PHILADELPHIA — When the Hoop Scoop basketball rating service published its ranking of the nation's top 460 high school sophomores in January 2005, Evan Turner didn't rush to find where he was on the list.
He wasn't on the list.
Even though a handful of high school sophomores already were committed to colleges and the top-rated player, O.J. Mayo, was starting to field questions about when he would turn pro — and another guard at Turner's high school was No. 120 nationally — Turner was on his high school's junior varsity. The following November, he did crack Hoop Scoop's list. He was No. 305 in his class.
So there was no early heads-up about this guy from the far West Side of Chicago, no warning he would eventually be the national college player of the year and the No. 2 overall pick, by the 76ers, in the 2010 NBA draft. Turner always had skills but always had to climb the ladder, not missing a step. Even at Ohio State, Turner showed up as the No. 3 recruit in his Buckeyes recruiting class and didn't start during most of a frustrating freshman year.
The Sixers knew Turner's background in great detail when they drafted him, how he never started where he wound up. But that's not the kind of thing you can put on a billboard or a commercial when you draft a guy No. 2. The 2010 draft had only one sure thing — John Wall, drafted No. 1 by the Wizards. Wall had been Turner's opposite, "the man" at every level.
Turner described his own path: "I really had to fit in before I stood out."
Turner was the kid with a ball in his hands. There were a couple of nearby playgrounds, at a school and a park, but it was often smarter to stay closer to home. "You've got to be a little careful," Turner said of life in his neighborhood near Franklin Park.
Turner's back alley didn't have a hoop, so he and his buddies improvised. Their first rim was a crate they attached to a stop sign at the end of the alley behind his house.
"They tore that down, so I just dribbled and used the awning of the garage as the basket," Turner said. "Then we found a rim and a backboard. We got some wood and built (the pole). … Then the kids chipped in and we bought a rim."
A crate and a stop sign didn't launch Turner's ascendancy to the NBA. He had obstacles to overcome, and when he overcame them, he found more obstacles.
"Early on, he was immature," said Mike Mullins, his AAU coach. "He wasn't quite sure of himself. It's not uncommon for kids. … His self-confidence came last after he proved himself to his teammates and on the floor."
Turner moved around as a kid. The family first lived on the South Side, he said, then moved to the West Side, then out to the western suburbs, to Oak Park. Family circumstances propelled them back to the West Side, but Turner's mother still wanted her boys to go to school in Oak Park.
"I was 11, my brother was a year older," Turner said. "We'd walk a few blocks to the bus, take the bus to a train. Then walk like a mile to the school."
High school was a similar commute. St. Joseph High School in Westchester, Ill., is the basketball school depicted in the classic documentary "Hoop Dreams." Turner followed his older brother out there. This time, it was a city bus to a suburban bus, then a few blocks' walk.
"If I wanted to go shoot early, I had to wake up at like 5:15. … It would take an hour or so, a little longer if it was snowing," Turner said. "It was wearing on me. I finished practice, home at 9:30 at night, had schoolwork."
Mullins has a strong AAU program, the Illinois Wolves, and it was particularly strong at Turner's age group. He didn't have all the top players — a guard named Derrick Rose was already tops in Chicago — but Turner joined a team that eventually produced four or five Division I players. He wasn't the best of them right away.
"One thing he always did for me, he always taught me, never doubt myself," Turner said of Mullins. "If you're unsure, walk in like you own the place, that I should expect great things. Sometimes I missed out on little things, just confidence, mental things. He'd say to carry yourself like you're a million dollars."
Ohio State was coming off a Final Four appearance when Turner arrived in 2007. The stars who had propelled the Buckeyes to that Final Four, Greg Oden and Mike Conley, were gone to the NBA after one season in Columbus. But Ohio State had plenty of talent left and brought in a strong freshman class, topped by center Kosta Koufos, who would stay at Ohio State one year before leaving for the NBA.
By this point, Turner had grown to 6-foot-7. But even preseason pickup games were an adjustment.
"He had a rough time starting out," Buckeyes teammate David Lighty said. "There were so many athletes on the court. He wasn't used to it. He had to use his height and skills."
"I was homesick, for one thing," Turner said. "I was really out there by myself for the most part. I got off to a bumpy start, I really wasn't happy there. I kind of went in with one foot in as opposed to two feet in, saying if it doesn't work out here, maybe I can leave. Coach (Thad) Matta told me if you put two feet in, you're going to have the best time of your life."
After an early-season exhibition game, "I was moping around, really upset," Turner recalled. "Coach told me, 'If you don't want to be here, don't be here, go home to Chicago. If you want to be here, be here.' My mom came down, she talked to me about stuff. I talked to my AAU coach about stuff. I got acclimated, realized it was going to be home for the next few years."
Mullins, the AAU coach, remembers a phone conversation with Turner early in his time with the Sixers. Once again, he started out struggling, even in summer-league ball, where top draft choices often shine.
"Why do I have to go through this?" Turner asked Mullins. He meant "always go through it."
Lighty said, "I told him, 'It's just the same way — once you figure out the NBA game, it's going to be an eye-opener for everyone.'"