When the Memphis Grizzlies signed Tyreke Evans this summer, it wasn’t a big deal. Why would it have been?
There was perhaps some sentimentality there, with the former Memphis Tiger college player returning back to the city and arena in which he had once starred. But even that homecoming of sorts was not hugely relevant; after all, Evans spent only one year as a Tiger. A homecoming for him would be Pennsylvania.
It wasn’t even a big money move. Evans signed only a one-year contract equal to the value of the Bi-Annual Exception, a comparatively lowly $3.29 million. To put that into context, Ben McLemore, who also signed with the Grizzlies this summer, received two years and $10.66 million.
Evans signed for only one year as he was banking on himself. The big money offers weren’t there, but perhaps, on the right team, with little competition for minutes and the ball, and with one year’s good and healthy play behind him, Evans could rebuild his value.
And oh boy is he doing that. Now, Evans is a big deal again.
As a rookie with the Sacramento Kings way back in 2009, Evans posted averages of 20.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game. This is almost unheard of. Even current Utah Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell, whom we are working hard to praise enough in light of his quick rise to stardom, is not doing that. Flanked with DeMarcus Cousins one draft later, the duo were supposed to be the core foundation of Sacramento's rebirth, an enviable tandem of unique, unguardable talents who would rule once they could co-exist.
It didn't, however, work out that way. Injuries have been a factor - aside from a 79 game season back in 2014/15 and playing 63 of 66 games in the strike-shortened 2011-12 season, Evans has missed an average of 26 games per year over his other six full NBA seasons. He always seemed to be out, or carrying some form of ailment.
Moreover, though, Evans did not develop his game. A move to the New Orleans Pelicans proved largely unsuccesful; as good of an idea as it was in theory to pair Evans with other quality playmakers in Jrue Holiday and Eric Gordon, it meant taking the ball out of Evans's hands in the halfcourt, which meant playing more frequently outside of what he does best. Evans dominates the ball and is best when he does so. If he cannot be allowed to do so, you might as well get yourself a Jon Diebler-type.
Now, though, Evans has the ball back in his hands, and he is playing the role of lead guard for the first time in a while. And in doing so, he is playing it as well as he ever has.
At the time that regular Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley Jr went down with injury, Evans was still coming off the bench. He was playing well from there and improving game by game, raising his averages from 13.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game in November to 20.5 points, 4.3 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game in November, all but one of which came from the bench. His last five games with Conley had all been 20+ point outings, and Evans averaged 17.8 points in the 12 games they played together.
But at the time, Evans was still playing largely off of Conley - willing, able and empowered to get his own points, especially when Conley wasn't on the court with him, but not the lead playmaker. He averaged only 3.1 assists per game in that 12-game span. It was all good, but not the full Tyreke.
That would change, albeit not immediately. Initially, Mario Chalmers got the call in Conley's stead, and Evans remained on the bench. But his performances from there were too good to ignore, and while he initially moved into the starting line-up to pair up with the somewhat unreliable Chalmers, he eventually took his role altogether.
In the 23 games since Conley went down, Evans has averaged 20.2 points and 5.3 assists per game. Almost exactly his rookie season numbers once again.
Currently, everything goes through Tyreke. He brings the ball up and sets up the play, one of only two healthy quality playmakers and half-court scorers currently healthy on the Grizzlies roster. The other is Marc Gasol, and it is a key part of Tyreke's job to get the ball to Gasol in the first place.
Rarely if ever before has Evans played this well, and certainly not for this long. He is in complete command in the half-court offence right now, able to get where he wants on the court, but also now able to make shots from all areas. This last part is the new development in his game that has taken him not just back to the level he was at, but sneaking past it.
Evans is shooting 47.1% from the field this season, the second best mark of his career behind a 47.8% mark in his last season before leaving Sacramento for the first time, and far ahead of the 40.5% he shot last season when departing Sacramento for the second time. But not only is he making more shots; he is making the more valuable ones. Over the past two seasons, Evans has significantly improved his three-point shot from being a big weakness of his to a significant part of his offensive repertoire, and this season, it is better than ever.
Shooting 41.4% from three-point range on 5.2 attempts per game this year has brought his true shooting percentage all the way up to 57.9%, the best mark of his career, massively better than the 50.1% he shot last season, and better also than his 52.0% career mark. Given that Evans's game is still based around his own scoring ability, it is imperative that he is doing so efficiently.
The pull-up twos are now raise-straight-up threes. Or, occasionally, dribble-between-the-legs-for-a-bit-then-raise-up threes. Either way, there are threes now. And with that, Evans is a big scoring threat, recording 19.4 points per game on the year, his most since that rookie season.
In being able to simply raise up and shoot over defenders - plus having the size to do so against any opponent, especially when playing point guard - Evans changes defensive strategies against him. Opponents now have to play those eight inches closer to him to contest the potential jump shot, as allowing him to take one is no longer a victory for the defence. And with this in mind, the drive is now further opened up, as defenders are those eight vital extra inches behind the play.
However, Evans is not merely using this share of the offence to score the ball. He is exploiting that space for team mates, driving to hit cutters and spotters, and driving to dump off to Gasol, JaMychal Green, Brandan Wright, or any other big man that can have a go at a powerful finish. Evans is also out back pushing the ball in transition, where he was always a force to be feared with his combination of size, handle and power. Evans is a fearsome scoring threat again, and the confidence and swagger is back to match.
There are still flaws, most noticeably defensively. Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry returned last night as well and immediately dropped a league-wide season's best 10 three-pointers, in no way acting like a man who had some rust he needed to shake off. As his main defender, Evans must take some culpability for that, for it was too often him going under the screens and getting lost off the ball that allowed so many open looks. Chasing around smaller and quicker guards is not ideal for a player of Evans's physique, but it also a requirement of playing point guard, so he is going to have to do it better.
He is also still somewhat uncomfortable off the ball. Evans can be static without the ball, not cutting or working to the wings, nor shooting all that well when catching on the move. He could take himself into the post, but doesn't, and he shoots better off the pull-up dribble than off the catch. It is this rather inflexible nature that eventually made him redundant to the Pelicans - despite his lesser talents, E'Twaun Moore is fitting what role Evans would have had in New Orleans better than Tyreke ever did.
Nonetheless, for a tiny price, Memphis has found a quality half-court point guard, scorer and leader. With Conley soon to return, their season going nowhere and their financial situation strained by the Chandler Parsons contract, it seems unlikely that the Grizzlies can or should keep Tyreke going into next year, and they should perhaps look to sell high on Evans while they still can. But it is precisely because of his play this season that they can feasibly do that.
To play Tyreke's style in the NBA means having to be so good as to be a team's best or second best backcourt playmaker. He needs to dominate the ball, which means he needs to justify having so much of it, which means he needs to be better than the other options. For a couple of years, he wasn't doing that. But now, he is.
And with that, Tyreke Evans is back.