It's a hypothetical question, which is in itself a problem, but let's ask it anyway. What if Tyreke Evans could shoot? He has already had a fascinating and brief and mostly productive career, and is in the middle of a fine season as a sixth man for the New Orleans Pelicans. All true enough. But, also: what if?
Every defense that the Pelicans face knows that Evans can’t shoot, and they guard him appropriately by offering plenty of space. Somehow, Evans gets to the rim anyway, generally in an authoritative way. The New Orleans Pelicans are a better offense when he’s on the floor, and he's a big part of the reason why. And he can't shoot. To watch him do what he does is like watching a thief rob the same bank time and time again, while brandishing a rubber knife.
The 24-year-old first-year Pelican is at 41.1% from the floor and making 21.8% of his jump shots. He’s knocked in as many three-pointers this season (seven) as Oklahoma City Thunder fans have made half-court shots since 2009. In fact, Evans hasn’t connected on a three since the Pelicans were flogged by 19 points in Miami. That was January 7.
Normally this sort of thing would cripple any team with a player who dominates the ball, and Evans does have the team’s highest usage rate. The opposing defense would sag back and encourage him to fire away, and that is in fact what defenses do with Evans. Sometimes he settles and it works. They love that.
But despite the grotesque numbers, somehow, quietly, Evans continues to influence games in a positive way for his team. And the one skill-related weakness powerful enough to exile talented guards from the league has barely slowed him down at all. This, as much as his highlight reel plays, is what makes Evans so fascinating and frustrating to watch. The fun part is just how dazzlingly he gets away with it all.
This doesn’t mean Evans’ poor shooting doesn’t matter, or that it has no negative impact on his team’s ability to score when he isn’t dribbling. It does. His shot chart is one big ketchup stain.
And here’s how he mutilates offensive spacing.
Rivers does not pass the ball to Evans a second time. Instead he finds Eric Gordon on the perimeter, and thanks to a defensive breakdown on the weak side, the Pelicans score a bucket at the rim.
Here’s another example against the Denver Nuggets.
Evans is a three-dimensional contradiction. His deficiencies routinely clash with his effectiveness. He’ll thrillingly take a game into his hands, then let it slip through his fingers.
Evans isn’t a magician, just a talented player who affects the game in more ways than one. He might even be an overlooked contender for Sixth Man of the Year, although that’s probably a stronger statement on the field's weakness than a testament to anything truly fantastic about Evans’ play.
This is his first season off the bench, and his rebound, assist, and usage rates are all career-highs. (The only player in the league with both an assist and rebound rate as high as Evans is LeBron James, per Basketball-Reference.)
As an offensive weapon, Evans is following the smartest advice available to shooting-deficient wings and anyone else, for that matter: stick to what works. According to SportVU, only five players in the entire league average more drives to the rim per game, impressive considering Evans barely logs 25 minutes a night.
Over two-thirds of all his field goal attempts have been in the restricted area, which is good. Only half of them have gone in the hoop, which is bad; very bad, in fact, and a rate 10.1% lower than league average. But no bench players in the league can match Evans' PER and usage rate, per Basketball-Reference. He’s down a full quarter’s worth of minutes from his rookie season, but the per 36 minute numbers are even more impressive: 18.4 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 6.2 assists. He’s a nightly triple double threat, even if he’s only recorded one this season—it came, Evans-ianly enough, in a 2-for-10 outing against the Los Angeles Clippers. He's great, in other words, except where and when he really isn't.
Evans was once thought to be a jumbo-sized point guard, and while he can’t run a coherent offense full-time, he still brings a certain playmaking expertise to the table. He’s fantastic at drawing help defenders and finding the open man, usually a big who’s running along the baseline or waiting next to the rim for an easy dunk.
It’s one of the many reasons New Orleans’ offense is a smidge better when Evans is on the court, averaging 105.4 points per 100 possessions against 104.1 when he’s off. (The former equates to a top-10 offense, but both figures are above average.)
He’s a solid on-ball defender, too—long, athletic, and tough. Evans can also rebound when the desire strikes him, but he has a tendency to drift out in transition before the Pelicans actually secure the ball. That’s a correctable disinterest—and Evans does seem to want to get better—but problematic nonetheless.
Four years ago Evans was the best rookie in basketball, fresh off an impressive campaign that forced statistical comparisons with Michael Jordan, LeBron James, and a few other all-time greats. It was laughable to suggest he would be coming off the bench before he turned 25.
In that sense, despite the four-year, $44 million contract signed last July, Evans is something of a cautionary tale. He will almost certainly never live up to one of the most sensational rookie seasons in recent memory, which is obviously a shame. But as his fifth season unfolds and he embraces his role as Monty Williams’ ace off the bench, this apparent demotion seems feels serendipitous.
I should admit, I guess, that I'm obsessed with the enigmatic back and forth of Tyreke Evans' tantalizing, disappointing career. Why isn’t he better?! How does he continue to get worse? If it weren’t for various lingering foot injuries, would he still be in Sacramento? But these are questions whose vexing answer is already out there on the court.
Tyreke Evans is not a finished product. He's a 24-year-old with numerous flaws and incredible skill. If he’s healthy after the All-Star break, will his efficiency rise or his jump shot grow to be feared? Probably not. But imagine what he could do if he could shoot? It's both painful and fun to consider, if not for too long. The idea of it can drive you crazy. Tyreke Evans’ weird, singular reality, on the other hand, is one of the NBA’s most fascinating things to watch.