By Scott Fragale
When you’re still seven months away from legally ordering a cold one and you’re already being compared to NBA superstars like LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, you know you’re doing something right.
Such is the life of Sacramento Kings amazing rookie Tyreke Evans, who in his own quiet, matter-of-fact way is taking the league by storm.
Despite an unassuming demeanor that more resembles an overachieving role player than a budding superstar, Evans is currently leading all NBA rookies in all the relevant offensive categories and appears destined for greatness.
Evans has already secured two Western Conference Rookie of the Month honors, and with the season nearing the halfway mark, he appears poised to join names like Paul, Roy, Durant and Rose as the yearly award winner.
“Evans isn’t far from being an All-Star now. If he continues to improve his perimeter game and decision making he will be a perennial All-Star,” said Sacramento Bee NBA writer Jason Jones. “Evans admits he’s still learning when it’s best to pass or shoot in key situations. That will come with experience.”
Armed with a deadly first step and a 6-6, 225-pound frame that equates to an instant mismatch for opposing point guards, Evans is currently off to an historic start to his rookie campaign. Averaging 20.5 points along with 5.1 rebounds and 5 assists, Evans will find himself in some pretty lofty company if he can maintain his early pace. In the history of the NBA, only Oscar Robertson, James and some guy named Jordan have averaged 20-5-5 as rookies. Not bad for a guy who played just one year of college (Memphis) before being thrust into the Kings’ starting lineup.
It’s not often when a rookie can come in and compete for a starting position, but an injury to Sacramento guard Kevin Martin led to an opportunity to showcase his wide array of skills and Evans hasn’t looked back since.
According to those most familiar with his play, Evans is already surprising many by demonstrating the intangibles usually reserved for seasoned veterans or at least guys old enough to rent a car.
“Evans remains the quiet type in Sacramento. I think the injury to Kevin Martin has thrust Evans into more of a leadership role,” Jones said. “Evans has been more vocal on the floor of late. I don’t think he’ll ever be the loud ‘rah-rah’ type because it’s not his personality. He likes to lead by example.”
While Evans’ numbers are bordering on historic, many believe he’s just scratching the surface.
“Evans is so big and strong. That physique gives him a huge advantage in any long-term thinking,” said ESPN Senior Basketball Writer Marc Stein. “Then you look at the numbers he’s putting up and remember that he doesn’t even have a dependable jumper yet and it really gets scary.”
If there is a weakness in his game right now, it’s his ability to knock down a jumper on a consistent basis. Despite an unorthodox delivery in which he releases the ball from behind his head, Evans field-goal percentage is hovering near 50 percent and he tends to make the most of his opportunities while playing within the offensive system. And as we’ve all seen with other stars who entered the league with suspect perimeter games like James and Wade, tweaking his form can be corrected and developed over time.
“Evans’ versatility reminds me a little of LeBron, but I see a lot more Dwyane Wade,” Jones said. “He’s a player that can get to the rim whenever he wants and draw contact. Evans doesn’t have the freakish athleticism of James or Wade.”
Evans scores an average of five baskets a game at the rim with many of the zero-footers coming via his cat-quick first step. Only LeBron (5.1), Carmelo Anthony (5.1) and Wade (4.3) come close when comparing the established finishers in the league.
What Evans doesn’t have trouble with is creating space for his shots and beating defenders off the dribble. We all saw glimpses of his ability to get to the rim in his brief time under John Calipari at Memphis and it’s been more of the same since entering the league as the fourth overall pick in last year’s draft.
With top draft pick Blake Griffin lost for the season and other picks like Hasheem Thabeet (second overall to Memphis) and James Harden (third overall to Oklahoma City) not living up to their pre-draft billing (Harden has been solid but Thabeet might go down as one of the biggest busts in recent history), Evans has recently subplanted Milwaukee’s Brandon Jennings as the ROY frontrunner.
While it was Jennings and his incredible 55-point scoring outburst in just his seventh NBA game that grabbed the headlines and attention of fans and collectors early on, the two seem to be going in opposite directions as we near the midway point. Evans has scored 18 or more points in 10 of his last 12 games and eclipsed the 20-point mark seven times during that stretch. Jennings, meanwhile, has scored 18 or more just twice in his last 10 contests and opposing defenses appear to have figured out ways to defend the talented lefty.
“He’s being game-planned for now. And the season really is a grind for a kid going through it for the first time, especially since Jennings isn’t all that big and with all of the injuries Milwaukee has endured, which enables defenses to lock in on him even more,” Stein said. “I think we’ve also heard Jennings himself say that the 55-point game was a blessing and a curse. Doing that in his seventh game as a pro has created some awfully high expectations to live up to every single night.”
While Jennings has cooled somewhat on the court, he remains a hot commodity on a Milwaukee Bucks team whose fanbase is starving for something to get excited about.
“When Brandon came to our store for his public signing the atmosphere was electric,” said Jeff Lemieux of Jeff’s Sports, a collectibles store just outside of Milwaukee. “He was wonderful with the crowd especially with the little kids who came to see him. We’ve had many public signings at our stores throughout our 28 years in business and the only two signings that compared to the excitement that Brandon appearance generated is when we had Brett Favre and Desmond Howard after the Green Bay Packers won Super Bowl XXXI.”
As is often the case with emerging stars, popularity and recognition within the state will always outweigh that seen on the national level. But after Jennings’ joined Elgin Baylor, Rick Barry, Earl Monroe and Wilt Chamberlain as the only NBA rookies to ever net more than 50 points in a game, collectors and fans everywhere were captivated by his performance.
“Locally, Brandon was extremely hot even before the 55-point game. The 55-point game really boosted his popularity on the national level,” Lemieux said. “People around the country who didn’t know much about him or had their doubts about him making it in the NBA really took notice and were convinced he is, and will be, a very special player in the NBA.”
Memorabilia prices for both Evans and Jennings will obviously vary from dealer to dealer but the updated Tuff Stuff pricing for this dynamic duo remains the same. Signed 8-by-10 photos are currently listed at $25 each and autographed basketballs are priced at $85.
Lemieux said the most popular signed memorabilia of Jennings are 8-by-10 and 16-by-20 photos, especially the photos from his 55-point night Nov. 14 against Golden State.
“I have a lot of requests for signed jerseys, but I can’t get the jersey until February,” Lemieux said.
Although Evans and Jennings have been the headliners of the NBA’s opening act they are by no means the only players collectors should keep an eye on.
Minnesota’s lightning-quick point guard Jonny Flynn and Golden State sharpshooter Stephen Curry (both top-10 picks) struggled early but both seem to be making the transition to the next level without much difficulty now that they’ve gotten their feet wet. Some lesser-known players are also making significant contributions. Evans’ teammate Omri Casspi, a 6-9 forward from Isreal, lasted until the 23rd spot in the draft but appears to be the steal of the draft thus far.
“I’m all about Omri Casspi in Sacramento and Rodrigue Beaubois in Dallas. I knew Casspi would be fearless in the NBA because he played for Maccabi Tel-Aviv in a country where Israelis expect Maccabi to win every single game,” Stein said. “Which meant that he already played in a far more pressure-packed environment than Sacramento was going to be. But he’s been a deadly shooter. And not even his biggest fans (like me) would have predicted that as a rookie.”
Others who have been opening eyes of collectors nationwide include: Indiana’s Tyler Hansbrough, Toronto’s Demar DeRozan, Denver’s Ty Lawson, Utah’s Wes Matthews and Houston’s Chase Budinger.
“Blake Griffin might be the only impact big man from this class. I think this class will be remembered for the depth at perimeter players,” Jones said. “It’s not quite the Class of 2003 (LeBron, Carmelo, Bosh, Wade) because I don’t see as many dominant frontcourt scorers. Perhaps it’s a step below the Class of ’96 in terms of perimeter players (Kobe, Iverson, Ray Allen, etc.).”
While it typically takes several years to truly evaluate any draft, it appears the 2009 NBA Draft will be best remembered as one of the best in recent memory in terms of its quality backcourt players. As of now, Evans appears headed for superstardom and several others appear ready for periennial All-Star status. Only time will provide us with the definitive answers but hopefully this mid-season report will help you pick the right players to follow and to add to your collections. SCM