One-on-One With Elston Turner

By Stefan Swiat,
Posted: July 18, 2011

After playing eight seasons in the NBA and earning the reputation as a stalwart defender, Elston Turner was brought on board the Suns' coaching staff last week to help the club shore up its play on the defensive end. Phoenix's newest assistant coach sat down with to talk about his playing career, his coaching experience and why he came to the Valley of the Sun. How did a Tennessee guy end up committing to Ole Miss?

Suns Assistant Coach Elston Turner: That’s a long, long story. They didn’t really steal me away. I was born and raised literally two miles from the University of Tennessee. We won the state championship my senior year, so we were a really popular team for colleges. But I didn’t even get a phone call from them. I had 30 schools contact me and for them, it wouldn’t have even been a long-distance call. I was MVP of the whole state and the tournament, but at the time, they recruited in other parts of the country. So there were a couple of other SEC schools that were interested in me, but Ole Miss showed the most interest. So I decided that I was going to go to a SEC school just so I could come back here and beat the crap out of them. Every time we came back, there were tons of Knoxville fans up in the stands for us. And they caught some heat for that too. Was getting inducted into Ole Miss’ Hall of Fame the greatest athletic honor you ever had?

Turner: It’s right up there with being drafted. Getting drafted was a satisfying accomplishment. But to be in the school’s Hall of Fame, that’s right up there. They’re one 1A and 1B. In your rookie year you averaged more points than in any of your other eight seasons in the NBA. After that season did you focus primarily on defense?

Turner: You get these labels when you come out of college. I averaged 21 points a game in the SEC. I don’t know how you can do that without being able to score? We won the SEC Tournament, but I could play defense. I had a pretty good all-around game. Dallas, the team I got drafted to, had a number of players that could score. So they always put me on the toughest offensive guy. And that’s how it got started and from there it stuck that I was a defender. I always could score. From high school to college, to the NIT, to the team of college stars that I toured Europe with; I always led that team in scoring. It’s just a tag that stuck and I embraced it, but before long I became known as a defensive player that couldn’t score. It wasn’t that I couldn’t score, it was just that I didn’t shoot. Who was the best player you ever played with?

Turner: I got to play with Michael Jordan for two years with the Bulls. So it had to be him. Jordan was considered one of the best defenders in the league. Was he the best defender you ever played against?

Turner: He was tough, but I don’t know if he was the best. I was around for a while, so there were some guys that would really lock into you. He had so much to do on the other end of the court. He was a great defender now, that’s not what I’m saying. He was the best player for sure. But the best defender? I don’t know. So who were some of the players that were the greatest pains to play against?

Turner: There were a lot of pain in the necks. Guys like Ricky Sobers. He was a pain. He was always trying to try you. He’s a good guy, we talk every time we see each other, but back then guys wanted to see what you were made of. I know it wasn’t personal. And the rules were different. To see what you were made of required a little bit more physicality. What kind of player were you on defense?

Turner: I was the kind of guy that paid attention to facial expressions and some gestures that my opponent made. Sometimes I would switch up with a teammate and I would see the expression on the guy that I’m getting ready to guard. You could kind of tell if they respect you a little bit. They’d get off the ball a little earlier than they normally would. What’s going to be your approach to defense in Phoenix?

Turner: It takes a bit of analysis and time to see if we have the ingredients of what goes in to making strong defensive players. Those ingredients are the abilities to run, jump and move laterally. And then you adjust depending on what you have because I have no idea what I’m going to be working with. And it always takes a little time to analyze. If you’re cooking up something, you have to see what’s in the pantry to throw into the pot. I’ll tell you this though. We’re going to be the league-average or better next year. We have some goals that we’re going to meet. And from looking at the stats of where the team finished last year, we’re going to do better than that. Can you improve defensively if you’re not athletic?

Turner: First of all, sometimes winning and losing is determined by who plays the hardest and longest. So we have to see what our ingredients are made out of. I think you can improve, maybe not into the upper-echelon, but definitely league-average or better. It’s just a concept that’s going to involve more chemistry where everybody is helping each other. We’ve made up for shortcomings in Houston and Sacramento, where we had great teams. When you prepared against Phoenix, what were the holes you saw in the Suns’ defense and their ability to rebound?

Turner: Like every team in the league that is scouted, you find a team’s strength and weaknesses, and then you go out and try to exploit those weaknesses. With the Suns, we just thought we could get to the basket without a lot of interference. We also wanted to crash the boards after a shot and try to score after the shot went up. Obviously, Phoenix had a strength of its own, pushing it and making you pay on the other end. Some teams prefer to get back because of that, but we went to the glass. So how do you help the Suns on the defensive glass?

Turner: That’s just repetition and being aware of it. We have to harp on that. You have to have desire and it’s not easy. You’re in there and you’re getting banged around, catching an elbow here and there in your lip. And while not everybody likes to be in there… it’s going to be required. And everybody is going to have to buy into it. And strategically, I don’t know just yet, because I don’t know all of my ingredients. So the blanket answer to your question would be that everybody has to participate and the overseer must make sure that everybody participates. So whose idea was it to focus for at least 40 minutes of defense at practice?

Turner: I think that came from (Suns Head Coach) Alvin (Gentry), not from me. Alvin puts together the schedule and obviously there has to be a committed time to improvement on that end. How long and how often that concentrated effort on that end may be, I’m not sure. All of the coaches have to get together and come up with a plan. And a lot of the time, that plan is altered by the strength of the schedule. If you have four games in five nights, it’s better to let them rest. Overall, what excites you the most about coming to Phoenix?

Turner: It’s a chance to work with Alvin, a good staff and a good organization, but definitely not the heat. As far as the weather is concerned though, there are a lot worse places you could be. I just want to thank Alvin and for giving me this opportunity. We’re all in this together and we want to bring this organization back to where it was when it was wild and crazy for an opponent to come in here. Will you be around Phoenix this summer?

Turner: Yeah. I’ll be there to have some meetings with the coaching staff and figure out what we want to do and have it all ready. I’ll also be back in Tennessee for my basketball camp at my high school. It’s a chance to give back to my community up there. Do you have any other hobbies?

Turner: I’m a motorcycle rider. I’ve got a Bourget and a BMW touring bike. Even though I know how to ride, I go back and take a course every now and then. It’s full of tips that you don’t ever think about. It’s worth it. And Phoenix has some good riding. If I had to give any advice I’d say, ‘Ride like nobody sees you.’ You could be right in what you do, but you could right sitting up in the hospital. Other than that, I’ve been playing a bass guitar for the last 30 years. I come from Tennessee ,so I’m mostly a jazz guy. But I also play the blues and R&B. Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?

Turner: I'd ust like to mention my family. My wife’s name is Louise and we’ve got one son, Elston, that transferred from Washington to Texas A&M. He’s going into his junior year and is either going to study sports management or construction management. And I also have one daughter, Taylor, that’s 18. She’s going to end up at Texas A&M too.

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