Stop me if you’ve heard this one. Johnny All-Star drops hints during the season that he’s thinking seriously about returning to State U for another year only to seize the first available opportunity to jump to the professional ranks.
It happens all the time at almost every school. Jim Jackson, Chris Gamble, Mike Conley Jr. and Beanie Wells are just a handful of the Ohio State examples of former players who decided million-dollar pro contracts trumped another season of college life.
As with every rule, however, there are exceptions. Mike Doss, A.J. Hawk and James Laurinaitis are OSU football players who decided to forgo NFL riches in lieu of one more year of college ball. When it comes to basketball Buckeyes, though, the ones who chose staying over leaving are few and far between.
Evan Turner may be different. When the junior star indicated Feb. 26 that he was open to returning to Ohio State for his senior season, I got the impression that it wasn’t merely a throwaway line for the media as the Buckeyes tried to focus on a third Big Ten championship in five seasons.
It seemed Turner was genuinely interested in returning to OSU next season.
Turner seems to walk to a little different drumbeat than most of college basketball’s elite players. While there is little doubt he dreams of being an NBA star one day, he has no illusions about his current game and how much he will have to elevate his performance when he enters the league.
There is also something a little more cerebral about Turner than your garden variety college athlete. Not only is he a student of his game, he is a perfectionist. Many players will claim they have a similar goal but spend very little time trying to achieve that perfection. Not Turner. He appears to realize he remains a work in progress. To that end, he is constantly tweaking his game and therefore is able to consistently show improvement – not only from year to year but often within the course of a single season.
A prime example is Turner’s freshman season with the Buckeyes. He averaged 8.5 points and 4.4 rebounds while starting 30 of 37 games – pretty good stats for any first-year player. But while many freshmen hit the proverbial wall late in the season, Turner peaked down the stretch, and scored a combined 37 points against Mississippi and Massachusetts as Ohio State won the NIT championship.
Despite that performance, Turner worked hard during the offseason to improve his rebounding and that helped result in a sophomore season that included game averages of 17.3 points, 7.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists while starting all 33 games for the Buckeyes.
In the middle of that season, OSU head coach Thad Matta became dissatisfied with the play of his point guards and asked Turner if would be willing to man the position. You don’t have to be John Wooden to know the difference between being a wing player and a point guard, not to mention the discipline it takes to be the on-the-floor quarterback of a basketball team.
You also don’t need to be the Wizard of Westwood to realize how much practice time Turner has invested to reach his comfort level as the Buckeyes’ point guard. During this past offseason, he worked on his ball-handling skills, something he has been doing since he was growing up in the Chicago suburbs. He also spent time – a lot of it – on perfecting his jump shot because he realized few opposing teams have defensive answers for a 6-7 point guard who can consistently make pull-up jumpers.
The result? Turner has improved on last year’s numbers that nearly won him Big Ten Player of the Year honors. With one game remaining in the regular season, he was averaging 19.7 points, 9.3 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game. He had also raised his shooting percentage from 50.3 percent last season to 54.3 this year, and cut his assists-to-turnovers ratio by more than 20 percent.
Best of all, Turner gets it. As Matta put it recently, his star player is not playing with one foot out the door, understanding that while the NBA will make him a rich young man, the mere realization of a lifelong dream doesn’t translate into instant success.
“I don’t want to go to the league and sit on the bench,” Turner told reporters Feb. 26. “I want to go to the league and play right away and be an impact player. I want to make sure I’m fully ready. I don’t want to go into a situation where I’m not ready and not be the best I can right away.”
At the risk of overstating the obvious, it would mean a lot to Ohio State basketball should Turner truly return next season. In fact, it could be the kind of thing that finally elevates Matta’s program to elite national status.
Turner’s return for 2010-11 would likely entice David Lighty and William Buford to stay another season as well (if either player is truly thinking about leaving), and with all five starters back the Buckeyes would be overwhelming preseason favorites to win another Big Ten championship. Add to that another sterling recruiting class signed by Matta, and the conference title would be only the beginning.
Success breeds success, and that kind of team would not only put more fannies in the seats at Value City Arena, it would also help Matta continue to restock his roster with the best high school talent the nation has to offer. Additionally, another league championship and possible Final Four run couldn’t help but pump a few extra bucks into the Ohio State athletic department bank account, another facet of success that cannot be discounted.
Turner is no dummy. If he thinks he can make it in the NBA next year, he’s gone. After all, why does one attend college in the first place? Isn’t it simply a means to increase your future earning power? How many business school students would choose to finish their degree work if a Fortune 500 company came calling with a multimillion-dollar contract following their junior years? Not many.
Still, there is always something to be said for college life. For professional athletes, the money is going to be there. But for all those zeroes on that contract, your senior year on campus is something you can never get back.
Turner is one of those increasingly-rare players who seems to understand that. Like Doss, Hawk and Laurinaitis before him, he seems to embrace college life and it would appear to embrace him back. Turner is one of the most popular figures on the Ohio State campus – and that’s saying something at a traditional football school – and he has forged relationships and friendships he admittedly enjoys.
Of course, it’s his decision whether or not to return for one more season as a Buckeye and millions of dollars would turn the head of any young man. Turner is not just any young man, however, and that’s why the answer may be different this time.
Today is a big day for birthdays in the Buckeye Nation with former basketball coach Gary Williams and former football players Lenny Willis, Doug Plank and Robert Smith celebrating.
Gary B. Williams was born March 4, 1945, in Collinswood, N.J., and was a starting point guard at Maryland in the mid-1960s. He began his coaching career at Woodrow Wilson High School in Camden, N.J., and won a state championship there. Williams joined the college ranks in 1972 as an assistant at Lafayette where he was also the school’s head soccer coach. Williams spent two seasons at Lafayette and two more at Boston College before landing his first head coaching job in 1978 at American University. He went on to head the programs at Boston College and Ohio State before returning to Maryland. Williams, who won the 2002 NCAA championship with the Terrapins, was 59-41 in three seasons with the Buckeyes from 1987-89, and his 1988 team was NIT runner-up.
Douglas Walter Plank was born March 4, 1953, in Greensburg, Pa., and was a three-year letterman defensive back for the Buckeyes from 1972-74. He was a 12th-round draft choice by Chicago in the 1975 NFL draft, and wound up becoming the first rookie to lead the Bears in tackles. Plank wound up playing eight seasons with the Bears and he became such a favorite of Chicago defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan that Ryan named his famed “46 defense” after Plank’s jersey number. After his playing days were over, Plank went into coaching – first in the Arena Football League and later in the NFL. This past season, he served as assistant defensive backfield coach for the New York Jets.
Leonard Leroy Willis was born March 4, 1953, in Washington, D.C., and was a three-sport star in high school before becoming an All-American at JUCO. Willis transferred to Ohio State in 1974 and became a football and track star for the Buckeyes. He led the Big Ten in kickoff returns in ’74 and ’75, and established a school record that still stands when he returned two kickoffs for touchdowns against Oregon State in 1974. Willis was Minnesota’s fourth-round selection in the 1976 NFL draft, and he played four seasons as a kick returner for the Vikings, Saints and Bills. He later played several seasons in the old USFL before beginning a coaching career in 1985 on Earle Bruce’s staff at Ohio State. Since 2002, Willis has been director of facilities at the University of Illinois.
Robert Scott Smith was born March 4, 1972, in Euclid, Ohio, and came to Ohio State after an All-America prep career at his hometown high school. Smith broke Archie Griffin’s freshman rushing record with 1,126 yards in 1990 but then sat out the 1991 season in a dispute over academics with then offensive coordinator Elliot Uzelac. Smith returned in 1992 and led the Buckeyes in rushing with 819 yards before making himself eligible for the NFL draft. The Minnesota Vikings selected him with the 21st pick of the first round, and Smith finished his eight-year career as the team’s all-time leading rusher. He also earned two Pro Bowl selections. Smith is currently a college football analyst for ESPN.
Also celebrating birthdays this 4th day of March: Texas Gov. Rick Perry is 60; Philadelphia Phillies third base coach Sam Perlozzo is 59; pro golfer Peter Jacobsen is 56; actress Catherine O’Hara is 56; actress Patricia Heaton (Debra Barone in “Everybody Loves Raymond”) is 52; actor Mykelti Williamson (Pvt. Benjamin Buford “Bubba” Blue in “Forrest Gump”) is 50; former lightweight boxing champion Ray Mancini is 49; former NBA all-star guard and current Sacramento, Calif., mayor Kevin Johnson is 44; gay rights activist Chaz (born Chastity) Bono is 41; and Cincinnati Bengals safety Chinedum Ndukwe is 25.
** Ohio State isn’t the only school to monkey with the early part of its 2010 football schedule. Utah has moved its opener against Pittsburgh to Sept. 2, most likely the second game of a primetime doubleheader that begins with the Buckeyes hosting Marshall. Meanwhile, Toledo will host Arizona the following evening for a Friday night affair televised by ESPN, and the season-opening weekend culminates Labor Day night when Boise State and Virginia Tech square off in primetime at FedEx Field in Landover, Md.
** Here is some trivia for you: Name the first football coach ever to win 100 or more games both at the collegiate and professional levels. The answer comes later.
** Ohio State vs. defending national champion Alabama in next year’s BCS National Championship Game? That’s how ESPN.com writer Mark Schlabach envisions the end of the 2010 college football season. He ranks the Crimson Tide and the Buckeyes atop his preseason top 25 with Boise State, Oregon and Virginia Tech rounding out the top five. Schlabach also has three other Big Ten schools in his rankings – Wisconsin at No. 9, Iowa at No. 12 and Penn State at No. 22.
** If you like the blue turf at Boise State, you’re really going to love this. Division I-AA Eastern Washington has announced plans to install a red playing surface at its Woodward Field facility in Cheney, Wash. How long before Nike suggests installation of a yellow field at Oregon’s Autzen Stadium?
** The trivia answer is Don Coryell, who went 104-19-2 from in 12 seasons at San Diego State from 1961-72 and then posted a 111-83-1 mark in the NFL as head coach of the St. Louis Cardinals (1973-77) and San Diego Chargers (1978-86). If you guessed former Ohio State All-American end Sid Gillman, you were close. The innovative Gillman posted a 122-99-7 record in the pro ranks with the Chargers, Rams and Oilers, and was 81-19-2 in 10 college seasons at Miami (Ohio) and Cincinnati. Interestingly, Coryell has always maintained that he was heavily influenced by Gillman and routinely took his entire San Diego State team to Chargers workouts to observe how Gillman ran his practice sessions.