In "Every Play Counts," Kevin Pelton focuses on one player, team or matchup in a single game, looking to explain how and why they succeed or fail. Naturally, one game isn't everything, but the results can be illuminating.
Last season, a rookie point guard fresh off one season at Memphis was named the NBA's Rookie of the Year. Might Tyreke Evans follow in Derrick Rose's footsteps? Already considered a strong candidate to win ROY, Evans saw his chances improve when the clear early favorite, L.A. Clippers forward Blake Griffin, suffered a stress fracture of his left patella that will sideline him for an extended period. To get an idea of Evans' likelihood of earning hardware, as well as his potential down the road, I put his NBA debut Wednesday at Oklahoma City under the Every Play Counts microscope.
By the numbers, Evans' first NBA game was certainly one to forget. He missed 11 of his 15 shot attempts in scoring 10 points, and handed out just two assists against three turnovers. However, what I saw from Evans offered encouragement that his statistics will improve sooner rather than later.
The biggest issue that held Evans back Tuesday was his finishing. He showed impressive ability to get into the paint, attempting just four of his 15 shots from outside the key. Evans got inside in a variety of fashions. He was at his best creating something out of nothing by using his quickness to beat Thunder counterpart Russell Westbrook, one of the NBA's better young defenders at the point. It was once Evans reached the paint that he had trouble, shooting 3-of-11 inside.
According to DraftExpress' scouting report, the difficulty Evans had finishing is not exactly a new issue. He finished at a 50-percent clip against lesser defenders in college, according to Synergy Sports' definition of finishing, but made up for it with his ability to get to the free throw line. If that proves the case for Evans in the NBA, the best comparison might be Westbrook. Like Evans, Westbrook's combination of strength and quickness has allowed him to get into the paint frequently, but he shoots a low percentage at the rim and relies more on free throws to boost his efficiency. Evans did not have that benefit against Oklahoma City, going to the line just twice (and missing both attempts).
Besides having him create off the dribble, the Kings used Evans in the post a handful of times. In fact, the first two buckets of his NBA career both came out of post-up situations. If he can score on the chiseled, 6'3" Westbrook in the post, Evans should have little trouble abusing smaller point guards. One play that could be useful down the line saw Sacramento isolate Evans against Westbrook on the right wing. While he received the ball with his back to the basket, about 15 feet out, Evans was able to spin and face up to put himself in position to get to the rim with a strong dribble drive.
Evans will have to find ways to score inside because his perimeter game remains very much a work in progress. He knocked down an 18-footer in the fourth quarter, but missed his other three attempts from outside. For the most part, when the ball was kicked out to him, Evans was looking to swing it to an open teammate with a better chance of scoring.
All in all, I was impressed with Evans' willingness to make the extra pass. While he attempted 15 shots in 35 minutes, he rarely seemed to force the issue offensively and at times even seemed passive. Evans could have earned more than two assists had his teammates been hitting. Until fellow rookie Omri Casspi got hot in the fourth quarter, Kevin Martin was the only Sacramento player consistently able to put the ball in the hoop, and even he shot 5-of-19 from the field while making up for it at the line (where he made all 14 of his attempts, all in the first half).
What we did not see from Evans, for those who question his ability to play the point, was a lot of creativity in setting up his teammates for good looks in the painted area. Most of his passes were to the perimeter, either kicking the ball out on the drive or swinging it around. I was impressed in the early going with Evans' entry passing before the Kings went away from the post. While we tend to think of size in the backcourt in terms of posting up or rebounding, it is also very useful in terms of creating passing lanes to the post that simply aren't available to smaller guards.
Beyond the post touches, there were some signs in how Sacramento used Evans that the coaching staff isn't treating him as a typical point guard. In particular, I was struck by how much time Evans spent on the wing as opposed to the top of the key. The Kings ran him off side pick-and-rolls three times as often as they set the pick for him at the top of the key. Neither variety of pick-and-roll could exactly be described as a staple, though, and in fact Evans never ended up shooting after a pick was set for him.
The expectation is that his physical gifts will allow Evans to become a plus defender at the point. There, his effort against Westbrook--who finished with 14 points and a career-high 13 assists--was disappointing. Evans seemed to be on his heels at times, allowing Westbrook to dictate where he wanted to go with the basketball.
Off the ball, Evans frequently looked lost. He seemed to be thinking rather than reacting, which is typical for a rookie but caused him to miss some opportunities to provide help to his teammates. However, Evans did show his ball-hawking ability in the third quarter, when he leaped to intercept a Sefolosha pass to Westbrook and immediately went the other direction, drawing a shooting foul.
Evans' size is certainly an asset on defense. Sacramento opted to switch picks at any of the three perimeter positions because of Evans' ability to defend all of them. After an early miscue or two, the Kings looked sharp on their switches later in the game, helping slow down the Thunder's offense. If Evans can hold his own against small forwards, the ability to not have to run through these type of picks will give Sacramento an advantage defensively.
I did not expect Evans to be enough of an instant success to win Rookie of the Year, and what I saw from him in the opener seemed to confirm that suspicion. He is talented enough to put together big nights over the course of his rookie season, but there will be other outings like Tuesday's where he struggles mightily. Certainly, a rebuilding Sacramento team is more concerned with Evans' future than his present, and the experience he will get this year starting at the point will accelerate his learning curve. From that perspective, the skill set Evans possesses is unique for a point guard and gives him the potential to be a special player. Nothing I saw from Evans in his first NBA game changed that conclusion either.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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