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Q&A with Grizzly Bear Blues on Tyreke Evans

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Brandon Connor of Grizzly Bear Blues stopped by to share some interesting nuggets from the iso threat’s short stint in Memphis.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Phoenix Suns Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports

As it turned out, the last opportunity the Pacers had to see Tyreke Evans in action with the Grizzlies was also one of the last few opportunities the Grizzlies had to see him in action with the Grizzlies.

When Memphis traveled to Indiana at the end of January, the dynamic playmaker began a stretch of five games in which he was held from the lineup in anticipation of the team finding a trade partner prior to the deadline (February 8). Thereafter, once general manager Chris Wallace inscrutably determined that none of the fielded offers outweighed the benefits of keeping Evans on a losing team, the 28-year-old only appeared in six of the team’s 35 remaining games, missing several as a result of healthy scratches.

Now, after agreeing to a one-year deal with the Pacers, Evans has gone full circle in terms of gaining clarity on the next jersey he will wear in the same city where the Grizzlies first left him in limbo.

At his introductory press conference, the 10th-year guard with only four games of playoff experience was quiet and reserved in his demeanor, but he said all he needed to say with regard to how he can help his new team when he relayed the content of a text message he sent to Victor Oladipo.

“I got your back next year.” Evans said he told Indiana’s first-time All-Star. “There won’t be that much double-teaming. You’re going to have somebody out there that’s going to create and make other guys better.”

For more on his lone season in Memphis and how it might apply to the Pacers, Brandon Connor, Associate Editor over at Grizzly Bear Blues, agreed to do a wide-ranging Q&A with Indy Cornrows.

Evans is on another one-year deal. Knowing that he had previously required three knee surgeries over a span of nine months a few seasons back, what were your expectations when he signed with the Grizzlies, and how much do you think being forced to prove himself played a role in what he was able to accomplish last season?

Since Tyreke played his lone season of college in Memphis, there was a lot of excitement around the signing, but I think expectations were realistic. Memphis needed a bench scorer and another playmaker who could also play alongside Mike Conley to let him play more off the ball. Evans fit both roles perfectly. I don’t know that anyone had him penciled in as the early favorite for Sixth Man of the Year, which he held until Mike Conley went down, but I think expectations were that, as long as he could stay healthy (far from a given), he could at least contribute regularly to what was expected to be a winning basketball team.

I’m sure there’s some “contract year” bump that went into Evans’ success, but I think getting his numbers probably played more of a factor after the Grizzlies’ tank went into effect. After all, if the Grizzlies weren’t going to the playoffs, what was left for Tyreke to play for outside of a new contract?

What possible explanation is there for why the Grizzlies rebuffed offers for Evans as insufficient at the trade deadline, but then (presumably) held him out for a chunk of games to increase the team’s lottery odds and reportedly did not even make contact with him in free agency? Has moving the team back in the direction of grit and grind provided any solace for the lack of return?

Your guess is as good as mine when it comes to the trade deadline fiasco. Maybe they thought they’d take a PR hit if the return was only a paltry second round pick, though I doubt that could’ve been as bad as the PR hit they took when they didn’t move him.

I also think there’s a chance they believed they could bring him back, but something happened later in the season that soured the front office on him. There hasn’t been much in the way of hard facts, but various media outlets—including the team’s own Grind City Media—have hinted that Tyreke wasn’t exactly the best influence on the young guys. Given those rumors, and the fact that Tyreke wasn’t with the team for the better part of the second half of the year, at least a good portion of the fan base seemed to have moved on from Evans before the season was even out. Plus there was the shiny new toy of MarShon Brooks to distract everyone.

I’m sure this isn’t the greatest endorsement of Evans, but I think this might have been less of an issue if the Grizzlies’ season hadn’t gone down the toilet.

Evans shot above 40 percent on threes off the dribbles last season, so it seems like penetrating the lane should have been easier for him. However, while his field goal percentage inside five feet (53.3 percent) did experience a modest bump when compared to his prior two injury riddled seasons (50.3 percent), his finishing inside the restricted area was still below the league average (63.1 percent). Do you attribute this more to him not having the privilege of playing within a particularly spacious offense, or were opponents slow to adjust to him being able to rise above screens and knock down shots?

Memphis finished last season fourth worst in FG% and sixth worst in 3-point %. Tyreke was the only Grizzlies regular with a true shooting % over 55%. Any way you slice it, this Grizzlies team was a disaster when it came to shooting. It certainly didn’t help that even the Grizzlies bigs who were able to stretch the floor shot poorly. Marc Gasol took a step back in his three-point shooting, JaMychal Green took weeks to get back into form after getting hurt in the first game, Parsons shot incredibly well but was hardly allowed him to play; it just wasn’t an ideal situation from a spacing standpoint.

I think you can say maybe a portion of his inability to finish was due to defenders hanging back, but Evans shot 38.8% and 35.6% from three in his last two (albeit injury-shortened) seasons, so Evans has been trending in the right direction. I think this season just helped increase the amount of evidence pointing to Evans as a legit shooter.

After Mike Conley underwent season-ending surgery on his left heel, Evans went from leading the bench unit to logging the largest percentage of his minutes at point guard in his career. How much do you think that shift in role factored into him having the best statistical season since his Rookie of the Year campaign, and was there any expectation headed into the season that those two could be effective playing alongside each other?

I think the Conley injury was part of it, but Evans averaged 18.3 points off the bench even when he wasn’t in the starting lineup. What helped more was the fact that the Grizzlies suffered from a dearth of offensive talent. Often, if Evans wasn’t scoring, then the Grizzlies weren’t scoring.

In terms of initiating offense, Evans had an assist rate over 30% this season (most of which, I would guess, was due to his being given a career high in usage), but a word of caution: There will be moments when Evans gets tunnel vision, when he reverts to ISO ball and forgets about his teammates. Sometimes that’s exactly what you need, but there are other times when it can be extremely frustrating.

As for the Conley/Evans pairing, Fizdale had made a commitment to using Conley off ball in his brief time in Memphis, and Tyreke’s playmaking ability on the wing made him a perfect candidate to not only run the bench unit, but also play alongside Conley. Unfortunately, we only got 149 of those minutes, and Conley never looked right outside of the season opener.

Alright, last question and we’re putting you in the hot seat. Based on what you saw last season in Memphis, do you see Evans as someone who had good stats because he was on a bad team or as a good player who just always happens to be stuck on bad teams?

This comes with a small sample size disclaimer, but I think Evans’ performance as a sixth man before Mike Conley went out for the season is proof enough that a version of Evans exists wherein he is a contributor to a good team. The bucket-getting aspect of his game will always look better on bad teams, but he provides the sort of ball handling and off-ball playmaking that’s a real scarcity, especially among wings. I’m also excited to see what the Pacers are able to do with Oladipo/Evans minutes, because, if Evans’ shooting is as good as it was in Memphis, there’s going to be a lot of space for the offense to work