basket. He is entirely unable to do that for the Wildcats by having to initiate the offense.

Part of Turner’s inconsistency is his own fault: he struggles to move without the ball. Oftentimes, after starting a play through either a pass or hand-off, Turner will cut through to the corner. He then will proceed to stand there for the rest of the possession like a robot with no batteries. That doesn’t do himself or the team any good.

Turner is also not shooting enough. He attempts 3.5 three-pointers per game, as opposed to 4.1 at Boston College, per sports-reference. He attempted five shots from the field against Indiana and four against Oklahoma. Those numbers are unacceptable for someone whose role is supposed to be that of a scorer. The team, who is in desperate need of a consistent third scorer, cannot afford to have Turner be bashful.

One might say, “well what about the DePaul game?” Unfortunately, that game has been the exception, not the rule to his performance thus far this season. Still, Turner hit three 3-pointers during Northwestern’s 25-0 scoring run in that game. The first was off an Anthony Gaines pass. The second was off a Dererk Pardon hand-off. The third was off a Ryan Taylor hand-off in transition. The unifying theme here is that all three shots came in situations in which Turner was working off-ball.

A tendency to be stagnant off the ball and insufficient field goal attempts causes spectators to oftentimes forget that Turner is on the floor. Like I said, some of this is his own fault, but much of it is because he is playing out of position. Turner belongs on the wing.

Collins is in a bit of a bind here. Jordan Ash has struggled with injuries and Ryan Greer has been fine in limited doses, but isn’t ready to play point guard 20+ minutes a night. The next best option non-Turner is probably Law, but Collins likes to post up the wing against smaller defenders and run him through off-ball screens. Clearly, NU’s offense is being limited by Turner playing out of position. Unfortunately, NU may not have a better option at this juncture.