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Tyreke Evans Is Back

As a free agent over the summer, Tyreke Evans found himself at the kind of crossroads that few would have foreseen early in his career. Although Evans had earned two NBA contracts and made nearly $60 million over his eight-year pro career, he was far from the stardom that had once appeared so inevitable. He had missed a total of 99 games over the previous two seasons and struggled to crack double-digit points per game when he did manage to hit the court. It seemed the best that Evans could hope for was to simply resuscitate his career, and the one-year, $3.3 million contract he inked with the Memphis Grizzlies — well below market value — reflected just how far the guard’s perceived worth had fallen around the league.

These days, though, Evans is looking like the biggest bargain of the summer — and he may have pulled his career back on track in the process. On a roster with stars such as Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, Evans is leading the Grizz in Box Plus/Minus, Player Efficiency Rating and NBA.com’s Player Impact Estimate (basically an accounting of the percentage of “good things” a player does while on the floor).1 He has been the primary spark plug for one of the league’s best second units, a crucial element behind Memphis’s surprisingly solid start. If Evans keeps this up, he’ll be a sought-after free agent next summer, rather than an afterthought. He’ll also have done it as a different — and more modern — type of player than the one he was supposed to become.

Selected out of the University of Memphis a pick after James Harden in the 2009 draft,2 Evans was theoretically cast from a similar mold: the take-charge combo guard who can create for himself and others off the dribble. And he played that role well at first, beating out Steph Curry for rookie of the year honors with a debut season in which he averaged 20.1 points, 5.8 assists and 5.3 rebounds per game (joining a rookie 20-5-5 club whose only other members were, famously, LeBron James, Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson). For Evans, there appeared to be no ceiling.

As a rookie in Sacramento, Tyreke Evans flashed big numbers, but an incomplete game.

Carl Costas / Sacramento Bee/ MCT via Getty Images

But even though Harden quickly earned a reputation for generating — and making — almost exclusively the most efficient shot types in basketball (3-pointers and point-blank tries), Evans hasn’t always had that formula down. Even during his mega-successful rookie campaign, he shot only 26 percent from the arc and took only 12 percent of his shots from long distance. (The NBA averages that season were 36 percent and 22 percent, respectively, and the volume of 3-pointers attempted leaguewide has skyrocketed in the years since.) Add in a hearty dose of unassisted midrange jumpers and isolation plays — which made up 34 percent of Evans’s offensive possessions as a rookie (fourth-most in the NBA, according to Synergy Sports Technology) — and Evans’s game contained bits and pieces more suited to a previous era of perimeter stardom, before shot selection and long-range accuracy consumed so much attention.

Perhaps that’s why play-by-play value ratings such as regularized plus/minus didn’t think much of the young Evans’s performance even as he was stuffing the stat sheet. He wasn’t yet playing the game in a fully optimized way. But even then, there were signs that a greater kind of player was inside him, with many of the tools necessary to be a modern terror. As a rookie, he led the league in shots per game taken from the restricted area — pound for pound, the most efficient area of the floor — orchestrated the pick-and-roll with poise beyond his years, and flashed the kind of all-around skill set that has become the hallmark of today’s superstar initiators.

In Memphis, we’re finally seeing Evans play that role at a high level, thanks to better health and some important upgrades to his game. For instance, one of the last missing pieces for Evans was the development of a more reliable long-range jumper. And so far this year, en route to seven games with 19 or more points (easily the most of any bench player in the league), Evans has knocked down a career-best 43 percent of his threes. Although it’s unlikely that Evans (a career 30 percent 3-point shooter going into the season) will continue to make quite so many shots from the outside, he has genuinely improved his stroke since entering the league, with the increased focus helping him shoot 38 percent from deep over the past three seasons. “Every game I’ve made a three,” he told Jesse Blancarte of Basketball Insiders last week. “I’m just shooting with confidence, ya know? I worked on it two years straight, so when you put in hard work, it definitely pays off.”

Along with that improved shooting touch, Evans has developed a much better overall sense of shot selection. According to Second Spectrum’s Quantified Shot Quality (based on player-tracking data), Evans has generated the ninth-most-efficient set of shots of any guard in the league3 — and he’s truly generating them: He’s taking 23.4 shots per 100 possessions, while the eight guards above him in shot quality are averaging only 12.9. Between that and his deadly execution on the pick-and-roll — only Bradley Beal, Curry and James have been more efficient on the play this year — Evans is finally fulfilling his promise as one of the league’s most gifted all-around perimeter players. In the early going, he is one of only four players in the league with a true shooting percentage of at least 60 percent, a usage rate of 25 percent, an assist rate of 20 percent and a rebound rate of 10 percent. (The other three are James, Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo.)

Before his disastrous 2016-17 season, Evans’s plus/minus impact was quietly among the top dozen in the league at his position — interestingly, much better than it was during his first couple of seasons despite inferior per-game numbers. With his mix of all-around production, improved shooting and underrated defense,4 Evans is likely to be ranked high again when ESPN rolls out the first batch of Real Plus-Minus ratings for this season. (He currently ranks eighth among guards in Box Plus/Minus, which attempts to estimate RPM-style ratings in the absence of play-by-play data.)

Of course, there’s always the matter of durability with Evans, who has missed an average of 26 games per season over the past five years. But he insists that his balky knee feels right again. “It was just a matter of me getting my health back,” Evans told Blancarte. “I had the whole offseason to just train with my trainer and get my knee stronger. I feel great.”

If Evans stays healthy and keeps doing what he’s capable of on the court, Memphis should keep exceeding expectations — and the market for Evans’s services should be buzzing once again next summer.

Footnotes

  1. He’s second in Win Shares per 48 minutes behind Brandan Wright.

  2. Returning to Memphis makes this season a homecoming of sorts for Evans and the Grizzlies a fitting destination for a career restart. For the Grizzlies’ part, it also in some small way rights the wrong of their taking Hasheem Thabeet second overall — over not only Evans and Harden but also Steph Curry and DeMar DeRozan — in that draft. (Who am I kidding — there’s no redeeming that pick.)

  3. In a tie with Toronto’s Delon Wright.

  4. Although he still struggles to keep tabs on his man away from the ball out on the perimeter, Synergy grades his overall defense as “good.” Plus, the Grizzlies’ defense allows 4.6 fewer points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court, and he’s reducing opponents’ shooting percentages when he’s their primary defender.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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