If you isolate one player for hours and hours of film study, you begin to notice patterns you might miss or underestimate watching on a game-to-game basis. One such pattern: Sacramento’s Tyreke Evans spins probably more than anyone. And when you talk to scouts, executives and coaches (even Evans’ own head coach), it becomes clear that the spin move is a handy shorthand symbol for an extension-eligible positional mystery fast emerging as one of the most polarizing players in the league.
A player who spins is looking to score. Spinning dizzies up a ball handler’s vision, making it hard to read the movements of nine other players scattered around the court. You can count on one hand the players with the vision and coordination to throw creative, pinpoint passes in mid-spin. Evans is not one of them.
“The spin move goes back to Tyreke going in there with only one thought on his mind — to score,” said Keith Smart, the Kings’ coach and an Evans optimist. “He didn’t know how to map the floor. He wasn’t reading the defense. He didn’t have a next move.”
Smart also says those spin moves carry a higher degree of difficulty because of Evans’ shaky jumper. When Chris Paul runs a pick-and-roll, his defender has to chase him over the pick, meaning that if Paul gets into the lane and has a spin move in mind, he’ll be spinning off a slow-footed big man coming over to help. No one respects Evans’ jumper anymore. Defenders sag well below the screen, daring him to shoot. Evans did so often last season, in what Smart calls a “stubborn” attempt to prove he has an accurate jumper, even though Evans “hadn’t put in the real work” to develop one. But he also drove and spun a lot, and with his own defender dropping into the lane, all those spin moves ended up as awkward, wild attempts to get through multiple defenders.
Three years ago, Evans won Rookie of the Year honors after averaging 20.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 5.8 assists. But here’s the harsh reality of where his once-promising career stands now: He has thrived with the ball in his hands for his entire life, but he has been unable to do so against the world’s best players. Evans shot 37 percent out of isolations last season and 35 percent out of the pick-and-roll, both plays he used in high volumes, according to Synergy Sports. He’s a 25 percent three-point shooter, which is to say he is not a three-point shooter at all. He shot an abysmal 30 percent on long two-point jumpers last season; only three players — John Wall, Antawn Jamison and Corey Maggette — put up worse marks while attempting at least three such shots per game.
The film study makes clear Evans has not advanced much as a passer. That stems from his shoot-first mentality — Evans blatantly breaks plays in order to chuck jumpers — but also from a lack of elite vision that may never change.
“His passing skills aren’t up to par with someone like Rajon Rondo, who can affect the game even though he doesn’t have a jumper,” Smart said in an assessment with which league observers would agree emphatically.
Evans can make simple passes, but the complicated ones elude him. If he can step back, slow down and see the floor clearly, Evans is capable of some nifty dishes. When he’s out beyond the three-point arc on a pick-and-roll, the entire floor in front of him, he can swing the ball to spot-up shooters or find center DeMarcus Cousins slipping toward the foul line. When the Kings clear one side of the floor for Evans to post up on the wing, he can see every teammate on the other side, in his field of vision, and pick out cutters; he does not look all that different from LeBron James on those plays. If Evans has the ball near one sideline and shooting guard Marcus Thornton cuts backdoor along the opposite baseline, right in Evans’ sight line, Evans can sneak in an effective scoring pass.
But complicate things just a bit, or place Evans in traffic and on the move, and he just can’t make the next-level pass. When he does probe the lane on pick-and-rolls, he misses split-second chances to hit an open shooter in the opposite corner or drop a lefty slip pass to a big man who comes open at the edge of the paint for a tiny window. Evans can also be weirdly tentative, picking up his dribble or slowing to a stop at the elbow right at the moment where he might fatally compromise a defense by taking one more hard dribble.
And as mentioned above, he’ll exhibit amazingly poor timing in breaking off plays to chase his own. An example: The Kings, like every NBA team, have sets in which shooters run the baseline and curl off picks at the elbow as Evans handles up top. Evans will at times see those curls developing and yet, for whatever reason, take a hard dribble right into the would-be shooter’s path.
“Tyreke can be a pass-as-a-last-resort kind of guy,” Smart said. “A guy might come open for a second, but Tyreke will hold the ball a second or two too long. You look at Chris Paul, or the elite point guards in the league, and they already have a plan for where to go with the ball before they drive. It’s called mapping the floor.”
Making the trickiest passes is tough, especially for young players. Some don’t see those lanes consistently (Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook), while others don’t probe deeply enough to create them (Milwaukee’s Brandon Jennings). Some see those lanes and ignore them. Evans suffers from all three issues, though Smart emphatically says Evans is not a selfish player, citing multiple huddles in which Evans apologized profusely upon learning he missed an open man. And Evans’ unreliable jumper only makes those lanes harder to generate.
In short: Evans plays with the ball, but he’s not especially good at it. This is not to say Evans is a bad player. He posted an above-average Player Efficiency Rating last season, shot 45 percent and nearly put up a 16-5-5 line. We haven’t even addressed the other side of the floor, where Evans can defend all three perimeter positions fairly well and has potential to do much more. And he has dealt with several nagging injuries, including plantar fasciitis, in the years since his rookie season.
Evans, who turns 23 in two weeks, is poised to be a restricted free agent next offseason (he is eligible for an extension, but has yet to be offered one by the Kings). But he has to be better as an offensive player to warrant a new contract and jump a level. Smart has a plan to make that happen. It involves three basic steps:
• Improve the jump shot. This is just about work and repetition, and the Kings have confidence Evans is putting that work in this summer. Evans is never going to be Stephen Curry, but if he reconstructs his leg-kicking mess into even an average jumper, those spins will be easier, the passing lanes more obvious. He’s never going to be Rondo or Paul, either, but making those tricky passes just a bit less tricky can help Evans and the Kings win a few more possessions here and there.
• Continue moving Evans off the ball. The transition is already well under way, thanks to the emergence of Isaiah Thomas as a legitimate offensive point guard. Smart says Evans came to him without prodding midway through last season and offered to play off the ball more. He attempted 61 shots of cuts in 63 games last season, compared to just 29 such shots in 57 games in 2010-11, per Synergy. And he was good at it! Evans shot 42-of-61 (69 percent) off cuts and gradually developed a sense of when to cut backdoor or loop toward the foul line when his defender helped far off him or simply ignored him. A bonus: When Evans flashes to the foul line like that, he can see most of the floor as he cuts, meaning he is ready to throw the proper pass upon making the catch. Again, easier is better.
• Make the rest of the team better. Evans does not operate in a vacuum. Yes, it’s often at least partially his fault if the Kings’ first set piece doesn’t work. But those failings left the ball in Evans’ hands with 12 or 13 seconds left on the shot clock, and the rest of the Kings in those situations would often stand around, bunched together in the lane, waiting for Evans to create something. The Kings don’t have a killer jump-shooting big man to stretch the floor, and they are mostly inexperienced at the nuances of the NBA. And if we’re being honest, some of them are trained at this point to expect an Evans shot.
Smart hopes a full training camp will make the Kings better at pursuing second and third options as a team, with all five guys moving.
“We didn’t have offensive discipline,” he said. “We didn’t maintain our routes or our floor spacing.”
Evans also didn’t have the liveliest pick-and-roll partner in Cousins. Lots of Evans/Cousins pick-and-rolls might be more accurately described as “pick-and-stand-stills,” with Cousins, perhaps frustrated at a lack of touches, standing in place near the three-point arc after nailing Evans’ man with a pick. Evan’s herky-jerky style and penchant for rapid changes of directions, via spins and crossovers, make him an awkward pick-and-roll partner for a big man; it’s hard to time your cut to the basket alongside a guard like that.
But Cousins needs to try harder, Smart says: “He didn’t accelerate away from the pick to get open.” Smart also chastised Evans for too often ignoring an easy pick-and-pop pass to Cousins, a dish he says Thomas readily made.
There is clearly a big-time NBA talent somewhere within Tyreke Evans. He and the Kings have one season left to find it before Evans hits free agency and forces the Kings and the rest of the league to determine what is now a very uncertain market value.