The 2015-16 season never got off the ground for Tyreke Evans. Not one (May 21st), not two (October 20th), but three (February 11th) surgeries on a balky right knee kept Evans from taking flight for the New Orleans Pelicans. The third surgery, an osteochondral autograft transfer system (OATS) procedure, according to head athletic trainer Duane Brooks, is expected to keep Evans out until "late" preseason. By October Evans will have spent nearly a year and a half in a state of rehabilitation with just 765 NBA minutes logged.
Like Anthony Davis, fans and writers alike thought Alvin Gentry's system was going to unlock Tyreke's potential. In preparation of the uptempo pace Evans lost weight over the summer. Tyreke Evans was going to have the opportunity to "grab and go," initiating transition opportunities where previously the Pelicans would be content to walk into a standard half court set. Gentry thought Evans, more so than any Pelican guard, was best suited for his offensive game plan.
"You are going to see such great things out of him [Tyreke Evans]. He’s on a special diet and has lost 12 pounds. The style of play we’re going to have probably suits him better than any player on our team — getting up and down the court, being able to drive the basketball, finding guys for the easy basket. Those are gong to be things that raise his game to another level. He’ll be primarily a point guard but we’ll also play him at the two and at small forward."
Positives buried in an avalanche of dribbles
Tyreke Evans was a productive player in those 765 minutes. His assist rate, at 34.6%, was a career high. Evans also set a career high shooting behind the arc by a wide margin converting 38.8% of his attempts. Of course, with just 85 attempts (his fewest in a season) it would be folly to think that Evans has suddenly morphed into even a league average 3-point shooter. The list of players averaging 15 points, five rebounds, and five assists is short a chock full of MVP candidates: Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, James Harden, and Tyreke Evans. Of course, Evans is miles behind those other five players in all manner of statistics.
Players who can contribute in all three traditional counting statistics to that degree are rare. Dropping the points per game down all the way to 10 adds in Draymond Green, Rajon Rondo, Nicolas Batum, and Michael Carter-Williams. There is real value in that versatility. Tyreke's contract, as I have often argued, is an absolute bargain. But, there are other costs.
Tyreke Evans may rack up assists, but he loves to feel the ball in his hands. During his time on the floor Evans possessed the ball 20% of the time. Not 20% of the time during Pelican possessions, 20% of the time when he was on the court including defense. That's actually an increase from 18.7% last season under Monty Williams and his notoriously conservative offensive scheme.
It's not you, it's me
Getting Evans to fit into Gentry's system was going to take time. Evans struggled while trying to keep the ball moving and didn't score a single point against the Boston Celtics in early December. His comments after that game were the last straw for a number of bloggers covering this team, both here and at Bourbon Street Shots. Evans did not want to fit so it followed that he never would fit.
"I started to look to pass first," Evans said. "That's when it kind of went south on me, instead of just doing what I do, and that's attack and if I see somebody open, find them. My mindset (tonight) was just pass first, but that isn't the way I play. I play attack first, and if somebody's open I find them. I just got to do a better job with that."
Unfortunately another long spring and summer of rehabilitation lies ahead for Evans. More time he could use integrating into Gentry's system is already lost. However, that timeline will also make trading Evans either difficult or costly. What might the Pelicans do to salvage the most value out of Evans for the remainder of his contract?
Remember the original plan
Tyreke Evans was brought to New Orleans with the expectation he would be a "super sixth man." Remember those days? Tyreke Evans as Manu Ginobli was the idea in the beginning and as Mike Prada noted reacting to the original trade that didn't make a lot of sense with Jrue Holiday and Eric Gordon starting.
The Pelicans would say that Evans is going to be their sixth man, a la Manu Ginobili, but that's a problematic comparison for a couple reasons. Having a dynamic scorer off the bench works better when contrasted with a low-usage, defense-first starter that doesn't necessarily need to play in crunch time. Thabo Sefolosha and Danny Green happily yielded minutes to James Harden and Manu Ginobili, for example. For Evans to play enough minutes to make a Harden/Manu-like impact, though, either he'll have to play a lot instead of Gordon or play alongside him. The latter risks making poor use of a highly-paid player and the former introduces the shot problem discussed above.
You know what the Pelicans could really use right now on the wing? A low-usage, defense-first starter that doesn't necessarily need to play in crunch time. Granted, such a player probably will play in crunch time thanks to small-ball being far more widespread than in July 2013, but the low-usage part is important. Quincy Pondexter, for instance, fits the bill here. Moving Evans to the bench serves a second purpose, limiting minutes as he gets back into the swing of NBA basketball. A conservative approach, not unlike the one the Pelicans utilized with Jrue Holiday this season, would be wise.
Evans off the bench could be given the keys to the kingdom. Instead of trying to break down his weaknesses to force a square peg player into a round hole with the starting lineup give Evans the freedom to do what he does best. Unleash Evans without the shackles. Against reserves no one is keeping Tyreke Evans from getting to the rim. Integrate him into crunch time lineup slowly over time.
That's the ticket to maximizing his value to New Orleans. Unless someone gets desperate for a point guard this summer.