NBA Rookie of the Year. Franchise centerpiece. An unmovable place in history alongside Jordan, Oscar and LeBron. Tyreke Evans was made for this. The 21-year-old Sacramento King is on a course to take over the basketball world, a goal that was in his sights before he even knew it.
Midway through his sophomore year, Tyreke is averaging 17.1 points, 4.8 rebounds and 5.4 assists while playing through a painful foot injury for most of the season. His Kings are still looking up in the standings at the rest of the West, but their go-to player gives the organization no reason not to be optimistic.
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It was all mapped out. All of this. Whether it was written down or not isn’t exactly the point. The point is that it’s happening. As we speak.
The way this world works, hardly anything can ever be called a certainty. That’s especially true when looking far into the future; this helps to make assurances in sports even trickier. We are continuously searching for what’s next, and that’s part of the reason why guarantees are hardly ever guaranteed.
Once in a while, though, things just work out as planned.
There’s a mural of Tyreke Evans in downtown Sacramento, Calif., near where the American and Sacramento Rivers meet, in a city so small by industry standards that its tomato farming is famous. The size of the city makes the mural seem much larger than its reported 10-story height and 65-foot width.
When we think big, as in, “Let’s build this middle-schooler up to be one of the baddest, most ruthless dudes out there,” this is what we get. We get Tyreke Evans.
The blueprint you may know was made in 2001. This one technically began two years later. But its roots stretch much deeper than that.
Those roots bore fruits in the form of an NBA rookie season so miraculous, so good, that the only comparable names are LeBron James, Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson. Evans, the No. 4 pick in the 2009 NBA Draft, joined them last year as the only rookies ever to average at least 20 points, five rebounds and five assists in a season. Along the way he dropped a career-high 34 points on the League’s No. 1 defense in Charlotte, outscored the Bulls by himself (11-10) in the fourth quarter of a monumental 35-point comeback win, and went off for 26 points to win MVP of the Rookie Challenge. After beating out Brandon Jennings and Stephen Curry for Rookie of the Year, Evans earned an invitation to Team USA training camp in July.
His impact was instant. The kid destined to become perhaps the best player in Sacramento Kings franchise history since Robertson seems intent on proving to everyone his climb to fame will be, or has been, quicker than anyone could’ve expected.
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For years, Sacramento was a lowlight on the NBA schedule. When the franchise first moved from Kansas City to California during the mid-1980s, teams were shocked to find no downtown hotels, and nary a place to eat. Chris Webber, the player whom arguably holds the best-since-Oscar crown Evans is chasing, famously cried on an airplane when he first laid eyes on Sacramento after he’d been traded to the Kings. While it sits at the northern tip of California’s Central Valley and is littered with recreational activities, Sacramento’s only real prominence came from their state government headquarters.
Unsurprisingly, the team struggled. After a playoff visit in 1986, they didn’t return for a decade.
But while the city was never as electrifying as Miami or rich in opportunity like Los Angeles, even though the team was not always competitive, the fans always stuck around. Even before their renaissance at the turn of the century during the Webber era, Sacramento had quietly pocketed 450 sellouts. The Sacramento Bee’s Ailene Voisin, a longtime sports columnist in the area, says that’s because the Kings are the only major professional sports team around.
“The Kings are the sports team that matters,” says Voisin. “And people here love Tyreke.”
For Evans, so soft-spoken that Voisin says she often can’t hear him during interviews, it was the perfect city to begin his long-awaited career.
Since middle school, the introverted Evans had hopped from gym to gym, a basketball prodigy bent on putting in the work to find stardom, not leaving anything to chance. His basketball cocoon didn’t allow for that. Swarthmore College. St. Joe’s. Villanova. Every single day.
While Evans’ hometown, Chester, Pa., doesn’t boast the same basketball pedigree as Philadelphia, a big brother that sits just 13 miles away, it did offer him all the testing he needed. NBA All-Star point guard Jameer Nelson is a Chester native, and teenaged Tyreke more than held his own in their head-to-head matchups that have become part of the city’s mythology.
Evans’ first real introduction to the tornado of moneymaking hoops was after his sophomore year of high school. Dime gave the 16-year-old prodigy his first national cover story, aptly titled it “The Phenom,” and shot photos of him in his home city. During photo shoot breaks, Evans would drift over to neighboring courts, taking in some pickup games. When the group moved to a gym, he couldn’t help but launch moon-shot threes from almost half-court.
Even at that age, Evans knew what brought him into the camera’s focus in the first place: the game.
“(His teammates) know that he is about winning and not about being famous,” says Kings head coach Paul Westphal. “A lot of young guys come into the League with the wrong idea, that it’s about how much money you can make and how famous you can get. But Tyreke understands that if you are good enough then you will get all of those other things and then some.”
“The first time I saw him in person, I was just blown away because he handled himself as if he knew that he could get the job done,” Westphal says about a pre-Draft workout last summer at the Kings’ practice facility. “It wasn’t in a cocky way. It was just dripping off him that he knew what he could do. And it was a lot.”
Last season, Evans was so devastating that Kobe Bryant called the first-year player a “grown-ass man.” Sacramento assistant coach and former NBA guard Mario Elie told the Bee, “I’ve never seen a point guard like him.”
“He’s got game, man,” says the Nets’ Anthony Morrow. “He can get to the basket as well as anyone in the League and he’s proven he’s clutch and a franchise player. He’ll be a superstar.”
Even the infamous rookie wall couldn’t slice up Evans’ wave of momentum. He remained deadly consistent after the All-Star break, averaging 19.8 points while increasing his rebounding and assist numbers.
“This is years and years of training,” says Evans’ longtime personal trainer, Lamont Peterson. “If you go back to the beginning … all of that was the foundation upon last season. So you are looking at a body of work of six or seven years. He’s been on his grind every day since he decided that he wanted to be a pro.”
Evans’ older brother, Reggie, started Team Tyreke, a unique and organized support system that includes two other brothers, Doc and Eric (a.k.a. Pooh), Peterson, Tyreke’s best friend Dwayne Davis, and his cousin, Temetrius. Everyone in the group has specific duties — from managing Tyreke’s schedule to tracking business and endorsements to simple day-to-day tasks — and all work to help Evans stay focused.
“It means a lot,” says Evans about his inner circle. “These are people who really care.”
Almost every night last season he delivered on the court, and showed he could lead in more ways than one. In December against the Wizards, he iced the win after stripping three-time All-Star Gilbert Arenas on the game’s final possession. Then, twice in the next month, Evans hit game-winners in the lane during the final second to beat Milwaukee and Denver.
“A lot of guys have confidence and they can’t back it up,” says Westphal. “More than anything, his confidence is based in reality. He knows he is capable of doing these things. He’s not a dreamer.”
The focus this summer was improving a perimeter game that limited Evans last season to 74 percent shooting from the free throw line while making only 25 percent of his threes. It’s the one eyesore of his arsenal, an aspect that was always an afterthought because of Evans’ effortless slashing ability.
“He can attack the basket using his strength and is one of the best ball-handling guards in the League,” says Houston forward Jordan Hill, one of Evans’ 2009 draft classmates. “Once he finds that jump shot, he is definitely going to be a problem.”
With nearly a seven-foot wingspan and a frame built to absorb anything from a hip check by Ron Artest to a Ben Wallace forearm, even Westphal admits, “Why develop an outside shot?”
“People forget Michael Jordan shot 17 percent from the three his rookie year,” says Kings announcer Jerry Reynolds. “Last time I checked, he turned out to be pretty good.”
“That’s the build of a shooting guard,” adds Minnesota second-year point guard Jonny Flynn. “He has that mentality to get to the rim. You know how crafty he is with the basketball getting to the rim, then being able to finish with contact and around people.”
So Evans spent his offseason going through daily drills in Sacramento with assistant coaches Elie and Shareef Abdur-Rahim, and in L.A. with renowned basketball trainer Rob McClanaghan.
“You definitely get tired of it because it’s hard work, but it pays off at the end of the day,” says Evans. “When the game comes, you are comfortable with what you are doing, you feel comfortable.”
And when that part of his game improves, people in the organization are throwing around a new word for Evans’ game: “un-guardable.”
For most of the world’s best athletes, it takes years under the spotlight before their celebrity grows large enough to gnaw at them. Evans, just 21 years old, has already encountered a preview of the industry’s wrath. After a reckless driving charge for speeding at over 130 miles per hour on California’s Interstate 80 this summer, Sacramento Bee columns demanded the Kings stop babying him and hold him accountable. Fans commenting on the police video recording posted on YouTube asked Evans to “shape up,” while calling him “disrespectful” and even a “ghetto wild child.”
“The media and the business can eat you alive,” declares Peterson.
With stardom comes celebrity, and with that comes a transition. For notoriety really is, forgive the clichÃ©, a double-edged sword.
“That’s why I try to surround myself with people who care about me and help me on the court and off the court,” says Evans. “There are a lot of people out here who really just want to be around you because you are in the NBA.”
Evans apologized for the speeding incident this summer and is completing his punishment: a one-game suspension from the NBA, a fine, 80 hours of community service and a suspended license. Plus, at the end of the day, he will have to answer to Team Tyreke.
Says Reynolds of Evans’ supporters: “They are more than willing to step in and tell him where he is wrong and not just kiss his rear end.”
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As Evans matures, so too should the Kings. With the arrival of rookie center DeMarcus Cousins, the No. 5 pick in the 2010 Draft, along with the continued improvement of the rest of the team’s young roster, expectations are there for Sacramento to make the leap to sleeper status this year. Still, that all starts and ends with Evans.
“It boggles my mind when you think, ‘OK, here’s a guy who played one year in college and one year in the pros,'” says Westphal. “He should be a junior in college and soon people are either going to be praising him or criticizing him based on wins when he (just turned) 21 years old.”
With expectations swelling once again in Sacramento, it’s on Evans — just four short years removed from his introduction to America — to continue to improve, on and off the court. The Kings certainly expect it.
No higher praise comes than that from Reynolds, who has served as a coach, front-office executive and broadcaster for the Kings for more than a quarter-century after the team moved from Kansas City to Sacramento.
“I really would almost be surprised,” Reynolds says, “if he doesn’t turn out to be the very best basketball player to ever play for the Kings in Sacramento.”
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Although Tyreke has technically made it, there is so much more to do. There will continue to be 30-point games to play, All-Star rosters to make and entire DVDs worth of no-he-didn’t moves to pocket — for 20-5-5 is not a conclusion to anything. Evans wouldn’t call it a beginning either. His current status exists somewhere in between.
“It’s funny how things happen for a reason,” says Peterson. “He had to be here to get Rookie of the Year. That had to happen in Sacramento. It had to be here for this all to happen.”
All of this, perhaps, was part of a great master plan, one that has been shaped, coddled, scraped together and secured since Evans was 14 years old. The weight room work to build a body equipped to never need a night off, the positioning within a quiet city, shielding the quiet kid from the trappings of youth, and yes, maybe even that “other stuff” is now being used to teach what it means to be a celebrity.
“I love the game so much,” says Evans. “I watched it a lot growing up and always wanted to get the chance to play in the NBA. So now, it’s my time.”
Evans’ goals — championships, league MVP trophies and two maximum-salary contracts — deal only with the ball, a hoop and what Evans can do with them. Anything else is secondary. He is a basketball player to the core.
“This league has a way of distracting a person, but I don’t see signs of Tyreke being distractible,” says Westphal. “At the same time, he is human and he has to watch out for that.”
There will be no more free passes. Evans will hear criticism, loud and direct — “Last year, it didn’t matter if we beat the Lakers or not; this year it is going to matter,” says Peterson — if his individual excellence doesn’t soon yield wins.
Harsh, but isn’t this what every little kid wants? It’s repeated often: to those that much is given, much will be expected. In order to reach his goals, it’s something Evans must soon expect and accept.
He may never attain the galvanizing influence, or presence, of Magic Johnson, or the global appeal of an Air Jordan. But that’s not Evans’ concern. Never has been.
“I just want to be known as a good basketball player who is exciting to watch,” says Evans. “That’s pretty much it.”