Ailene Voisin

Tyreke Evans says he follows Kings closely, happy to see team stay in Sacramento

Ailene Voisin
Ailene Voisin

Tyreke Evans remained one of the most popular players during one of the most trying periods in Kings franchise history. Pick a rally, any rally, and invariably, No.13 was in the audience. The Here-We-Stay gatherings in the park. The fan appreciation events in the arena. The sob fest on the court after the 2012 season finale. Finally, the uncertainty-tinged celebration inside the building in late April 2013.

But isn’t this what so often happens? The new regime arrives with different ideas and a new set of plans. Change becomes inevitable. Players become expendable. Evans became a New Orleans Pelican and even changed his number (No. 1).

“The only thing that was a little disappointing was that it would have been nice to be here after all the uncertainty,” Evans said after practice Sunday at Sleep Train Arena. “The fans were always so good to me, so I’m happy for the fans. It was meant to be. Just walking into the arena, thinking about everything, it’s a good feeling to know things worked out.”

The Kings stayed and Evans became even wealthier. That’s what happened. A restricted free agent at the end of last season, he signed an offer sheet for four years and $44 million with the Pelicans, then was traded to New Orleans in a three-team deal that brought Greivis Vasquez to the Kings and moved Robin Lopez – in one of the new organization’s first major blunders –to the Portland Trail Blazers.

The calendar continues churning. Vasquez is long gone, having been dispatched to Toronto with John Salmons, Chuck Hayes and Patrick Patterson for the talented Rudy Gay and his $17.3 million salary.

Evans, 24, who favors a full beard these days, follows his former team closely. Four years in one place is a long time, he says, smiling. He speaks often with Isaiah Thomas, likes the acquisition of Gay, and is impressed with DeMarcus Cousins’ development; in this particular instance, no news means good news. “I’m not hearing all that stuff about DeMarcus around the league any more,” Evans with. “You just hear about his basketball.”

Evans’ own transition to a new city and a different role has been an adjustment, both due to health and expectations. The Pelicans envision the 6-foot-6 veteran as the team’s sixth man, and primarily at small forward.

Given the sort of grab-bag approach to Evans first four seasons, this was a dramatic sort of leap: As the 2009 Rookie of the Year and the Kings’ designated point guard, the No.4 overall draft choice averaged 20.1 points, 5.8 assists and 5.3 rebounds. After Paul Westphal departed, Keith Smart attempted to curb Evans’ tendency to dominate the ball and shifted him to shooting guard and small forward. The experiment was ongoing, evolving, when the Kings were sold and the parties sat down and negotiated a contract.

If the Kings pursuit of a pass-first point guard was thought to be resolved with the acquisition of Vasquez, the Pelicans, who weeks earlier acquired All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday from Philadelphia, were intrigued by Evans’ combination of size, strength and skills.

“It’s a thing I’ve never had as a coach,” said Pelicans coach Monty Williams, “somebody who’s big and strong, and can attack the basket. Tyreke’s a willing passer, and he has a thirst to learn, moreso than I thought. Just looking at him from afar, I didn’t know that he was that type of player. I’m tough on guys and he takes it pretty well. He’s got a toughness, an edginess that I like.”

When he’s healthy, Evans grabs rebounds and heads downcourt like a freight train on ice skates. He slithers between defenders and has an uncanny, elusive stride to the basket. He scores with either hand on a variety of twisting one-handers, reverse layups, acrobatic flip shots and occasional dunks.

When he’s healthy. When his feet aren’t bothering him. When his left ankle isn’t swollen.

But that left ankle is still a pain. Evans turned the ankle during the Pelicans first preseason game and has missed two regular-season games. He is coming off his two best outings of the year, including a second career triple-double against the Los Angeles Clippers, but as he removes his sneakers after Sunday’s practice, the outside of his left foot is still visibly swollen.

“The trainers tape it up really tight, so it’s almost like a cast, but it’s still there,” Evans added. “I get treatment, and that’s about all I can do. I twisted it about three games ago. Hopefully it comes back all the way because I want to get out with these guys. There’s things to learn in a new system, with new coaches and teammates.”

A healthy Pelicans roster is young and intriguing, to say the least, and also features Anthony Davis, Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson.

“Jrue, Eric, Tyreke and Ryan haven’t played together a lot because of injuries,” noted Williams. “I like Tyreke and Ryan coming off the bench, but I have to do a better job figuring ways to use him. Once he stays injury free, we’re going to see an even better Tyreke.”