The early days brimmed with optimism. Though his program had suffered a mass exodus of talent prior to his hiring and virtually every key contributor from his first year at the helm had either graduated or declared for the NBA Draft, Jim Christian seemed unusually cheery about what the coming years had in store for both himself and Boston College.
His positivity was largely the result of his first real recruiting class at BC. Hired in April 2014 to replace Steve Donohue, Christian had entered the toughest conference in college basketball already well behind schedule on recruiting. But after filling out the margins of his roster for the upcoming season, he immediately set out to shape the 2015 roster in his own image.
The jewel of Christian’s recruiting class was unquestionably A.J. Turner. A 6-foot-7 small forward from Mt. Clemens, Mich., Turner arrived on the Heights as the Eagles’ first Rivals150 recruit since Rakim Sanders in 2007. Spurning programs like Iowa State, Harvard, and Stanford for Chestnut Hill, he projected as a program altering signing, a player with both talent and commitment to building a culture of competitiveness.
From the outset, Christian lost no time saying as much.
“He’s a perfect fit for the way I play and for BC,” the coach said a few weeks prior to the 2015 season opener. “He’s just here to learn and get better and play as hard as he can and I think as his time continues to grow here, he’s going to emerge as a great leader for us.”
And though his play didn’t exactly live up to some of the more outsized expectations, true to Christian’s word, Turner became a crucial component of BC’s lineup and leadership structure—alongside classmate Jerome Robinson—over the past two seasons.
In his first season, he shot an abysmal 33.5 percent from the field and just 26 percent from 3-point range despite taking 3.6 long-range attempts per game. He sometimes looked overmatched physically and avoided the contact that would come from driving to the basket. Turner posted a usage rate of just 14.3—the percentage of the team’s plays that he used while on the floor—which ranked below limited offensive players such as Garland Owens and Darryl Hicks. Still, he started 24 games as a college freshman playing in the Atlantic Coast Conference and showed flashes of his athleticism and passing vision, particularly in transition, when he wasn’t confronted with the physicality of the ACC.
This season, Turner took huge strides forward. Playing next to the dynamic, ball-dominant backcourt of Robinson and Ky Bowman, the former top recruit slid into the role of secondary playmaker and performed with aplomb for sustained stretches early in the season. He shot a much improved 37.1 percent from downtown and averaged three assists per game, looking comfortable driving into a defense scrambled by initial guard penetration and finding open shooters across the court. In a skill not even noticed by most, Turner became one of the best inbounders in the conference, routinely serving as the triggerman for plays called after timeouts or dead balls. He also led the conference in assist to turnover ratio among players who saw more than 10 minutes of playing time per game.
Though his shooting slipped late in conference play—Turner shot 32.9 percent from beyond the arc in ACC games—he made a positive impact on the team’s offense. In fact, Turner posted an offensive rating—the number of points the team would score per 100 possessions with him on the floor—of 112.3, tops on the roster and easily better than his 91.5 mark the prior season.
Despite his slender frame and issues in the paint, Turner also developed into a capable wing defender for the Eagles over the past two seasons. His long arms and mature defensive approach allowed him to defend without fouling, enabling him to effectively handle perimeter players. Turner committed the fewest fouls per 40 minutes of any ACC underclassman, according to kenpom.com.
Though Turner clearly wasn’t the player he was projected to be two years ago, he offered a vital contribution to the roster. He meshed well with Bowman and Robinson as a low-usage secondary playmaker and defender. Additionally, he built himself into one of the cornerstones of a rebuilding program, a player with two seasons as an ACC-caliber starter under his belt and a growing role as a team leader.
So as news broke a few weeks ago that he received his release from BC, seeking to transfer elsewhere to play out the remainder of his NCAA eligibility, just about everybody was left stunned. With no obvious acrimony between player and coaching staff or with any of his teammates, the most common reason for transferring doesn’t fit the situation. Speculation is futile, since Turner himself didn’t divulge any reason for the decision—certainly, he’s under no obligation to do so.
But while the program itself may not have prompted an angry request to transfer, it does seem fair to say that what the program had to offer him no longer served as strong reasons to keep him here. Turner was presented the opportunity to start over 100 games in the ACC and to be a key piece—alongside Bowman and Robinson—in the Eagles’ rebuild. Though it sounds like a cliché, he was given the chance to be a part of building something lasting. And whatever the reason, Turner decided that package no longer appealed to him.
Instead, as was reported Wednesday, the former Eagle will take his talents to Northwestern, where he will be reunited with 2017 signee Anthony Gaines, a prep school teammate of Turner’s. The decision offers further evidence of BC’s specific recruiting pitch lacking appeal.
Though they made the tournament this past season, Northwestern and head coach Chris Collins are still recruiting under the premise of players being part of building a lasting program, much like Christian does. However, the most strenuous part of the Wildcats rebuild appears to be in the past, as the team has established a baseline around a .500 record. Perhaps this is the point at which recruits sour on BC. While the idea of building something, not just serving as a cog in a finely tuned machine, appeals to players, the prospect of actually suffering through the early years of heavy losses doesn’t strike them as alluring.
For Christian, this represents a bit of a crisis point. Of the 10 recruits he signed for his first three seasons as BC’s head coach, five have now transferred from the program: Idy Diallo, Matt Milon, Sammy Barnes-Thompkins, Ty Graves, and Turner. Whereas the first four names on that list represent role players faced with no guarantee of steady time on the court, Turner was an unquestioned starter who was a lock for 30 minutes per game. If someone with that type of well-defined role, who had been offered the elevated status of establishing a foundation for future success, decides it’s no longer worth it to remain with the program, how much more does Christian really have to pitch to future recruits?
If the chance to grow alongside the top young backcourt in the ACC doesn’t inspire a firm desire to play with this team, what will?
Despite Bowman’s breakout year and the valuable contributions of Nik Popovic and Jordan Chatman, the hope of this past season has begun to fade. In its place is a familiar cynicism. The Eagles only have two recruits currently signed for next season—6-foot-10 forward Luka Kraljevic and 6-foot-4 guard Avery Wilson. Neither seems ready for heavy ACC minutes, with Kraljevic needing to add muscle to his frame and Wilson needing to refine his game.
As in prior campaigns under Christian, the Eagles figure to be active in the graduate transfer market, especially for their thin frontcourt rotation. That they still need to do this heading into the fourth year of the current regime is indicative of the fact that the coaching staff’s recruiting pitch is falling on deaf ears. Just this week, Malik Ondigo—a three-star, 6-foot-9 center with good athleticism and shot blocking instincts—opted to play at Texas Tech, despite having BC among his top five school choices.
None of this should imply Christian and his assistants are incapable of recruiting well—Bowman and Robinson are effective counterarguments against that idea—but at a certain point, it is fair to wonder if they can offer what recruits want to hear.
In the meantime, Christian will continue trying to beef up his roster, pitching recruits a college experience replete with growth for both the individual and the program, highlighting the satisfaction of watching the success of something they’ve personally built.
As he continues his search, only one question remains. Will it be enough?
Featured Image by Julia Hopkins / Heights Editor