A Look Into Tyreke Evans’ Struggles

Written for The Bird Writes:

New Orleans Pelicans v Houston Rockets - Pre-Season

So far, the Pelicans’ season has provided mixed results.  While the both the offense and defense have struggled for spurts, New Orleans ranks 11th in the league in both categories, per Basketball-Reference.  Perhaps more importantly, Anthony Davis has been incredible.  Through six games, Davis has played at a level he was not expected to reach for several years. Although their scoring could be more efficient, Eric Gordon has effectively carved through opposing defenses, while Jrue Holiday is developing chemistry with Davis in the pick and roll.  However, something has been missing (besides Ryan Anderson): Tyreke Evans.

This offseason, the Pelicans traded Greivis Vasquez and Robin Lopez for the right to sign Evans to a 4 year, $43.9 million deal. Last season in Sacramento, Evans added to the relentless rim assaults of his rookie year. After underwhelming second and third seasons, Evans developed a more consistent off ball game and refined his jump shot, resulting in the most efficient scoring season of his career.

Evans was expected to provide the Pelicans with a consistent offensive presence off the bench, and perhaps to serve as the long-term replacement for Eric Gordon. Instead, he has brought, well, mostly nothing.  Through six games, Evans is shooting a 2013 Austin Rivers-esque 37.2 percent true shooting percentage, scoring 8.5 points on 10.8 shots per game.

Although the diminutive sample size means that a portion of Evans struggles are simply the random variance in missed shots, a there appear to be a few recurring issues limiting Evans’ effectiveness.

While no more than a mediocre shooter, an increased willingness to attempt three pointers last season made Evans a much more effective off-ball player, and opened occasional opportunities to drive throughout the game.  After attempting a three pointer on 17.4 percent of his field goal attempts last season, Evans’ three point attempt rate has dropped to 9.2 percent, only slightly above Al-Farouq Aminu territory.  However, the absence of any three point shooting seems to be the symptom of a more important issue.

When the Pelicans acquired Evans during the offseason, I expected him to fill a similar role to offseason, primarily functioning as an on ball creator complemented by occasional off ball spurts.  While I assumed that Evans main role would be as the offensive focal point off the bench, his incorporation into the Pelicans’ offense should be much more creative than it has been so far this season.

Evans has been successful initiating an offense. However, repeated attacks of a set defense from the top of the court will never produce efficient results.  Far too many of Evans’ offensive possessions look like these:

While Evans’ has always been relied upon as a halfcourt creator, New Orleans has the personnel to put Evans in better positions.  While Ryan Anderson’s absence limits the offensive possibilities, even a simple pin down to give Evans’ space before receiving the ball would be preferable to seconds of standing above the break, staring at a prepared defense.

Last season, 24.4 percent of Evans shots, free throw attempts, or turnovers were generated in transition. In this season’s six games, transition has constituted only 18.3 percent of Evans’ offense, per Synergy Sports.  Transition is generally the most efficient offensive category, and Evans’ with his unique combination of strength and speed, has excelled in the open court through his career.  It seems likely that this low volume of transition opportunities is more of a product of a small sample size than of a conscious.  However, the Pelicans were a very “slow” offensive team last season, and currently sit at 26th in pace in the young season. A portion of these pace “problems” appear to be rooted in the lack of speed among non-Anthony Davis big men.  When Davis and Evans play together, the Pelicans average 95.7 possessions per 48 minutes, the equivalent of a slightly above league average pace.  When Evans plays without Davis, the Pelicans slow to 82.4 possessions per 48 minutes, 7.6 possessions per 48 fewer than the league-slowest Toronto Raptors.  Expect this without-Davis pace to rise, especially once Anderson returns, hopefully providing more opportunities in transition for Evans.

The central facet to Evans’ success has been his ability to get to and finish at the rim.  So far this season, it appears as if someone has robbed Evans of this power (trying to avoid a Thunderstruck reference).  After converting 55.8 percent of his of his 495 shots near the rim last season, Evans has converted only 16 of 37, 43.2 percent, of such attempts this year.

Evans’ struggles around the rim results from two issues.  He has received fewer opportunities to get all the way to the rim, resulting in more contested layups and floaters, and is shooting a very low percentage on these attempts.  Evans has the strength and body control to make a higher percentage of these relatively difficult attempts:


Though disastrous so far, the Evans’ experiment is nowhere near a failure.  Six games is never a determinant sample, unless of course you are determining that Anthony Davis is the greatest player in NBA history, and many of Evans’ struggles are rooted in solvable problems.

Festus Ezeli Player Profile

On June 28th, 2012, Nigerian born Ifeanyi Festus Ezeli-Ndulue was drafted 30th overall by the Golden State Warriors.  Ezeli, an aspiring physician, was born in Benin City, Nigeria.  In 2004, Ezeli’s parents sent him to live with his uncle in California, hoping to further his education.  Ezeli, prompted by his uncle, began playing basketball.  In a 2011 interview with ESPN’s Andy Katz, Ezeli recalled his struggles with the foreign sport. “I didn’t know what I was doing.  Imagine someone who is 14 or 15 years old, and you’re teaching them as if they’re a 6-year-old. It was tough. Everyone was getting frustrated with me. I was getting frustrated with it.”

Festus Ezeli followed a unique path to the NBA, where he entered a unique circumstance.  The Warriors, awaiting the return of the injured Andrew Bogut, were forced to rely on the 30th pick as their starting center.  Through the month of January, Ezeli started 38 of the Warriors 43 games, averaging a mere 16 minutes per game. And though the Warriors were winning, Ezeli was not making a strong push for increased responsibility.  In the same Katz interview, Ezeli said, “The hardest thing to master for me was hand-eye coordination.  It’s something that has been hard for me. Sometimes I just work on passing the ball, and I’m sure not a lot of people do that.”  Through the beginning months of his career, it was evident that despite the work, Ezeli had not yet mastered many basic basketball skills.  Plagued by an inability to catch passes on the move and a crippling habit of bringing the ball down in traffic, Ezeli committed 25 turnovers per 100 used plays through the end of January (nbawowy.com).  Though these turnovers represent a small portion of the teams possessions, Ezeli’s inability to function offensively greatly inhibited the Warriors, who scored 7.4 points per 100 possessions more with Ezeli off the court than on.  Opposing defenses would ignore Ezeli on rolls and leave him open anywhere on the floor knowing that he was nearly incapable of gathering and finishing against any recover (44.6% True Shooting Percentage), or passing to punish a defense out of position (0.9 Assist Rate).

Upon Bogut’s return, Ezeli was replaced by Andris Biedrins as backup center and lost nearly all his minutes.  However, Ezeli’s recent play, necessitated by a Biedrins injury, has rekindled belief in Ezeli’s potential and suggested that his general ineptitude would serve the Warriors better than Biedrins’.  Since the all star break the Warriors have outscored opponents by 3.1 points per 100 possessions, a drastic swing form the -3.5 net rating Ezeli posted in the months prior (nba.com).  Though Ezeli’s offensive finishing abilities have shown no significant improvement (41.3% TS% post all star break and 45.2% prior), he has made noticeable leaps in his understanding of positioning defensively and in rebounding.  Ezeli’s defensive rebound percentage has jumped from 13.9% prior to the all-star break to 21.3% after, and he has shown a better understanding of help defense rotation and the Warrior’s downing of pick and rolls.  Also, Ezeli’s struggles offensively appear to trump Biedrins’ general disregard for that half of the court.  After setting a screen, Biedrins will often simply stand at the elbow, where he is no threat to shoot, seemingly avoiding the embarrassing experience that is free throw shooting.  (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zXVp6aatWp0).  Though Ezeli is generally not a threat to score, he typically rolls hard to the rim, clearing space for driving lanes and forcing hedging big men to rotate off the ball handler.

While Festus Ezeli may not have been immediately successful in the league, the 23-year-old center has shown improvements that foreshadow an impressive basketball future for a Nigerian physician.