Tyreke Evans wore a red baseball cap to the Pacers' season-opener on Wednesday, with a curious message on the crown:
It seemed inappropriate for a player who's found instant chemistry and contentment with a blue and yellow team, so it was enough to make one wonder if there was a hidden meaning.
"Just a hat," he said. "One of my guys in Miami, he ships them out to me."
Count that as the only ill-fitting moment for Evans related to the Pacers' season-opening victory over Memphis on Wednesday. Coming off the bench, he contributed 14 points, six assists, four rebounds and just one turnover in his 23 ½ minutes.
More than that, he provided several ah-hah moments that no doubt made some new friends within Bankers Life Fieldhouse. He put it out there for all to see, making the sort of instinctive plays that result from honing your game on a playground rather than a basketball camp.
"I've always admired his game from afar, just seeing some of the things he can do," Thad Young said following Thursday's practice at St. Vincent Center. "He has a great ability to make guys around him better. He's grown and matured over the course of his career and he's been able to make sure guys are involved in the game."
While the Pacers had an effective pick-and-roll tandem with Lance Stephenson and Domantas Sabonis last season, the Evans-Sabonis pairing could be an upgrade, based on the micro sample size of Game 1. Like Stephenson, Evans has the size to see over defenses and the knack of getting a pass through traffic. Unlike Stephenson, he doesn't attempt a crowd-pleasing flair while doing so.
Flair, in fact, has no part in his persona, either on the court or off. While hardly friendless, and always pleasant, he tends to keep to himself and speak through his actions. His summation of his performance on Wednesday?
"That's why I came here. To help the team win."
He did that in a variety of ways. Consider the six ways he scored against the Grizzlies:
- He grabbed a defensive rebound, then raced upcourt and put a full-speed juke on Kyle Anderson in transition, blowing through two defenders for a layup.
- He dribbled hard into the lane with his left (off) hand and hit a layup amid three defenders.
- He squirted into the lane from the left wing and hit a scooping layup.
- He posted up the shorter Shelvin Mack on the left wing about 15 feet from the basket, then turned and hit a step-back jumper.
- He crossed over right to left off Young's screen and beat two defenders for a right-handed layup left of the basket.
- He hit a 3-pointer from the left wing when his taller defender, JaMychal Green, gave him too much room to keep from getting off the drilbble.
He also had six assists, equally varied:
- He pulled up in transition and slipped a pass to Domantas Sabonis, who converted a short jump-hook near the basket.
- He passed off the dribble to Young, who had cut to the basket.
- Stuck underneath the basket against a double-team, he flipped a pass to Bojan Bogdanovic in the left corner for a 3-pointer.
- Executing a Euro-step into the lane in transition, he fed Sabonis off the dribble for a layup after drawing help from MarShon Brooks.
- Dribbling off Sabonis' screen, he drew help from Sabonis' defender and hit him for an uncontested layup.
- And, finally, running the left lane on a three-on-one fastbreak, he passed up a layup and fed Sabonis for another layup. His momentum carried him to the floor, tangled up with photographers. Sabonis immediately rushed over and offered a hand to lift him up as the Grizzlies – trailing 93-64 - called timeout.
No wonder Sabonis likes playing with him. Four of his seven field goals were assisted by Evans.
"Tyreke averaged 19 points last year (for Memphis) so everybody has to respect him," Sabonis said. "That makes it easier for me to screen his man and then he makes his decision.
"(We're) two players wo have high IQ in the pick-and-roll game and we try to take advantage of it."
Evans might present a blasé demeanor, but he's clearly excited about having an essential role with the Pacers. And why not? He's got a total of four playoff games to his credit, from his brief time with New Orleans in 2015. He's not accustomed to winning, and not accustomed to positive team cultures.
The moment when Sabonis picked him up off the court midway through the fourth quarter meant something to him. He's on his fifth stop in his 10th NBA season, and never experienced that brand of school spirit.
Evans impressed in his Pacers debut, scoring 14 points and dishing six assists (Photo Credit: NBAE/Getty Images)
"There's a big-time difference," he said. "Just the energy we have as a team. We're always helping one another, picking one another up.
"The organization is just amazing. It's one of the best organizations I've ever played for, just the things they do and how they do it. Everything's a team thing and it's about the players. It's definitely the best organization I've been with."
Evans arrived in the NBA from a different avenue than most players coming into the league these days. While most have been coached in school and AAU programs and often have been tutored by specialists, Evan's game evolved from the asphalt and the lessons he learned from his older brothers.
One of them, Eric, who played point guard for Cheyney State, taught him about ballhandling in traffic and how to react in the open court. "Making me crafty, playing east and west," Evans says. "When I get the ball I try to make the defense work. If they cut one way I try to go another."
Another brother, Julius, described as a playground star in their hometown of Chester, Pa., worked with him on shooting, a late-arriving feature of Evans' game.
So he's been coached, but he does things that aren't taught in the traditional coaching environments. Especially the things that can be done in the open court or in pick-and-roll situations.
"He's like a great running back in football, able to plant his feet and change direction and avoid people," legendary coach Bob Hurley from St. Anthony High School in New Jersey told The New York Times when Evans was in high school.
Like many players who evolved from the playgrounds, Evans has a reputation as a "gamer," a player who doesn't take practice as seriously as a coach might like but rises to the occasion when the lights come on. He doesn't deny it.
"Definitely," he said. "Practice is not really my thing. When the lights come on, that's when I really come out and play.
"I still go hard and play the right way (in practice), but when the game is on it counts more so I'm more active."
Pacers coach Nate McMillan smiled skeptically when Evans' admission was presented following Thursday's practice.
"He told you that?" McMillan said.
Told yes, McMillan talked of the need to practice hard all the time, the mistake of thinking you can "flip the switch" and play better in games than in practice.
"We're working on that," he added, smiling.
McMillan can afford to be patient, and even forgiving In Evans he has the ideal first guard of the bench, one who can play three positions and play with anybody because of his multiple skills. Evans stands 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds. He weighs five pounds more than 6-foot-8 Bojan Bogdanovic, the same as 6-8 Young and only about five pounds less than 6-10 TJ Leaf and 6-8 Doug McDermott.
Evans can overpower smaller defenders and beat the taller defenders off the dribble. He can find open teammates more easily because of his height and finish around the basket in traffic because of his bulk, as he displayed on Wednesday.
Besides, he appears to be conforming to his new environment. While he didn't stand out in the four preseason games and wasn't talked about much during training camp, some people who watched every practice claim he had been the best player. The way to make friends in any environment is to fit in, and Evans is doing that by playing harder in practice and doing the dirty work in games.
"The knock on him was that he doesn't play defense," Young said. "But in training camp, once we explained to him what our culture was, he was all for it. The biggest thing for him, and a lot of guys who come to a team with a different culture, when they see the four guys they're playing with playing defense and getting after it as hard as they can, it makes them want to help their teammates.
"He just had to see how we actually play."
And now they've seen how he actually plays.
Young feels honored
Young and Victor Oladipo were voted captains by the players on Monday. Oladipo's selection wasn't surprising, because he won the Backbone Award selected by players after last season for his positive attitude and had organized an off-season workout in Miami.
Young, though, is much quieter and less prominent than Oladipo. His selection was less obvious but equally telling.
"It just says a lot about my character and professionalism," he said. "I'd say I'm well-respected by a lot of guys around the league, and my teammates definitely showed it. I'm very happy and enthused.
"I just try to lead by example, which is through my play on the court. When something needs to be said, I say it. You have some people who say stuff to say stuff. I don't say stuff to say stuff. I say stuff when it needs to be said. And I get guys to believe in what we do."
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Mark Montieth's book on the formation and groundbreaking seasons of the Pacers, "Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis," is available in bookstores throughout Indiana and on Amazon.com.
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