No. 1 pick Blake Griffin was the star of the draft, and Brandon Jennings has been the surprise of the opening months. But Tyreke Evans may turn out to be the best of all the rookies, based on the enormity of his talents and size.
"You hate to compare players like this," said Trail Blazers coach NateMcMillan on Wednesday after escaping with a 95-88 win against Evans' Kings, "but I think he's got some Magic [Johnson] in him. He's a big guard that can see the floor, he's unselfish, he gets to the rim, he uses his body very well, he's good in transition, he can rebound and push the ball, and a small or big guard doesn't really faze him."
A long list there, and yet it doesn't fully cover Evans' promise. With averages of 20.3 points, 5.1 rebounds and 5.0 assists, he has joined LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Joe Johnson as the only players to average 20-5-5 this season. More impressive still has been his leadership of a rebuilding franchise that lost top scorer Kevin Martin on Nov. 2 (sidelined at least eight weeks by a hairline fracture in his left wrist). Instead of settling at the bottom of the West as widely predicted, the Kings are off to an 11-13 start. On Wednesday, they beat the visiting Wizards 112-109 on a team-leading 26 points from Evans, who stole the ball from Gilbert Arenas to defend a one-point lead in the closing seconds.
Evans wasn't viewed by everyone as a sure thing when he entered the draft after one year at Memphis. His hometown Grizzlies passed on him in order to pick center Hasheem Thabeet (now averaging 2.7 points, 3.3 rebounds, 1.2 blocks and 2.1 fouls), and his own college coach John Calipari didn't originally view him as a point guard. "I should have been fired," Calipari joked after waiting through a 6-3 start before shifting Evans from the off guard to the point; the Tigers didn't lose again until the NCAA Sweet 16.
Though he grew up playing point guard, Evans admitted he was given the ball mainly so he could score. "I wasn't really a natural point," he said. "I was more like a point guard/two guard, I could bring the ball up. Now I know how to run a team better, create passes, things like that."
Did he envision averaging more points and assists than the 17.1 and 3.9 he managed last year? "I didn't have any idea," he said. "I was excited I got drafted, and I knew I wasn't going to stop working hard. As the year went along, as I went into training camp, I was thinking I can be pretty good."
In many ways he has mirrored the fast start of Jennings in Milwaukee, though the latter received more notice after breaking out for 55 points in the opening month against the Warriors. Both have overcome the loss of their team's leading scorer (with Michael Redd sidelined in Milwaukee), both have helped redeem the incumbent point guard (Beno Udrih in Sacramento, Luke Ridnour in Milwaukee) by converting him into a secondary ball-handler and spot-up threat at the three-point line, and both have defined a fluid up-tempo style in which they can excel.
But when they meet Saturday in Milwaukee, the difference between the two rookie point guards will become obvious. While 6-1 Jennings creates space with his quickness, 6-6 Evans has more than enough explosion to go with size and strength that dwarfs most point guards -- young or old. His 6-feet, 11 ¼-inch wingspan is as long as Griffin's and an inch shorter than LeBron James': Having turned 20 in September, 220-pound Evans looks very much like the LeBron of point guards in his ability to dominate rivals, physically and athletically. "He can play 1, 2 or 3," said McMillan. "And when they have some of their guys back, we may even see him play some 4 because he has a big body."
"He's a walking mismatch,'' said Kings coach Paul Westphal. "Very few times do you have a rookie [who can] affect the game plan of the other coach, but they set their defense to try to stop him. He's responded really well in figuring out what the next move is: If they double team here what do you do about that, if they put this guy on you, what do you do about that? There's just not one thing you can do to curb his effectiveness."
Evans appreciates the impact he makes. "I'm going to the basket and making contact with them every chance I get," he said. "I was playing [Timberwolves 6-foot rookie] Jonny Flynn the other night and he said to the refs, 'Man, I didn't know I had to guard LeBron James tonight.'"
Evans has been working with assistant Pete Carril to improve his perimeter shooting. "His stroke is fairly sound, other than his tendency to take the ball too far back over his head," said Kings president Geoff Petrie. Evans is making 24.4 percent of his threes, and opponents don't look forward to his improvement out there. "As he stretches the defense and learns to hit that outside shot even more," said Blazers All-Star guard Brandon Roy, "he's going to really become a double threat. Because right now he's almost un-guardable getting to the basket."
Petrie doesn't compare Evans to LeBron so much as to Adrian Peterson. "What he does have is just great acceleration with the ball," Petrie said. "When he sees a hole, he's almost like a running back in football: he sees it and he goes. He's one of those players who plays much faster when he has the ball than when he doesn't. I think it's because he's always had the ball, and he's very comfortable having it."
Evans had heard the LeBron comparisons, but not a running back, though he's quickly warming to the idea. "When I push the ball coming full speed, what's a guy supposed to do? I'm running full speed at my size, and every hole I see I try to get there fast," he said. "You can't drive to the basket slow thinking you're going to make it."
Evans isn't athletic in the typical vertical-leap sense. He doesn't sky above opponents as much he blasts through them. He'll fake left and, before they can regain balance, he's bursting right with his long arm extended away and the ball kissing softly off the glass regardless of how awkwardly Evans might be falling. He is a tremendous finisher in traffic, capable of focusing on the shot regardless of contact.
His innate mastery of tempo, as well as his refusal to show off athletically, reminds Roy of himself. "He plays to win," said Roy. "He isn't going to score in the 40s and 50s, but you can tell he scores those meaningful points, he makes those meaningful passes and he just plays within himself. I see similarities, especially with his poise and the way he takes his time and makes his plays out there on the court."
Defensively, Evans may already be one of the best at his position, in no small part because he grew up playing against older talent. In seventh grade, he was the starting point guard for the varsity at American Christian high school team in suburban Philadelphia. "I was always bigger than people my age," he said. "When I was [playing] in my age group, people would say, 'He isn't how old he says he is -- he's older.' But I didn't pay that any mind. I would just go out there and play ball. And when I played with older guys, I struggled for a couple of days, but then when I got the hang of playing with them I got better and better."
He grew used to being pushed around and learning to push back. As the seventh-grade point guard on the high school team, he recalls, "There was a guy on my team, a senior point guard way stronger than me. He would try to be physical with me and push me in the post. That's when I realized I had to get in the weight room. So I got a trainer, I got bigger."
A personal trainer in seventh grade?
"I knew I needed to lift weights, and I didn't know what I was doing so I had to get a trainer,"' he said. "I wanted to be better than everybody I was playing against. I wanted to be the best."
The investment is paying off.