Hedo Turkoglu: The Suns’ enigma of a forward could be the key to the season


PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns have a fair understanding of what they are going to get from the majority of their players.

Steve Nash will run the show and shoot a high percentage, Jason Richardson will score, Jared Dudley will hustle and Robin Lopez will block shots.

Even among the newcomers we know that Josh Childress will slash and add perimeter defense and Hakim Warrick will shoot mid-range jumpers and finish on the pick-and-roll.

As for Hedo Turkoglu? It’s anyone’s guess, and his output and attitude will go a long way toward determining how the Phoenix Suns’ 2010-11 season will wind up.

The question to ask about Turkoglu isn’t, “What kind of player is he?” He has played 10 seasons in the league, and as Nash said, “He’s a guy who can dribble, shoot, pass, make plays.” We all know that, and have known it for years.

What we don’t know is how much he’s got left in the tank, how willing he will be to take on the role Alvin Gentry gives to him and whether he can defend power forwards.

Turkoglu, 31, has been awful thus far in the preseason after a nice camp, hitting just 3-of-15 shots and scoring eight points in 40 minutes. However, he did grab a team-high eight boards and record three steals Wednesday against the Raptors.

That wouldn’t be anything of a concern for a veteran if it weren’t for his sharp decline last year in Toronto, a season so bad that fans in Canada were booing him on the other side of the country from Toronto Wednesday in Vancouver.

Turkoglu averaged 11.3 points, 4.7 boards and 4.1 assists per game while shooting just 40.9 percent from the floor as a Raptor. That’s two years removed from a 19.5-5.7-5.0 line in 2007-08 that included clutch shot after clutch shot for the Magic.

Even worse, the situation turned toxic when Turkoglu complained about not having the ball in his hands enough, and things came to a head when he was seen out at a club on a night he missed a game for being sick. He became the scapegoat for many of the Raptors’ troubles, and he did all he could to force the eventual trade to Phoenix.

The Suns certainly took a chance in acquiring Turkoglu and the four years and around $45 million remaining on his deal (although some of it is non-guaranteed at the tail end). If he’s the Raptors Turkoglu, the Suns made the mistake of the summer; if he’s the Orlando Turkoglu, then the Suns acquired a perfect fit for their offense with his versatile playmaking skills in a 6-foot-10 body.

“I know I had a bad year last year,” Turkoglu said. “Does it mean I have to come here and really prove myself? I know what kind of player I am, and I know what I can do in this system. Here we have a good system. When we get to know each other more and more they get to use me, and I can be really helpful for the team.

“Whether I had a good year or bad year I always put it behind and look forward for a new start, so this season is a new start for me with Phoenix with a new team, a new organization, so I’m looking forward to having a good year.”

Turkoglu did admit that the Raptors “just didn’t have a good chemistry last year.” That’s undoubtedly a fact, but if you ask anybody in Toronto they will place a good portion of the blame on the Suns’ new Turkish forward. That’s a scary proposition for a Phoenix team that gelled so beautifully last season and rode its chemistry to the Western Conference Finals.

When a reporter asked Turkoglu about his need to have the ball in his hands — one of his major gripes in Toronto — he said all the right things.

“I don’t want people to think I’m going to come here and be the guy who wants the ball in my hands all the time and I’m going to cause problems to the other guys,” said Turkoglu, who added he will be OK with any way Gentry decides to use him. “Steve is going to be our leader, he’s going to run the show no matter what. Just be me at this size, and they just want me to be facilitator like I did in the past, so hopefully if I can do that and help Steve or other guys to get open shots I’m really happy about it.”

Perhaps Turkoglu respects Nash in a way he did not respect Jose Calderon last season or perhaps he has learned from the mishaps of last year. Orlando relied on him to be the primary playmaker, particularly in the 2008 playoffs when Jameer Nelson was out, but there’s no need to be a primary playmaker when he can look for his own shot and get set up by the best point guard he’s ever played with.

Turkoglu can help this team in so many ways with his versatility on offense, where he can be a shooter or a creator and play whatever position the Suns need him to at that particular time. On a team with so many other interchangeable parts, Turkoglu’s skill set can be a disaster for opposing defenses.

To me Turkoglu is the Suns’ ace in the hole. If last year was no fluke and he continues to regress, the Suns will need to acquire a true power forward just to have a good shot at reaching the playoffs. But if he’s a playmaking, matchup nightmare doing a little bit of long-range shooting, facilitating and beating big men on mismatches, then the Suns remain the toughest squad to defend in the NBA and a team that can win on any given night.

The Suns without Amare must win by being even more unconventional, creating more mismatches and developing the same kind of chemistry that propelled last year’s team.

For the Suns to do that, Hedo Turkoglu must become an impact player once again.