Tyreke Evans makes stunning transformation as starter
By: Jim Eichenhofer, Pelicans.com, @Jim_Eichenhofer
Not long before he was scheduled to make his first start for the New Orleans Pelicans on Feb. 28, Tyreke Evans had the misfortune of getting stuck in a Phoenix hotel elevator. Hotel maintenance workers were eventually able to fix the problem after a 30-minute delay, allowing Evans to get to the nearby U.S. Airways Center on time and start at small forward against the Suns.
Since emerging from that cramped elevator – Evans posted a brief video of the incident on Instagram – the fifth-year pro has somehow transformed into a completely different player. Along with the dominance of Anthony Davis over roughly the same period of time, Evans’ all-around effectiveness has sparked the Pelicans to arguably their best stretch of 2013-14. New Orleans (30-40) has gone 7-3 over its past 10 games, highlighted by wins vs. Miami and Brooklyn. The only defeats during the 10-game stretch were near-misses against quality opponents Memphis, Portland and Toronto.
If the NBA awarded such a thing as an in-season Most Improved Player, Evans’ name might be at the top of the list of candidates. He was in the midst of perhaps the worst stretch of his NBA career prior to being shifted to the starting five, including five consecutive games of single-digit scoring. From Feb. 19-26, Evans shot an errant 14-for-54 from the field, just 25.9 percent, while averaging only 6.4 points. With the Pelicans trying to snap a losing streak and facing a difficult Western road trip, Monty Williams opted to move Evans into the starting five, even though he’d just gone 2-for-9 in a four-point struggle at Dallas on Feb. 26.
That decision has yielded stunningly positive results. In his 11 starts since the elevator mishap in Arizona, the 24-year-old is averaging 22.4, 5.6 rebounds and 5.8 assists. Those numbers are eerily similar and even slightly better than what he produced as the NBA’s 2009-10 Rookie of the Year, 20.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 5.8 assists (Evans joined Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan and LeBron James as the only rookies in NBA history to average 20-5-5 in those categories).
“It’s been going good,” Evans said of the recent improvement. “I’ve just been in a good flow. I’ve been playing pretty good basketball. I’m feeding off of guys and (Davis) is playing good. Our team is getting better. That’s helping me out on the court, gaining confidence.”
In many instances, when a player’s statistics increase, it’s simply a result of additional playing time. Although Evans’ minutes have gone up considerably since he became a first-stringer, that alone doesn’t come close to explaining his change in production. For example, Evans is shooting 54.8 percent from the field since he became a starter, compared to 40.0 percent as a reserve. His percentages in three-point accuracy (40.9 as a starter, 14.5 as a sub) and even foul shooting (79.7 and 77.2) are better.
Evans’ impact on the team around him is also drastically different when he starts. According to Basketball-Reference.com, the Pelicans average 119 points per 100 possessions with Evans as a starter, but just 100 points per 100 possessions in his 50 reserve appearances. Defensively, the Pelicans are slightly worse since Evans moved into the first unit (113 points per 100, compared to 109 points per 100), but they’ve more than made up for it on the scoreboard.
In concrete terms, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what has caused Evans’ metamorphosis, but he believes getting on the floor immediately has been beneficial, as opposed to waiting on the sideline, not knowing exactly when he’ll enter the action.
“It just gives me a good start,” Evans said. “(I’ve been) pushing the ball, getting easy buckets in transition. I feed off of everybody else.”
Evans and Davis have also increased their familiarity lately by being on the floor together much more than they were early in the season. In many cases, Davis would take his first breather around the time Evans was entering a game, but now they’re often working in tandem. Evans is averaging 38.0 minutes in March, while Davis is logging a whopping 40.1 per night.
“We’re just communicating on the floor,” said Evans, who frequently has paired up with Davis in pick-and-rolls. “We’ve got a good relationship with each other. We are pushing each other to be the best we can be on the court. We’ve been doing well with that so far.”