It seemed that he was destined for a career of gallivanting around the top of the NBA pyramid, but four years later he's struggling through his first season with the New Orleans Pelicans and still trying to recapture the spell-binding success of that first season.
The Pelicans paid a handsome sum for Evans' services: $44 million over the next four years. To spend that kind of money on a player, one would assume they had a very specific idea about what sort of role Evans would play for them.
It seemed logical that the Pelicans would be looking for Evans to act as the focal point and lead ball-handler for their second-unit offense, as well as occasionally working as a small forward in lineups with Jrue Holiday and Eric Gordon.
However, injuries have forced the Pelicans to make some significant changes to their rotations throughout the season. Evans's role has changed quite a bit from week to week and it appears that it hasn't ever been clearly defined.
“He’s trying to figure me out still,” Evans said of his head coach before the game. “Most of the guys that came here are pretty much new [to the team] so he’s trying to fit everybody in and put me in the best position he can.”
But when asked whether he and Williams ever discussed his best role on the team openly, Evans said it’s never been brought up.
“No, we never talked about that,” Evans told Sheridan Hoops. “I haven’t talked to him about it. We talk here and there but I haven’t talked to him about what role is whose on the team.”
His struggles this season would seem to indicate that the various roles he's assumed for the Pelicans haven't really worked. So what does an ideal role for Evans look like?
Evans came into the league as a point guard, which was where the Kings played him during his phenomenal rookie season.
The legacy of that positioning and the way he was often allowed to dominate the ball in Sacramento leaves the impression that he's an offensive player who is at his best when creating with the ball in his hands. But the numbers tell a slightly different story.
According to mySynergySports (subscription required), 49.8% of Evans's offensive possessions this season have been used on isolations or as the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll. He ranks 118th and 122nd in the league in efficiency on those two possession types, averaging about 0.71 points per possession in all. Those numbers are roughly in line with the rest of his NBA career.
Ultimately, this is the centerpiece of his struggles this season. He's being asked to create nearly half of his offense for himself and he's just not that efficient at doing it. This problem has been exacerbated by the Pelicans' injury problems.
As Michael McNamara pointed out at BourbonStreetShots, the Pelicans have often been forced to use less than ideal big man combinations alongside Evans:
This goes hand in hand with the first point, as the loss of Ryan Anderson and Jason Smith means that Evans has had to play with two centers clogging up the lane while Anthony Davis is getting a rest. And if not two lane clogging bigs, then one lane clogging big and Aminu at the small ball four. Either way, there is little to no space. And that’s why it is no coincidence that the Evans-Aminu-Stiemsma, the Evans-Aminu-Withey, and the Evans-Withey-Steimsma are some of the worst three-man lineups Monty has ever put on the court.
The quiet secret about Evans's offensive game is that, despite being an unreliable outside shooter, he's much more effective working off the ball. Going back to the numbers from mySynergySports, we see that when we combine his cuts, spot-ups, hand-offs and shots coming off screens he's averaging 0.98 points per possession. But together, those possession types make up just 15.7% of his offensive possessions with the Pelicans.
Over his four years in Sacramento, the Kings began to realize how much more effective Evans was as a complementary off-the-ball threat.
The impressive numbers he posted as a rookie were the product of an uptempo pace and a struggling team, and his levels of efficiency were much less impressive then his per-game numbers. Last season in Sacramento, when he posted a career high True Shooting Percentage (TS%) of 55.8, those off-ball possession types made up 22.3% his offensive load.
For a player likes Evans, who isn't a great shooter, contributing off-ball offense is about cutting to the basket and coming off screens.
When we think about players coming off screens the first image that probably comes to mind is Kyle Korver or Ray Allen sprinting around a series of obstacles for an open three-pointer. For Evans, screens allow him to effectively catch the ball much closer to the basket, often against a defense that's already shifted.
Here, in an example from last season, the Kings run a simple pin-down screen in the corner allowing Evans to curl around and bull his way down the open lane to the basket.
The Pelicans run this kind of action rarely, but it's generally been successful when they have. Here, Evans catches the ball and goes away from the screen back to the baseline.
The important thing is allowing Evans to catch the ball within the defensive structure, instead of from the outside looking in.
Off-ball cuts are another way to accomplish this and with appropriate spacing, Evans can be deadly working along the baseline.
The problem is that either out of injury-created necessity, or poor player management, Evans doesn't get enough opportunities to work inside the defense.
According to the NBA's Player Tracking statistics, Evans averages 38.0 half-court touches per game this season. Of those 38.0, only 3.2 come close to the basket or at the elbow.
What that means is that more than 92% of his offensive touches come outside that framework of the defense, requiring him to create offense through penetration.
The numbers show him to be an average off-the-dribble creator but he's been asked to do it with the frequency one would expect of an elite penetrator.
One other possibility for placing Evans in a better position to succeed is allowing him to post up more. It's something neither the Pelicans or Kings have allowed much opportunity for but he's been very efficient as a post scorer in limited minutes and it also helps him create offense for others.
Here, he simply freezes the defense, allowing the action to unfold behind him and tossing the ball to Anthony Davis at the rim.
Here, a deliberate post-up allows off-ball action to create an open three-pointer for Ryan Anderson.
Ultimately, which position Evans plays is much less important than the players he's on the floor with and what offensive responsibilities he's given.
We can see that in the splits between those two obvious roles that appeared open when Evans was first acquired. As the offensive focal point for the second unit, he has struggled mightily.
According to NBAWowy, when Evans has been on the floor, with Eric Gordon and Jrue Holiday on the bench, he has used 32.8 percent of the Pelicans' possessions, with a TS% of 46.1 percent. When he's on the floor with Gordon and Holiday, his USG falls to 23.9 percent but his TS% climbs to 59.0 percent.
The Pelicans seemed interested in exploring trade options for Evans. But with the trade deadline in the rearview mirror, he's in New Orleans for at least the rest of this season.
Hopefully, the Pelicans will have an opportunity to get everyone healthy and really try to figure out exactly what works for Evans and their roster.
They made a miscalculation on his proficiency as an on-ball offensive creator, but Evans is still an enormously talented player with plenty to offer.
The key is finding ways to balance his responsibilities and surround him with the kind of players who allow him to be his best self.
Statistical support for this story from NBA.com/stats