Ailene Voisin, sports columnist

Ailene Voisin

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Ailene Voisin: Evans makes strides in new role

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1C
Last Modified: Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2012 - 12:09 am

The Looker. The Watcher. There are certainly worse things to be called.

Yet here it is, two seasons after former Kings assistant coach Mario Elie tagged Tyreke Evans with the nicknames, and the four-year veteran is taking offense, pushing back, worrying less about his own stats and more about shutting down his opponent.

"I remember him (Elie) saying that," Evans recalled, with a grin. "The Looker, The Watcher. That helped me prepare against cutters, getting out quicker to guys on the perimeter."

The soft-spoken Evans is telling it straight. There is no guise, no gimmick to this guy. He has decided to become a different player, wants to be regarded as an elite defender, and is proceeding accordingly. More consistently than at most times in the past, he is using his powerful 6-foot-6 frame to obstruct opponents on backdoor cuts. And he's contesting jump shots, using his long arms and quick hands to deflect passes and initiate fast breaks.

But defense was the easy part. Transforming Evans' offense has been as messy as a tooth extraction.

He was this, then he was that. He was that, then he was this. Evans has played more roles than John C. Reilly.

Designated as the Kings' primary ballhandler and scorer, and burdened with the "future superstar point guard" label mere weeks into his 2009-10 rookie season, the former Memphis standout was given little direction and virtually no boundaries. He slow-dribbled across midcourt. He dominated the ball while hunting for more shots. He initiated three-on-one fast breaks, and rather than passing ahead to open teammates, he charged into clusters of defenders.

"When I used to come through here (as a Warriors coach), my thought was, 'The little nuances as a point guard, he doesn't see,' " Kings coach Keith Smart said. " 'Why is he making this play? Why is he making that play?' "

Why was Evans so badly miscast in the first place? OK, so that's history. But now? Why is he making fewer and fewer of those familiar mistakes?

In some respects, the answer is simple. Evans is no longer a man without a country. After two seasons as the point guard-primary ballhandler and a third as a struggling, demoralized small forward, Smart identified him as a slashing, scoring, playmaking shooting guard and returned him to the backcourt alongside Aaron Brooks.

If not quite transformational – let's talk after the season – Evans' improvement is more than a little intriguing for a number of reasons, among them his contract status. He will become a restricted free agent next summer and can entertain offers. While the Kings retain the right to match, an excellent season assuredly increases the price tag.

"People say, 'Maybe it's (his progress) because he's in a deal year,' " Smart said. "I don't think so. I think he's too genuine for that. He's a genuine guy. He just loves to play ball."

It's true. Evans loves to play ball. He loves the entire scene – the camaraderie in the locker room, the quiet chats with teammates, the post-practice shooting duels, the sense of belonging. While Evans' skills have been dissected and at times harshly critiqued within his own locker room, his teammates' affection and fondness have never wavered.

"And, now, having his mind open up to things … " Smart said, smiling. "Give credit to him for his work ethic and keeping his head on his shoulder."

Alongside the speedy Brooks, who can handle the ball and make plays and whose outside shot spaces the floor, Evans is cutting underneath for layups and positioning in the lane and at the elbows for powerful, one-dribble drives and postups. He is making quicker and wiser decisions and, perhaps most importantly, obliging Smart and moving without the ball.

He also is eating healthier, training more efficiently and, despite a weeklong bout with migraines earlier this month, feeling better physically than at any time in his NBA career.

And Smart expects more of the same – and even more.

"I had a good talk with him in L.A.," Smart said. " 'If you don't match the level of these high-level off-guards, you're just another guy. But if you're playing at a high level every single night, guarding a guy and making plays for yourself and your team, then you become real valuable not just to us, but to everybody, because they're seeing more.' "

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin, sports columnist

Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. She earned a bachelor's degree in political science from UNLV and a law degree from the University of San Diego before committing full time to journalism.

Her career includes stops at the San Diego Union, Los Angeles Herald-Examiner and Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and time spent as the backup beat writer for Dodgers and Angels, Clippers and NBA beat writer, sports columnist, along with numerous assignments covering international events and the Olympics. Ailene joined The Sacramento Bee in 1997.

Phone: 916-321-1208
Twitter: @ailene_voisin

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