Ailene Voisin

Kings’ Tyreke Evans returns with a limp and a hope for better health

Tyreke Evans was 19 years old when he was introduced in Arco Arena as a wide-eyed, highly regarded rookie out of Memphis. He walked softly but carried a big, bruising basket of skills. At a muscular 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds, and in the terms of one-time Kings coach Paul Westphal, he was a man among boys.

That was true for his opening act. Encouraged by his former coach to control games and dominate the show, Evans averaged 20.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, 5.8 assists and a career-high 37.2 minutes. He slipped past Steph Curry and outdistanced his former New Orleans Pelican teammate Jrue Holiday for Rookie of the Year honors.

But then came the injuries. A sore knee. A sore heel. Another sore knee. A sore ankle. Another sore knee.

Evans, who was reacquired by the Kings on Sunday in the stunning trade with New Orleans that featured DeMarcus Cousins and rookie Buddy Hield, hopes his return is more than a cameo appearance or, in the harsh reality of the NBA, that he is perceived as something more than an expiring contract whose $10 million salary comes off the books this summer.

He is still only 27. He is also, he acknowledges, still a walking wound, seemingly cursed with bad ankles and bad knees, and not fully recovered from a right knee procedure that caused him to miss the second half of last season and limit his minutes since he was activated in mid-December.

“The other surgeries in New Orleans were scopes (arthroscopy),” Evans said Wednesday after his formal media session in the practice facility. “The one I had last year was more serious. They had to go in and remove cartilage. But my knee problems really started while I was here. No injury that I can remember. They just kept hurting and hurting. I got one knee drained so I could play, but it’s just something I always had to deal with.”

Evans – who with the Pelicans in 2014-15 averaged 16.6 points, 6.6 assists, 5.3 rebounds and 34.1 minutes and reached the playoffs for the only time in his career – has visited experts, heeded the advice of his brothers, switched personal coaches, gained and lost as much as 20 pounds of muscle in attempts to become stronger and healthier, with LeBron James’ powerful frame as the model. Currently, he subscribes to the less-is-better theory; the eight-year veteran estimates his body fat is down to 8 percent and dropping.

“I’m getting older,” he said, “and I realize that. I am actually feeling pretty good right now and I want to see how this goes. While I was in New Orleans, I worked on my jump shot a lot with Freddy (Vinson). It’s much better than it was. Making jump shots helps a lot, too.”

Since taking over at point guard in his only college season at Memphis, the one-and-done Evans has been a prototypical “and one” player, an attacking penetrator who drives through the guts of the interior defense, often converting layups, runners and finger rolls while absorbing the contact that earns an accompanying trip to the foul line.

But at what price? Former Phoenix Suns All-Star (and ex-Sacramento mayor) Kevin Johnson and one-time Kings scorer Kevin Martin are two local examples whose willingness to take the pounding became a precursor to premature retirement.

“If Tyreke could get back to being healthy – and that is a big if – he’ll be the best player on the team,” said television analyst Jerry Reynolds, the only remaining Kings employee who was here when Evans was the fourth overall selection in 2009. “People should remember a couple of years ago, he was the second-best player on a 48-win Pelicans team. He’s a much better shooter (over 30 percent on 3s in each of his last three seasons), and his assist-to-turnover ratio is better. When he was at his peak health-wise, he was a terrific defender in New Orleans, the defender we thought he could be here, with his long arms, getting into people. And he’s young enough.”

Then there are the cautionary flags. The knees, the ankles, the heel.

“I hope Tyreke can stay healthy enough to contribute, because he could have a role here,” Reynolds added, “and I am glad he is back. He made some mistakes, but he didn’t ask for everything that was thrown at him. I think he handled things as well as he could.”

Evans, who was drafted by former general manager Geoff Petrie and swapped by ex-GM Pete D’Alessandro in a sign-and-trade for Greivis Vasquez four years later, was a bit of a pawn during the Kings/Maloofs/relocation saga, particularly during his prolific rookie season. With the Maloofs desperate to keep fans in the seats as their financial empire crumbled, and with a modest roster that included Jason Thompson, Andres Nocioni, Donte Greene and the underutilized (by Westphal) Martin, the team was marketed as a one-man show: Evans.

Shy and soft-spoken, the Chester, Pa., native tried to accommodate while adapting to the life and pressures of the NBA. He had his stumbles. There was that Indy car chase along Interstate 80, his fluctuating training routines, his tendency to overdribble, and at times, ignore wide-open teammates on the break.

But Evans was genuinely well-liked within the organization and the community, and on Wednesday, he said he had no issues returning to a familiar environment. He also understands why New Orleans would take such a massive swing in the middle of the season: The Pelicans consistently struggle to attract fans (24th of 30 teams in attendance), rank last in Forbes’ most recent valuation of NBA franchises, and accordingly, both GM Dell Demps and coach Alvin Gentry are feeling the heat.

“This is a business,” said Evans, with a slow grin. “I am not mad at anybody. I like it here. I checked out the new arena the two times I was here this season and liked what I saw. I want to walk (the concourses) and look around. It looks pretty cool.”

Walk first, then run, right? His future here or elsewhere depends on those problematic knees, ankles, heels, and in general, his ability to remain healthy. Start with that.

Ailene Voisin: 916-321-1208, @ailene_voisin

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