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By: Michael Levkowitz
Remember when we were all poking fun at Sam Presti for taking James Harden over Tyreke Evans? Seemingly everyone could agree on one thing coming out of the first round: Harden was the “safe” choice while Evans had the higher ceiling. Evans impressed during his rookie season (Blake Griffin’s preseason injury cleared the way for Tyreke to win the Rookie of the Year award with 20.1 ppg, 5.8 apg, 5.3 rpg), and it appeared Sacramento had found a franchise player with the fourth pick of the 2009 draft (Memphis infamously drafted Hasheem Thabeet with the second pick, leaving Harden, Evans, Ricky Rubio and Stephen Curry on the board).
How quickly things can change. Now Evans appears miles behind his projected trajectory to superstardom. By comparison, after a relatively slow start to his career, Harden has emerged this year as one of the best young shooting guards in the league, and was the consensus “biggest snub” not present at the All-Star game. Evans has seen his numbers regress since his rookie campaign as his coaches have struggled how to best utilize his skill set. Oh, and the Kings drafted Demarcus Cousins, one of the most talented y0ung big men is basketball, who may or may not have pushed for Paul Westphal’s firing earlier this year…throwing Evans’ status as the face and future of the franchise into question. So.
Is he a point guard?
Even the Kings aren’t sure. Where Evans plays his minutes has fluctuated wildly in his brief career. During his rookie campaign he played around 40% of his minutes as a point guard. The next year (under the same head coach, Paul Westphal, for the record) he played approximately 4% of his court time as the floor general. This season (with 7 games under Westphal before his axing and the remainder under Keith Smart), Evans has returned to splitting his minutes, playing as a point 37% of the time which he is on the court.
His assist to turnover ratio (AST/TO, determined by: Assists/Turnovers…pretty simple) ranks 43rd among all qualified point guards (ESPN still has Evans identified as such). Even when compared to shooting guards Evans’ AST/TO ranks in the thirties. John Hollinger at ESPN has his own fancy advanced assist metric known as the Assist Ratio (basically the rate of assists against possessions used) in which Evans lands somewhere in the 50s among point guards who have played 25+ minutes per game this year, and places 20th if classified as a SG. It seems apparent that he shouldn’t be running a team’s offense. Where does he fit then?
According to 82games.com, when you split Evans’ numbers by what position he was playing at the time, you see that his AST/TO is actually better when playing as a shooting guard (1.97) than it is when he plays as a point (1.54). An AST/TO of 1.97 would place Evans in the top 3 among qualified shooting guards.
Is he a shooting guard?
We know the man can go to the hole with authority. We’ve seen him get there quite often in transition, but he’s struggled in the half court. When you watch him over the course of a game (or worse, a season) it’s clear that his game is extremely one dimensional. Yes, Evans can slash with the best in the league, finishing at the rim at a rate of 59% thus far this season (with a decent sample size- 365 attempts and 53% of his total attempts have come in the Restricted Area.) The problem is that’s just about the only place he can finish. Seriously. He is shooting a measly 25.6% on attempts taken outside of the Restricted Area. Defenses can (and do) allow Evans’ defender to lag off him quite a bit without any real danger of getting burned. Compounding the problem for the Kings is Evans’ inability to draw fouls. Despite attempting more than half his shots at the rim, he’s only attempting 4.3 free throws per game this year (42nd in the league).
Evans’ inability to create baskets away from the rim should alarm Kings’ management. His True Shooting Percentage (TS%), which takes into account the value of 3-pointers and free throws when computed, .503, is good for 53rd among shooting guards, according to Hollinger’s statistics.
As a rookie Evans drew comparisons to Dwayne Wade – now comparing the two just seems like piling on. While similarities can be seen (Wade’s 3P% during the ‘05-’06 season dropped all the way to 17%, Evans is hitting just 21% from long range this year – both were labeled “point guards” during their rookie campaigns to no avail – both slash to the rack with limited regard for their own safety), Wade’s campaign blows Evans’ out of the water. Compared to Evans’ 4.3 FTA, Wade managed 10.7! Evans’ current P.E.R. is just beneath 17. Wade finished his third season with a 27.68 rating. I think we can safely drop the Wade comparisons.
A Rich Man’s OJ Mayo?
So what exactly do the Kings have on their hands? He is too inefficient with the ball in his hands to start at point guard. He doesn’t appear to have the variety of weapons necessary to be an effective first option offensively. Though he’s played substantial minutes on the wings, he’s being outplayed by his counterparts when he slides to the 2 or 3.
“But he’s playing for the Kings! It’s not his fault, look who he’s playing with!”
I’m not buying it. The Kings (19-35) have actually been better this year when Evans has been on the bench. Don’t believe me? The team’s Net Points Per 100 Possessions is 4.3 points worse with Evans on the court than when he’s off it. (Just for fun, let’s compare that to the team’s rookie point guard, the last pick in last year’s draft, Isaiah Thomas. Zing! The Kings have been 8.3 points better with Thomas on the court than when he’s been off it. You win some you lose some.)
Though landing in Sacramento (where he was allowed to launch more than 16 shots a game from day 1) maximized the splash Evans made in his rookie season, it also inflated expectations about what kind of NBA player he could and would become. When he entered the league we raved about his potential to become a lockdown perimeter defender; after all, he had the quick feet, strength and good hands already! Instead, Kings fans have been forced to watch Evans get destroyed at the defensive end night-in and night-out by opposing shooting guards and small forwards.
Now, enough ragging on ‘Reke. Let’s give him a break for a second. With Demarcus Cousins firmly in place as the franchise centerpiece, what if the team moves Evans? Forgetting how high Evans was drafted…wouldn’t his ideal role be a microwave combo guard coming off the bench? He can’t carry an offense for an entire game (without that team being a perennial lottery team, that is), but his greatest (and only elite) basketball skill is slashing to the hoop. Again, setting aside his status as a borderline franchise player, wouldn’t you love Evans leading your bench unit?
The reality is that he’s better suited to carrying an offense for 10-12 minutes of a game than he is to carrying a franchise. He could succeed in a role similar to J.J. Barea’s on last year’s championship-winning Mavericks team: ball-handler/main offensive weapon coming off the bench, minutes fluctuating based on his effectiveness on any given night. Faced with the prospect of sitting on the bench for the majority of games, he might choose to apply himself on the defensive end for a change (where he still has the potential to become a scary-good perimeter defender). He hasn’t yet shown the shooting range of an ideal microwave guard (26% from 3-point range for his career), but his motor and ability to get to find driving lanes in bursts could more than make up for it…hell, with work, he could be a rich man’s OJ Mayo!