As a freshman on the Warren De La Salle junior varsity team in 2010-11, A.J. Turner took his first shot at a winner.
“I airballed,” Turner recalled Sunday. “Coach drew up a 3-pointer from the left wing. I was wide open, I just airballed.”
Eight seasons and three schools later, Turner, a Mount Clemens native, finally got his shot at redemption, knocking down a winner to lift Northwestern past rival Illinois this month in just the second game-winning opportunity in his winding career.
“The wait was worth it though,” Turner said.
Wildcats coach Chris Collins has put the ball in Turner's hands in his first season in Evanston. Turner came from Boston College as an intriguing wing transfer, but is playing point guard in the Big Ten as a junior.
“I think it’s definitely a process,” Turner said after matching up with All-Big Ten candidate Zavier Simpson in Sunday’s 80-60 loss at Michigan.
“I played point guard in high school but I hadn’t played it since then. I think I’m learning, I watch a lot of film and try to set what areas I can improve in. I’m not like the traditional point guard, but I think it’s helping my overall game.”
At Boston College, Turner showed a propensity for taking care of the ball, leading the Atlantic Coast Conference with a 2.91 assist-to-turnover ratio.
This year, his production has ticked up, with career highs in points (9.2 per game), assists (3.6) and minutes (32.7).
After his transfer from Boston College, Turner had to sit out last season. Despite one win in his first six Big Ten games, Turner said returning to the Midwest was a good move.
“I’m definitely happy with my decision,” he said, noting that his parents, Andre and Tracy, have been able to attend games with his sisters.
“I’m closer to home. Coach Collins is a great coach, I’m learning from some great guys.”
Adjusting to new environments is nothing new for Turner, who moved from Mount Clemens to Detroit to Macomb to New Haven as a youngster.
He played three seasons for coach Greg Esler at De La Salle, attracting interest from nearly 60 colleges.
Like many top prospects, Turner went the prep school route, moving to New Hampton Prep in New Hampshire, which turns out multiple college prospects every year and produced pros like Noah Vonleh, Rashad McCants and Darius Songaila.
Turner reclassified and spent two seasons in New Hampshire before joining coach Jim Christian and Boston College as a three-star recruit. In his two seasons with the Eagles, the team went 16-48 with Turner starting 52 games on the wing.
In Chestnut Hill, the point guard duties were assigned to Ky Bowman and future lottery pick Jerome Robinson. Now at Northwestern, the ball is Turner’s.
For the Wildcats, Turner has delivered in some of the program’s biggest wins, scoring 24 points in a win against DePaul and hitting the winner with 11 seconds left against Illinois on Jan. 6.
Those wins are big for a Northwestern program that markets itself as “Chicago’s Big Ten Team” and is trying to improve its national footprint under Collins after winning a game in its first trip to the NCAA Tournament two seasons ago.
“We’ve seen improvement from earlier this year until now so hopefully (Turner) continues to improve,” senior leader Dererk Pardon said. “He’s a good guy and whenever you have good guys in the program, it always works out. Just having him around brings a big boost to the team.”
Collins said Turner’s winner, which came after he missed from the same spot seconds before but was given another chance off Pardon’s offensive rebound, was the type of plays he likes to see.
“You don’t accomplish anything good if you’re on your heels,” Collins told the Chicago Tribune after the game. “You have to put yourself out there, and sometimes it doesn’t work, but you never know what you’re going to do unless you go for it. … I want our guys to have courage, take shots, go for it. We’ll live with the results.”
Heading into Friday’s game at Rutgers, the Wildcats (10-7, 1-5) have been short on results in the Big Ten season. But any success has been in large part to Turner, who said he will continue to embrace tough roles.
“Honestly, I’m going to do whatever the team needs me to do,” Turner said. “I’m kind of good at adjusting on the fly.”
Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.