Tyreke Evans sat at his locker after the Kings’ 116-98 loss to the Bucks on Wednesday night, looking at his phone, both feet submerged in a tub of ice water. Another ice pack was strapped to his right knee.
The image seemed to encapsulate the injury problems that have cost Evans, the 27-year-old former rookie of the year, most of the past two seasons. But Evans had also just played a fourth quarter that he said was indicative of the player he can still be.
With just four points going into the fourth, Evans played the entire quarter and – albeit with the Kings trailing by double digits – scored 14 points on 6-of-11 shooting, as head coach Dave Joerger used Evans as the primary initiator on offense.
“Just the ball was in my hand,” Evans said. “I think that’s when I’m at my best. I was bringing it up, getting a rhythm, coming off screen-and-rolls, getting in the paint, and trying to find guys. That’s when I’m playing my best.”
Evans has maintained this throughout his career, even as teams have tried him in other roles: That he functions best as an attacking point guard, like during his rookie season when he averaged 20.1 points, 5.8 assists and 5.3 rebounds for the Kings.
The rest of the fourth-quarter stat sheet Wednesday showed why some dispute the idea: With Evans’ numbers removed, the rest of the Kings combined for nine points on 4-for-10 shooting with no free-throw attempts. Evans had no assists.
There’s also the role that repeatedly driving the lane and drawing contact likely played in Evans’ recent injury history, which includes three knee surgeries in a span of nine months in New Orleans and contributed to his playing just 60 of a possible 152 games over the past two seasons.
Evans said he heard the doubts about whether he could be an effective NBA player again.
“People thought after the injury I was going to be done,” he said Wednesday night. “But I’m still maintaining. I feel better than ever with my knee. No pain, just playing free. When I’ve got the ball in my hands, that’s when I’m at my best and I feel like I can get where I want, create, and I can be me.”
Evans has only played on back-to-back days once since returning from his last surgery in December, and has sat out six of the past 11 games. But he said he feels capable of more than the 22 minutes per game he’s averaging with the Kings. His numbers have picked up since he returned to Sacramento in the DeMarcus Cousins trade: 14 points per game on 47.4 percent shooting.
He has also continued the improvement of his long-range jump shot that he said began in New Orleans under Pelicans assistant Fred Vinson. A career 29.6 percent three-point shooter, Evans is at 37 percent this season and 16-for-30 (53 percent) with the Kings.
In the final season of the four-year, $44 million contract he signed with New Orleans in 2013, Evans is slated to become an unrestricted free agent for the first time this summer. In that sense, every time Evans takes the court is a chance to show he is healthy and still capable of playing at a high level.
“A lot of teams know I had tough injuries so they want to see how I’m moving, how I’m playing every night,” Evans said. “There’s teams watching. I know the Kings are watching, too. So I’m playing for my teammates still at the end of the day, but I’m going out there and being myself.”
Kings guard Garrett Temple, who played alongside Evans for a short time in Sacramento during their rookie seasons, said he believes Evans is still an effective play maker even if injuries have rendered him less explosive than before.
“He was never a guy that was just going to go right by you and dunk,” Temple said. “He was always a guy that played with a change of pace, and obviously being in the league longer, he’s understood how to even perfect that.”
Temple occupies the spot next to Evans in the Kings’ home locker room and said he does not see a player looking past this season.
“He’s just playing basketball,” Temple said. “I’ve never heard him once say, ‘Coach not playing me, man, I’ve got a contract coming up.’ If he’s thinking that, he hasn’t shown it at all, whether it be on the court or in the locker room.
“He’s been a leader to these young guys, helping as much as he can, whether he plays or doesn’t play. So he strikes me just as being a great teammate, a guy that’s trying to continue to get in shape and knock the rust off.”