Tyreke Evans is off to an uneven start with the Pacers, to say the least. In Minnesota, his attempts to haphazardly force the issue in the lane like a bird repeatedly careening itself into a window resulted in him throwing the ball here, there, and everywhere as he produced more turnovers (2) than made field goals (1). On the other end of the spectrum, he was a snake charmer against Boston, exerting full control over his bearings to oscillate effortlessly between rising above the pick for three and using herky-jerky baiting techniques and elongated, slalom-like step-thrus to hypnotize the defense.
With fewer hills than valleys, however, the mean of the two extremes has been career-lows in points, assists, field goal percentage, and free throw rate, a stark contrast to the numbers the straight-line driver put up during his one-year layover in Memphis.
His pull-up three has continued to fall at an above-40 percent clip for a second-consecutive season, but neither that nor having the privilege to wheel and (when so inclined) deal with more shooters has done anything to stabilize his steady nose dive at the rim.
In fact, his 37.2 percent conversion rate around the basket in the half-court isn’t just another career-low; it’s the worst mark in the league among players with at least 40 attempts, per Synergy.
Complicating matters is that his touches per game (31.9) have also plummeted in comparison to 2017-18 (73.6) in considerably sparser playing time, which has no doubt contributed to him using the second-highest percentage of possessions among the team’s rotation players when he’s been on the floor.
To further put things into perspective, Evans has averaged fewer touches in fewer minutes in a contract year than Lance Stephenson did in basically the same role with the Pacers last season.
Why is that a problem?
Take a look at what happened against the Rockets when the 28-year-old ball-handler got shoulder-to-chest advantage against Isaiah Hartenstein on the switch dribbling off the screen set by Sabonis. Notice, specifically, how his penetration drew the attention of all five (yes, five) defenders as Melo inched forward to confront the ball and Gerald Green sunk into the legs of T.J. Leaf.
As soon as these subtle rotations were made, a window presented itself for the barrel chested shot-creator to fire the ball to Cory Joseph in the corner for three. Instead, he opted to squeeze an errant shot in-between two defenders.
Issues with tunnel vision predate his arrival in Indiana, but the steep reduction in touches seems to have exacerbated his myopia. In other words, when he gets the ball, he’s reluctant to share, so much so that he’s only passed on 23 percent of his drives, which is one of the lowest figures in the league among guards averaging at least six drives per game.
That’s a shame for two reasons: 1) In case you already forgot, his field goal percentage around the rim has been putrid, and 2) He’s a good passer.
According to Synergy, the Pacers are averaging 1.256 points per possession when Evans passes to a roller, spot-up shooter, or cutter when dribbling off a screen, good enough to place him in the 87th percentile as well as give him a considerable edge over both Darren Collison and Cory Joseph in the same category, albeit on lower volume.
Granted, Evans benefits immensely from being able to draw defenders to the ball and throw wraparounds and one-handed scoops to Sabonis, who has been on a rampage in the restricted area, but he also has a knack for working the corners and making looks under the rim more open with head fakes and hesitations.
Spot the difference on these two possessions. Despite the fact that Thaddeus Young is in position to set a back screen on Giannis Antetokounmpo to prevent the lanky stat sheet-stuffer from being able to contest Oladipo’s shot in the corner, Collison makes the safe play — as he so often does — and chooses to pull-up for and miss from mid-range with Brook Lopez in a drop and Malcolm Brogdon walling off the pocket pass to Myles Turner.
Compare that now to Evans. Even while being encircled by Hassan Whiteside in the drop, Derrick Jones in rearview pursuit, and Kelly Olynyk as the stunter, the 28-year-old maintains his dribble like a fisherman patiently waiting for a bite. As soon as Tyler Johnson takes the bait and shifts out of neutral to bump Sabonis, Evans leaves his feet and floats the ball above the action to Doug McDermott for three.
Less formulaic and therefore more likely to keep help defenders on edge, this is the sort of pick-and-roll manipulation the Pacers needed in the playoffs to weaponize Oladipo’s speed on the weak side and minimize turnovers and offensive resets when the Cavs escalated from single coverage to soft doubles to hard shows — a problem which has already resurfaced this season for the starters when Turner’s man has jumped out above the level of screen against Indiana’s first-time All-Star.
That being said, if the breadth of what Evans can do with a ball screen is going to serve as part of the team’s counter against traps (especially when opponents play solid one-pass away defense and try to take Sabonis away as a heady release valve), then some changes in the frequency of his on-ball actions which have lent themselves to more spot-up shooting and a smaller share of handling in comparison to last season seem counter-intuitive.
In essence, Evans has been worse at almost everything except pulling-up for three or passing when dribbling off a pick, and he’s been put in the position to do less of what he does best as well as what the team may need from him in the playoffs by virtue of the bench’s rebound-and-go approach to divvying up playmaking responsibilities.
All of which means Nate McMillan has a tough decision to make with regard to feeding or starving the 28-year-old’s early season inefficiency for the sake of long-term gains.
The Pacers need more from Tyreke Evans, but in order to get it they may need to take a chance on letting him be himself.