A friend of Cincinnati associate head coach Larry Davis called one day in 2014 to tell him about a player in Louisiana that had been somehow overlooked by power conference schools, even though he played practically in LSU’s backyard.
“You need to go check him out,” Davis’ friend said.
As soon as the NCAA’s summer recruiting period opened, Davis traveled to Myrtle Beach, S.C., where he first laid eyes on Jacob Evans, a Baton Rouge native who was playing for a small AAU team, the kind that doesn’t get offered shoe deals. Within a couple of minutes, Davis, who has been a college assistant and head coach for 35 years, knew the 6-foot-5 Evans could play. Then Davis glanced around the stands to see what other coaches from upper echelon Division I schools were watching the kid.
“I’m looking around and I’m thinking to myself, there should be a lot of [other coaches] here,” Davis says. “And I’m glad there’s not.”
When Davis got back to Cincinnati, he spent time on the phone with Evans’ mother and high school coach, his two closest advisors. The picture they painted of the hard-working, humble Evans intrigued Davis even more, so the next weekend he went New Orleans, where Evans’ AAU team had put on a tournament of its own.
That’s when Davis decided to get his boss, Mick Cronin involved. “I called Mick and said this dude can really play,” Davis says. “We need him.”
The first thing that stood out to Davis was Evans’ shooting ability and size. Evans could play and guard all three perimeter positions — another huge plus. The fact Evans was lightly recruited didn’t bother Davis a bit.
“Our thing is we try to get kids who are under recruited, have a little chip on their shoulder, and want to compete and get better,” Davis says.
Evans checked off all those boxes.
The next weekend, Davis brought Cronin with him to an AAU tournament in Las Vegas, where Evans was again playing.
“Two minutes in, Mick looked at me and says, ‘can we get this guy?’ ” Davis says. “He was just nervous looking at all the different coaches who were walking in and out of the gym.”
As it turned out, Cincinnati could get Evans, though by the latter stages of his recruitment, South Carolina and Auburn were also involved. By that time, it was too late. Davis had built a relationship.
Just as Davis and later Cronin suspected, Evans epitomized the typical Cincinnati player.
“I kind of saw myself as an underdog,” Evans says. “I didn’t have the hype behind my name. From the day I got on campus, the coaches made sure I worked hard every day, as hard as I could, controlling what I can control. What you put into this game is what you get out. You can never be a perfect basketball player, and you can never be satisfied.”
Our thing is we try to get kids who are under recruited, have a little chip on their shoulder, and want to compete and get better."
Four years after Davis first saw Evans, the latter is still a bit of an underdog, though after receiving assurances from some NBA teams that he wouldn’t fall out of the first round of the Draft, he gave up his final season of eligibility and is ready for the challenges ahead.
The last two years, Evans helped lead Cincinnati to a 61-11 record as he played shooting guard, small forward, occasionally the point. Cronin and his staff taught Evans to defend any position, even the post. The player that evolved is perfect for today’s position-less NBA.
“I know right now I can knock down shots and play great defense,” Evans says. “That’ll help me get my feet wet. Then I’ll start working off the dribble more than a lot of teams have seen me do. And just because I played off the ball a lot at Cincinnati, I grew up playing point guard. As I get older, there’s a lot more I can show.”
Evans has chosen his role models wisely. The first was his mother, who raised three boys by herself.
“We never lacked for shoes or clothes or food,” Evans says. “We’d see her go to work in the dark and come home at dark. That’s how hard she worked. She drilled the value of that into us without ever really talking about it. She taught us not to settle.”
Evans also admires Jimmy Butler, who played at Marquette, squeezed into the first round of the 2011 Draft (No. 30 by the Chicago Bulls) and became an All-Star.
“He’s a guy I compare myself to,” Evans says. “He was the 30th pick in the draft, came into the league and worked his butt off. Now he’s seen as one of the best two-way players in the game.”
Evans has a similar work ethic, and he’s also got toughness going for him. During a February game against UCF, he brushed up against a player he was guarding and the index finger of his right (shooting) hand got bent backward. At the time, he was shooting 41 percent from 3. He shot 28 percent after that, but he never even considered coming out of the lineup.
“I didn’t want to let my team down,” Evans said. “At the time, we were trying to put ourselves in the best situation we could to earn a high seed in the NCAA Tournament and win a national championship. Our trainers tried to tape it, but I didn’t like that. I didn’t get a shot or really any pain medication. I just kind of gutted it out, mentally and physically fighting through the pain.”
That guy, says the coach who first spotted him in Myrtle Beach, is someone every NBA team should want on its roster.
“He’s the real deal when it comes to versatility,” Davis says “He’s not Kyle Korver as a shooter. He’s not Kyrie Irving as a scorer. He’s not as good as those guys at either one of those things, but he’s pretty good at both. I tell scouts all the time, he can play one, two or three, and guard them, too. If he gets switched off onto a four, he can fight them off. He’s got ball skills, and in 35 years of doing this, he might be in the top three guys I’ve had in terms of intelligence. He’s off the charts.”
With that praise, Davis doesn’t mean to suggest he sees a utility-man, reserve kind of role for Evans. Neither does Evans.
“My goal is to become an All-Star,” Evans says. “Not just a role player. I’m willing to do whatever it takes to get there.”
* * *
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.