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Tyreke Evans’s Refusal to Change His Game is a Problem for the Pelicans

Stephen Lew/Icon Sportswire

The return of Tyreke Evans hasn’t been the solution to the New Orleans Pelicans’ problems. In fact, it might cause new ones. He’s averaging 11 points on 36 percent shooting, and while his almost eight assists are encouraging, he’s not particularly happy with his role as a facilitator:

“I started to look to pass first,” Evans told the New Orleans Advocate’s Brett Dawson. “That’s when it kind of went south on me, instead of just doing what I do, and that’s attack and if I see somebody open, find them. My mindset (tonight) was just pass first, but that isn’t the way I play. I play attack first, and if somebody’s open I find them. I just got to do a better job with that.”

That’s not what coach Alvin Gentry wants to hear. Gentry is considered an offensive expert who helped the Warriors move away from their isolation tendencies and into the pass-heavy, fast-paced attack that’s destroying the league. For New Orleans to make a similar transition, the team’s core players have to buy into it and Evans doesn’t, at least so far.

It’s not hard to understand Evans’s point of view. He had the ball in his hands his rookie year in Sacramento and averaged 20-5-5. Last season was his best in New Orleans and he ran the offense once Jrue Holiday went down. There’s truth to him helping the team by being in attack mode. He averaged the second-most drives per game and the eighth-most points generated by drives last season, per SportVU, and the Pelicans averaged four more second chance points when he was on the court, thanks to his ability to get rim protectors out of position with his dribble penetration.

The Pelicans’ offense was good, too, averaging over 107 points per 100 possessions with Tyreke on the court, a mark that would have it ranked second in the league this season, per NBA.com. So Evans actually can be the first perimeter option on a team with a solid offense, which explains why he’s resisting change. Yet fair or not, the league is going away from that type of attack and ball-dominant guards with no reliable three-point shots will either need to learn how to adapt or risk becoming either completely obsolete or specialists.

We’re seeing it now. There are not a lot of relevant stars right now who fit that description. Even players who pound the ball for 15 seconds every trip down the court like James Harden and Damian Lillard can score efficiently thanks to their ability to shoot from outside, which also makes them threats off the ball.

The players who fit Evans’s profile and are considered true franchise cornerstones all bring something else to the table. John Wall is an elite defender and arguably the league’s best passer. Ricky Rubio is a poor man’s Wall. Dwyane Wade is a nifty cutter who for some reason spaces the floor because his defender stays close to him despite his inability to make him pay from beyond the arc. They all have a skill that makes them more valuable or versatile than Evans.

The most similar player to Evans right now might be Monta Ellis, a combo guard who can fill it up and distribute but needs the ball in his hands to do so. Ellis thrived in Dallas as one of the lead ball handlers next to a big man who can space the floor, not unlike how Evans excelled at times next to Anthony Davis in 2014-15. Now in Indiana, next to several other perimeter players who need their touches, his scoring is the lowest it’s been since his rookie season and he hasn’t made a big enough leap as playmaker to make up for it.

That doesn’t mean he’s not valuable. He can still contribute by driving and dishing, his defense seems slightly improved and the teams does better with him on the court than off. Ellis, now 30 years old, has seemingly accepted a smaller role. He’ll likely never be the featured player he was in Golden State and his better times in Dallas, but if he can continue to contribute as a solid starter, he’ll be worth the contract he signed.

Evans, on the other hand, clearly isn’t ready to surrender his identity. He’s put up star-level numbers before by playing his way and is not resigned to becoming a role player.

“I just got to play the way I play,” Evans told the media. “That’s the bottom line. I think if I do that, everything will take care of itself.”

His coach, however, is adamant about the need for an adjustment.

“The thing that we’re trying to make (Evans) understand,” Gentry said, “is that, when he gives it up, we’re going to give it back to him.”

Evans and Gentry seem to be on a collision course, not unlike the old-school views about basketball represented this season by the Spurs and the modern version of the game predicated on pace and three-point shooting that the Warriors have mastered. There’s no one way to be a good team — those two squads have the best and second-best records in the league, after all — but more and more franchises seem to be leaning towards the Warriors’ style, which limits the usefulness of a player like Evans.

It’s still too early into the Gentry era in New Orleans to dismiss any chance of Evans adapting to his style, though his initial comments suggest it won’t be easy. If he can’t, Tyreke will embark on a quest that’s becoming all too familiar for old-school, ball-dominant scorers: finding a team that has a use for their talents, as outdated and flawed as they might seem through the prism of enlightened modern basketball philosophy.

Evans is too good and too unique a player to fade without a fight. It remains to be seen if he carves out a place for himself in the NBA world on his own terms or like others before him, spends years resisting change only to embrace it later in his career.

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