There’s so much going on this time of year for the Utah Jazz, from expected yearly events (next Thursday’s draft and the upcoming free agency period following it) to very rare occurrences for this franchise (a coaching search and a hire, followed by potential changes to staff and even general identity). With all the well-deserved speculation surrounding these more immediate moves, it’s easy to forget several other, perhaps more “known” commodities in Utah’s shop. Roster construction is largely thought of as a top-down art form, but assessing some of those pieces in the middle can make all the difference.
One of such pieces is the likable, if somewhat enigmatic, Jeremy Evans. Since landing in Salt Lake City as the 55th overall pick in 2010, Evans has endeared himself to Jazz fans with his gravity-defying dunks, contagious smile and flashes of sophistication rarely seen from young NBA players. The only problem: his gregarious nature and occasional appearances on Top 10’s around the country have not always shown up in the form of consistent on-court success.
While fans likely know him mostly for reasons above, he’s known for some interesting analytic distinctions within the stat community as well. In his first three seasons before last year, despite never cracking 10 minutes a game on average, Evans posted PER ratings well above league average, even in borderline “mini-star” territory for the ’11-12 and ’12-13 seasons. Using Win Shares per 48 minutes, another popular overall player metric, his showings were even more remarkable – for the 2012-13 year, if you eliminate minute thresholds, Evans finished fourth in the entire NBA for WS/48, behind only LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul.
Of course, the whole point of minutes thresholds for these sort of larger metrics is to weed out unsustainable results over small sample sizes, and most would assume there was a fair degree of this at work in Evans’ case1. This past season appears to confirm as much, with Evans finally receiving “rotation” minutes (18.3 per game) for the first time in his career. The result: his PER dropped over three full points from the year before and his WS/48 were nearly cut in half.
But both those figures from the ’13-14 season are still above league average, and are more encouraging given the larger sample of minutes he played. And with the upcoming season set to be his last under contract before hitting unrestricted free agency, continued improvement and an ability to stay on the court will be paramount in determining whether he’s worth anything but a minimum contract going forward, either for the Jazz or elsewhere.
Part of the low-usage debate regarding efficiency metrics is centered specifically around players like Evans – bit players who have a couple above-average skills, but are fully aware of this and consequently stay within those strengths, raising their efficiency in ways that seem artificial to some. In Evans’ case, his remarkable leaping and above-the-rim abilities are his calling card, from his pick-and-roll prowess (he shot an even 50 percent last season on attempts as the roll man in such sets, per Synergy) to his work on the offensive glass and in transition (both areas, again per Synergy, where he ranked in the NBA’s top-20 for per-possession efficiency, likely because such a high number of attempts ended in earth-shattering dunks).
But as is typically the case in the evolving NBA, such one-dimensional players will find tough sledding as soon as opponents identify and adjust to their preferred game. Teams got the drop to a certain point last season, sending extra bodies at Evans when he rolled to the hoop, knowing his initiation of rotations when confronted on his way to the rim is badly lacking. And while transition and offensive rebounding opportunities can be situational and tough to specifically game plan against, they’re not enough on their own to qualify a guy for rotation status in today’s NBA.
And unfortunately, beyond these skills, teams have been able to expose some of Evans’ weaker areas. His jumper remains bad, shooting just 35.9 percent last season on all shots classified as “Jump Shots” by NBA.com2. He can’t space the floor as a result, a problem when defenses load up to prevent him getting above the rim. He’s a solid rebounder who can certainly get up in the air for his boards, but lacks good boxing-out skills and won’t win too many rough-and-tumble contests down low. His per-minute and per-possession numbers would also seem to indicate that his rebounding has plateaued somewhat, a sign that he’s not introducing little bits of savvy one might hope to see.
Defensively, Evans again has a couple above-average skills while lacking in other areas. He’s a capable and willing helpside defender, and his freaky leaping and length allow for some highlight reel blocks:
He’s developed solid timing on these plays, though he can still be fooled by heady rim finishers with hesitations and counters built into their games. After posting ridiculous and unsustainable block numbers in small samples the previous two seasons, he settled into a still-above-average range this past year in a more realistic minutes distribution, and will always be a danger off the weak side. His long arms have also helped him limit opponent spot-up tries to a low percentage, another asset he’ll retain his entire career.
But again, the positives mostly stop at these limited-impact areas, especially when teams can game-plan for them knowing his particular strengths and, conversely, weaknesses. Evans never filled out since entering the league, and as a result has been brutalized consistently by stronger players:
Evans is listed at just 196 pounds, beanstalk status given his height (6’9), and plays like the one above are common, even from guys like Ersan Ilyasova who likely only rank about average on the size scale for their position. Evans allowed opponents a silly 56.3 percent shooting on finished post plays, per Synergy, and this came mostly against backup units. He’s 26 now, and the chances of him bulking up in any significant way are quite slim – it’s entirely possible this will remain a glaring weakness his entire career. He attempts to augment it by gambling for steals at unorthodox times with his long arms and quickness, and while he has had some success here (he forced turnovers on over 20 percent of finished post plays last year, according to Synergy, a high and unsustainable number), it’s nowhere near enough to offset all the implications of his huge strength disadvantage.
He’s not quite as lacking in other areas defensively, but he’s no stalwart either. His footwork in pick-and-rolls and isolation sets has been suspect, particularly in the latter case, where opponents got him off-balance easily and contributed to his high foul rate on such sets. He’ll frequently lose his man entirely for criminally easy looks, even down low in limited space, and will take silly touch fouls to compound the problem:
Apportioning responsibility for his lack of development in certain areas is difficult, and even more so when attempting to look at year over year improvement based on his limited samples. He spent basically his entire career thus far under Ty Corbin, who certainly had his share of questions regarding player development in his time at the helm, and this certainly may have contributed. In any case, making a few positive adjustments in some of the areas I’ve listed might at this point be a requisite to remaining in Utah given all the young talent and more on the way.
Jeremy Evans is a nice player and an even nicer person, and as a favorite of mine and many others, I write the above with a heavy heart. His ability to remain above league average PER with such a minutes jump last year is a big positive, and if he can seize the opportunity presented by a new staff and culture in his final season under contract, he may very well make me (happily) eat my words. But in such a smart and advanced league, the writing on the wall tells us that his limited high-skill areas will make this an uphill battle, and he may never be anything more than a bench player3. I know one thing: I’m going to enjoy every highlight-reel dunk like it’s his last in a Jazz uniform, just in case one of them finally is.