There are two portrait-style posters of basketball players in my room.
One is Chris Webber, holding the ball at the top of the key, that archetypal semi-pained expression of concentration on his face. He is the patron saint of Sacramento basketball, looking holy against a white background. The one who led the Kings to the brink of two championships before Tragic Flaws and/or officiating fiascos shut down what was the most entertaining team of its day.
The other is Tyreke Evans at the height of his power. He is cartooned from the chest up, arms folded. Around him are block-letter quantitative proclamations of his greatness: Rookie of the Year, 6’6” 220 pounds, 20-5-5. The tone of this poster is intended as more celebratory than reverent, but Tyreke’s façade undermines this. He is staring directly through the fourth wall at you with no hint of smile or swagger, throwing all the numbers’ value into question. This expression is glued to his real actual face at all times, looking straight ahead without seeming to look at anything. It lends an air of mystery to his game and you start to get the feeling that what you’re watching is somehow not the real Tyreke Evans.
The Kings have made every effort to turn Evans into another Webber, a marketable star but this hasn’t worked due to Tyreke’s camera shyness and extremely subdued personality. Where Webber raged and fought against the world (often unsuccessfully) and showed a raw humanity that was eminently likeable, Evans currently plays with a casual aloofness that betrays his prodigious talent.
Which probably sounds like a reason Not to Watch, except Tyreke can do things in basketball games that almost nobody else can when he so chooses. And this is not a case of squandered talent, as there are more subtleties to this narrative. Evans put together one of the greatest rookie seasons in NBA history but has regressed or plateaued. Rooting for Tyreke probably feels like rooting for Bojan Krkic; we’ve seen what you can do, now hurry up and do it more.
Evans has one truly elite skill as a basketball player, a very specific and important one. Most offensive philosophies are based on optimizing the use of space and mismatches to get the ball to places where defenders aren’t or where weaker defenders are.
The Webber-era Kings ran a fluid, democratic offense where all 5 players could pass and move the ball to where the easiest and most efficient shot was. Tyreke does not work around defenses; he attacks them and goes through all three lines with his exceptional speed, size and misdirection (or all three).
The path of least resistance lies unused when Evans is on his game. It becomes simply a longer way around to the same point. His ability to score so readily seems all the more remarkable when you realize that he doesn’t really use his left hand and that he spends most of his time below the rim (occasionally deciding to spring up and baptize unsuspecting victims).
Evans as a producer appears somewhat one-dimensional, but that is simply because he is only really good at scoring. He has always been a plus rebounder for his position, and has the skills and body to become a good passer and elite wing defender. He became only the fourth rookie, along with Jordan, Lebron and Oscar Robertson, to put up a tidy 20/5/5 (points, boards, assists) line. The sky was the limit and expectations were extremely high around the league and in Sacramento.
We needed a hero after having to watch John Salmons and Francisco Garcia lead the Kings to only 17 wins the previous year. With the constant threat of relocation coming from the Kings’ bumbling failed-investor-frat-boy owners, the idea of having a budding megastar on the team was a exhilarating. It shifted the anticipated narrative from “Terrible Team Hits the Road” to “Tyreke Wins MVP (Everything Else Too)”.
For many reasons, Tyreke has not lived up to these lofty expectations or even the form of his rookie season. For two seasons, he spent his time inconsequently dribbling around or playing off the ball or turning it over, while still averaging decent numbers (roughly a 17/5/5 over his rough period). Organizational turmoil is at least partially to blame for this. Sacramento is one of the worst top-to-bottom organizations in sports, with owners unwilling to spend money and appearing to actively sabotage their own prospects in an effort to GTFO.
His first coach, Paul Westphal ran the “give-the-ball-to-Tyreke-and-everyone-else -chill” offense while current top man Keith Smart is trying to use Tyreke off the ball as a 2 guard. Basketball was simpler when he was simply asked to score and not sacrifice anything for the team, because there wasn’t really a ‘team’ goal to speak of. He also had serious plantar fasciitis issues in his sophomore campaign that scuttled any hope of ascending to all-star level. But last year and this year, an apparently healthy Tyreke hasn’t really done much despite having the ball plenty.
DeMarcus Cousins has inherited the mantle of “Most Important Player” on the team, Time waits for no man. So uh what’s going on? A simple answer would be that NBA defenses have evolved to stop him from driving right, basically begging him to shoot a jumper and his evolution as a player has not kept pace.
Only Evans knows what exactly is happening but I posit that he is struggling with his own limitations and his place as a basketball player. The talent to be a good second option or more is clearly there, but the mental challenges inherent in moving past doubts and truly reaching full potential in such a hypercompetitive environment are tremendous.
The NBA is a complicated landscape and finding one’s personal place on a team is likely much harder than we realize. We all have analogous issues like this. We all question ourselves. Moving up from high school to college or from one job to a new, bigger one requires conviction, courage and belief. You have to be assertive and most of all be your own damn self. We Watch because we want to see someone obliterate that mental block and realize their full promise. We Watch because Tyreke is all of us. We Watch because Tyreke Evans is an exceptional talent, and will (hopefully) someday become an exceptional basketball player too.
Illustration by Ian Miley