With a wall of multiple defenders between him and the basket, the old version of Tyreke Evans might’ve still liked his chances, barreling to the rim for a layup attempt. Given that situation several times Friday against his old team, the Sacramento Kings, the new version of Tyreke Evans methodically weighed his options. Instead of going 1-on-Sacramento, Evans often pulled up to launch his upgraded jumper, or drew the defense’s attention before finding an open teammate for one of his 10 assists.
During a 2014-15 season in which the sixth-year pro has progressed in a variety of areas, his 26-point, 10-assist performance in a 102-88 victory over the Kings was perhaps the best illustration yet of his improvement since joining the Pelicans. Once known primarily for his world-class ability to break down a defender one-on-one and get to the hoop, Evans has broadened his offensive repertoire, resulting in a more efficient player. At the age of 25, he’s also one with considerably more room to get better.
Evans broke into the league with a bang in 2009-10, winning the Rookie of the Year award and registering a historic 20-5-5 season with Sacramento that demonstrated his multi-dimensional skill set. But his passing ability has become much more evident in New Orleans. Of the top 11 assist games of his NBA career, eight have come in the season-plus he’s played for the Pelicans. He’s averaging a career-best 6.5 assists, including handing out 9.5 per game in February. The Pelicans are 9-0 this season when he notches 11-plus assists.
“Tyreke’s probably better using his gifts to make other people better,” Pelicans fifth-year head coach Monty Williams said. "When he first got here, he was just (attack the basket for his own shot). Now I think he understands if he doesn't have (a shot), somebody else does. I think he has more of an understanding of the game. His shot has gotten a lot better, everybody’s seen that. He was always a guy who could get to the basket, but I think he’s learning – and it’s a process for young guys – how to play. They all play together, but there’s a way to do it, and I think he’s gotten better at that.”
“I think he’s become a much more well-rounded basketball player since he’s been here,” said Pelicans assistant Fred Vinson, who is Evans’ player development coach. “The number one thing is his shooting, continuing to get better at that and forcing teams to respect him as a shooter. That opens up a lot of the other things.”
On Friday, Evans repeatedly sank jumpers en route to a 10-for-15 game from the field, two days after he was 10-for-16 vs. Houston. It had become routine for opponents to concede Evans’ perimeter shot in order to keep him from penetrating, but the University of Memphis product has begun making opponents pay for that strategy. He still must become more consistent in that area, but his 29.8 percent three-point percentage in ’14-15 is the second-best rate of his career. According to Basketball-Reference.com, his 39.1 percent from 16-23 feet is the best he’s done from deep two-point range. His previous high was 33.9 with the Kings in 2012-13.
“I feel like my shot has definitely improved,” Evans said. “Just shooting it with confidence with Coach Freddy (Vinson) every day. He’s been motivating me a lot to get this jumper right. That’s the key to my game – he always says if you get a jumper, it’s tough to guard you. When I hear (defenses) say, go under (the pick and let Evans take an outside shot), I’m happy at times. I’m going to let it fly.”
“It’s tough enough keeping him out of the lane,” Kings center DeMarcus Cousins said after Friday’s game. “If he is (making) jump shots, he’s top in the league.”
A 6-foot-6, 220-pounder with the build of a running back, Evans always had the physical talent to dominate individually, but he’s made major strides maturity-wise since coming to New Orleans. Vinson has also praised the Philadelphia-area native’s work ethic since becoming his player development coach last offseason.
“He’s been tremendous, working with him for the first time,” Vinson said. “I didn’t know how badly he wanted to get better. I thought he’d be more of a guy who’d just want to show up and play. Maybe in his younger days he was like that, not understanding how difficult the league was going to be over the long haul. I’ve learned that he listens. Over time, you build trust. We started working together in May of last year, and he knew I could help him, but once we got on the floor and he saw things we worked on start to be effective, that made him become even more in-tune to getting better and the process it takes.”
Evans has also impressed with his ability to play through a variety of ailments, including frequent ankle issues. With New Orleans (38-34) badly needing him to be on the floor as it’s dealt with short-handed and ever-changing lineups this season, Evans has appeared in 69 of the team’s 72 games. He tied a career-best last season by playing 72 games.
“He just loves to play. He loves the game of basketball,” Vinson said. “That’s one thing that I don’t think every player in this league can say. He has a passion for playing.”
Perhaps most exciting from a long-term standpoint for the Pelicans, after showing rapid progress in a number of areas since signing a new free-agent contract in July 2013, Evans still has more upside. It may or may not happen this spring, but one of his career’s next steps may be to gain postseason experience, something he’s never done. The Pelicans are also four victories from becoming his first winning NBA team.
“Being in different situations and getting all the repetitions has been huge for him,” Vinson said. “Experience is the best teacher. He’s taken to coaching, to correct mistakes when he makes them. Obviously he still has room for growth in other areas. He wants to win. Coach (Williams) is doing a great job of pushing him toward winning. Once he wins at this level, in terms of getting to the playoffs and that kind of thing, his game’s going to go even higher.”
“Coach Monty has pushed me to work hard,” Evans agreed. “He always says how good I could be – even though I’m good now. He’s always on me. I like that. It motivates me to be hungry and be more aggressive, stay focused.”