Why Team USA’s FIBA failure meant so much to Myles Turner

NEW YORK — A pump fake behind the 3-point line opens up the paint for Indiana Pacers center Myles Turner, and suddenly he takes flight, posterizing Boston Celtics forward Gordon Hayward in the first round of the 2019 NBA playoffs.

“It was an out-of-body experience, that’s the best way to describe it,” Turner says of his high-rising, highlight-reel dunk over Hayward in Game 4. “It was unbelievable. Like, ‘What just happened?’ I didn’t even know how to react. It was crazy.”

Now in his fifth NBA season, Turner, 23, continues to chase that feeling. No time to settle. He wants more.

“It’s addicting,” Turner told Yahoo Sports in the back of a black SUV en route to a business meeting downtown after signing autographs at the NBA Store. “Once you get to the playoffs — especially when you’re playing at home — you just feel the momentum change when you hit a big shot. I’m definitely itching to get back there and finally get out of the first round.”

To date, Turner has shown flashes of stardom. As a rookie, he burst onto the scene, scoring 31 points against the 73-win Golden State Warriors and blocking LeBron James at the buzzer. Since then, Turner has added a 3-point shot to his arsenal. Last season, he led the league in rejections, averaging 2.7 per night. For his career, he’s averaging 12.9 points and 6.7 rebounds on 49.5 percent shooting. 

The Pacers rewarded Turner with a four-year, $72 million contract extension in October 2018. The question is whether he can make the jump to All-Star and All-Defensive Team. “Those are two lofty goals of mine. It’s something that I feel is attainable,” Turner said. “I’m gonna work my ass off to get there.” 

Turner likes how he’s progressed — especially on defense — but he wants to be more aggressive offensively. 

“I think I need to leave my imprint on the game a little bit more,” Turner said. “I feel like there’s times out there where I kind of float. If I go out there and make myself a presence, it opens up everything for everybody else. And I think I need to improve my rebounding numbers and my tenacity at that.” 

Indiana remains without cornerstone Victor Oladipo, who hasn’t played since January because of a quadriceps injury. The Pacers overhauled their roster during the offseason, losing Bojan Bogdanovic and Thaddeus Young but adding Malcom Brogdon and T.J. Warren. They also extended Domantas Sabonis (four years, $75 million). The Pacers have rebounded to a 4-4 record after starting 0-3, even though Turner hasn’t played since suffering a left ankle sprain on Oct. 30 in Brooklyn.

“I think we’re going to have growing pains, but we control our own destiny,” said Turner, who is adjusting to playing alongside Sabonis in the frontcourt. “We just need to stay in the lab together and keep building chemistry. I feel like every new team goes through this. You’re not going to hit the ground running right away. But we definitely have the talent. It’s about putting it all together.” 

The Pacers' Myles Turner excels at defending the rim and stretching the floor. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

The Team USA experience

Turner liked playing for Team USA last summer and representing his country. 

But he didn’t like the criticism the team faced after getting eliminated by France in the quarterfinals of the FIBA World Cup. The loss snapped a 58-game winning streak for the U.S. in non-exhibitions in FIBA competition, dating to the 2006 World Championship semifinals. 

Turner fired back at his critics on Twitter before briefly deactivating his social media accounts.

“The reason I spoke up was because nobody else was going to say it. We were all thinking it, but nobody else was going to say it,” Turner said. “I feel like I was one of the leaders on that team, and I voiced my opinion because of the pride and work I put into being out there. 

“I wasn’t going to stand for any of the slander because we qualified our country for the Olympics and the days of the U.S. dominating the world are over. This is an international game. Just because we’re Team USA, doesn’t mean we’re going to go out there and kick every country’s ass.” 

Team USA was missing several star players who elected to skip the event for various reasons. It left a less talented group with little time to jell. 

“You ask a group of guys that have been together for two weeks to compete against guys that have been together for 10 years, that’s no easy task,” said Turner, who knew for a year and a half he was going to be on the team.

"And these teams are freaking good. You have all these teams with guys you’ve never heard of before, but they’re superstars, rockstars back where they’re from. You put these guys together on one team, and they make the right play at the right time, it’s unreal.” 

Turner hopes to get the opportunity to play on the international stage again. 

“To be one of 12 guys representing your country, that takes a lot of sacrifice and commitment,” Turner said. “The experience was amazing, to be able to play under Coach [Gregg] Popovich and to be amongst the talent pool I was with. People were talking so much about the guys who pulled out as opposed to the guys that were actually there. And I think that was overlooked. I think we were very underappreciated in that sense.” 

Turner never read the responses to his tweets. He briefly deactivated his accounts to avoid negativity and focus on his family. 

“I think that kind of stuff is toxic,” Turner said. “I heard a great quote, ‘A lion does not bother himself with the opinions of the sheep.’ And I feel like that’s something I kinda took to heart a little bit.”

Remembering where he came from

Myles Turner’s Twitter bio reads as follows: 

INDY! S/O To Everyone Who Said I Couldn't Bedford,TX #RIPPOLO #RIPGAIUS #RIPLOLO #RIPHABRAM

“It’s a shoutout to all my doubters,” Turner said. “They said, ‘You’re too skinny. You’re too soft. You’re not good enough. You’re not going to make it to the next level.’ That’s what always drove me as a kid. And that’s still what pushes me to go harder to this day.”

So does playing for the ones he lost. Turner’s childhood best friend, Habram Rosario, died from leukemia when Turner was a freshman in high school. Polo Manukainiu, Andrew Lolo Uhatafe and Gaius Vaenuku all went to high school with Turner and were killed in a car accident in July 2013. 

“I wanted their legacies to live on,” Turner said. “To this day, it’s emotional for me. At the time [Habram died] it put everything back into perspective. I just realized how precious life is. It could happen to anybody. One day, you’re sitting next to your boy, and the next day he’s gone.”

Turner overcame that adversity to reach the pros. He cried tears of joy with his parents by his side after returning to his apartment after signing his extension. 

“It’s stressful more than anything because you have a certain number in your head, the organization has a certain number in their head, and Twitter has a certain number in their head,” Turner said. “You have the pressure of, ‘Am I going to sign this and be good?’ or ‘Am I going to play this season out and try to get more money?’ But you risk injury, you risk your numbers going down. So just the idea of playing under all that stress, I think it was such a moment of relief once I signed.”

Soon after, the tears began to flow.

“I think there was just so much emotion in the room,” Turner said. “I broke down and I couldn’t stop. I didn’t know why I was crying. It just happened. And I think once my parents saw me that emotional — it was tears of joy, obviously — that’s when it finally hit them. I think once we got together and all the stress was gone, it was something beautiful, something right out of a movie.” 

The next step is making sure he lives up to his deal. During the offseason, Turner worked out with Kevin McHale and did hot yoga to improve his game and get in optimal playing shape. Turner enjoys playing in Indiana, though the Pacers did field calls from other teams about him, sources confirmed to Yahoo Sports. The sense, however, is that it would have taken a massive haul to land Turner, a big man coveted for his ability to alter shots and stretch the floor. 

“I can’t worry about that,” Turner said of the trade rumors, “because if I do, that’s going to add so much undo pressure and tension that can affect my play on the floor.” 

Turner gets away from the game by building Lego sets, a unique hobby for an NBA player. 

“I’m a very constructive mind,” Turner said. “Not like engineering or anything, but I’ve always liked puzzles and making stuff work. It’s different. I don’t really share a lot of interests with everybody, but it’s what keeps me calm and gives me something to do. Something to kind of take my mind away from basketball.” 

Myles Turner is also focused on building his game. There’s a lot of potential there. His next highlight-real block and dunk awaits. 

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