Memphis Grizzlies guard Tyreke Evans is finally playing productive basketball again, and the 28-year-old is thriving in his new role.
There was once a time where Tyreke Evans appeared to be the next superstar. He compiled a sensational rookie season back in 2010 that earned him Rookie of the Year honors. With averages of 20.1 points, 5.8 assists and 5.3 rebounds, Evans joined Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan and LeBron James as the only first-year players to record 20, five and five for a season. He was ahead of his time.
Until recently, 6-6 wings with guard skills were seen as tweeners who would have trouble fitting into the NBA. Coaches and organizations at the beginning of the decade were still into traditional lineups that valued size more than versatility. Evans was a dynamic playmaker who, for the most part, made his teams better. The Sacramento Kings, however, squandered his talent. They failed to win more than 28 games at any point during his tenure, and they never surrounded him with players who would maximize his skill set. Outside of DeMarcus Cousins, no one on those Kings teams struck fear in anyone.
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As the years wore on, Evans’ roles got smaller and smaller. He got traded to the New Orleans Pelicans in 2013. Despite all the entertainment value, there was one big red flag on Evans’ resume — his durability. He didn’t miss significant time outside of the 2010-11 season when he suited up for just 57 games, but the minor ailments added up. There was only one year in Sacramento where Evans played more than 70 games, and that was his rookie campaign.
After spending his time with franchises that make us forget about talent, the Evans that burst onto the scene became a distant memory. And then we remembered him for all of the wrong reasons. Back during the 2015-16 season, Evans saw action in just 25 games because of not one, but two knee surgeries. The initial operation caused him to miss the first 17 games of that campaign. In January, Evans underwent his second procedure and would miss the rest of the season. He, however, still managed to put up decent numbers, but the former Rookie of the Year just didn’t look the same, and you could tell his bad knees were forcing him to adjust. Evans rose his three-point percentage to 38.8 percent after not even cracking 30 over his first six years.
We, as NBA fans, are fickle. Players are only as good as their last season. When it came time for Tyreke Evans to find employment, he had already become the poster boy for what could’ve been. The Memphis Grizzlies took a chance on him, signing him to a one-year deal with $3.3 million. Evans’ 2016-17 season was the worst of his career, but his contract was still a bargain. Despite that, skeptics were out in full force. The NBA’s current landscape doesn’t benefit guards who can’t shoot and don’t play defense. Evans was adapting nicely, but it wasn’t consistent.
During media day, coach David Fizdale made multiple comments about Evans improved shooting. He then took gushing to another level. “Tyreke, I’m just happy I’m not coaching against anymore,” started Fizdale. “To me, he was the closest thing we faced to Dwyane Wade when it came to getting to the basket, being able to draw fouls, being able to finish through contact.”
After 11 games, Tyreke Evans looks like an entirely different player. He’s averaging 17.5 points — the most since his sophomore year — on 49.3 percent shooting and complements that with 4.8 rebounds. The assist numbers are down (2.8 a night), but the Grizzlies don’t need Evans to be their point guard. He can now focus on scoring. The most significant component to the 28-year-old’s success is the three-point shot that has made its way back. Evans is nailing two threes a night at a blistering clip of 43.1 percent.
Memphis has helped Evans find his rhythm, and their reliance on each other goes both ways. The Grizzlies play a gritty, archaic style of basketball that doesn’t produce much offense, so they take that energy and use it on the other end of the floor. For most of the decade, Memphis has had an elite defense because the coaches and players fit that system. David Fizdale has employed an exceptional philosophy, but if his team slips a bit and gets caught sleeping, it’s tough for them to climb back into games because they just don’t have the firepower. Moreover, it’s imperative that they dictate the pace of the game, so it favors them.
Mike Conley and Marc Gasol have carried the bulk of the offense last year and this year. Unfortunately, their levels of production have dipped a bit. Gasol is averaging 19.5 points on 43.9 percent shooting; the scoring is the same as last year, but he’s lost his touch from the perimeter. Conley’s regression is worse than Gasol’s. He hasn’t fallen flat on his face, but he looks nothing like he did last season. Conley was coming off a career-best 20.5 points a night, and that’s dropped to 18.6. Additionally, his overall field goal percentage is down six points (46.0 to 40.0), and the clip from the outside has decreased by 9.5 (40.8 to 31.3).
The Grizzlies are already 26th in scoring; having one of their best players in a slump is detrimental. That’s where Tyreke Evans comes in. He has a chance to win the Sixth Man of the Year award if he maintains this start, and Memphis looks at him to lead their second-unit. If the offense is plodding along, Evans enters the contest and instantly gives the opponent a dynamic player that they have to account for, and the most significant thing he does to mess with opponents is quickening the pace.
If Evans weren’t in the rotation, the reserve situation would be bleak. He also plays away from the basketball without a problem, meaning he can run with the starters and not muck up the game plan
Memphis has maximized Evans by playing to his strengths. In his earlier years, he was a score-first guard who was almost forced to act as a distributor; it’s similar to what D’Angelo Russell went through with the Los Angeles Lakers. With the Grizzlies, Evans is just playing basketball, and they’re not trying to change him.
The dialed in stroke from the perimeter has helped tremendously. Evans has always been at his best when going downhill. Back during his younger days, he could blow by whoever and was big enough to absorb contact and not be intimidated by taller defenders. Multiple knee surgeries have taken some of that athleticism away, but it doesn’t matter because Evans has refined his jumper. The court is opened more, and Memphis makes just enough threes to keep the defenders at home.
On Nov. 1, Evans hung 32 points on the Orlando Magic, giving him his first 30-point game since 2014. The shots fell from all over — off-the-dribble threes, uncontested fastbreak points, against bigs who had no chance of staying in front of him once he broke out the dance moves. It was arguably the most versatile we’ve ever seen him. And that’s the threat that he is every night. In Memphis’ two most recent contests versus the Lakers and Portland Trail Blazers, Evans has elevated his level of play and dropped 47 total points on 58.1 percent shooting.
The Grizzlies are 7-4 as of Thursday, and Tyreke Evans has been playing like it’s his teams. He’s first in PER (23.6) and box plus/minus (5.2) among all the guys who have appeared in more than one game. Furthermore, he’s got the best net rating of his career at plus-7.0. When he takes the court, Memphis’ offensive rating improves slightly (106.9 to 107.6), but their defense enters a whole different level. With Evans, the Grizzlies allow just 100.3 per 100 possessions, down from 106.6 when he sits. That’s a huge jump. And also an unexpected one.
Seeing Tyreke Evans healthy and being productive is fantastic. After starting off with a sensational first few years, his career was hanging in the balance of his knees. Now in Memphis, the former lottery pick has found a home where they let him play his brand of basketball. There are still 71 games left, but Evans hasn’t shown us that he’ll slow down.
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