With the Draft coming up on Thursday, I felt it was time to look at some of the Kings’ previous draft classes. In this post, I am going to focus on the 2009 draft and specifically Tyreke Evans, the Kings’ first draft pick (No. 4 overall) out of Memphis. Though Evans was a highly heralded prospect out of college (and even high school), he is best remembered for being drafted over All-Star players Demar Derozan, Jeff Teague, Jrue Holiday (who he is teammates with ironically) and famously Stephen Curry (yes…All-Star, Regular Season MVP, NBA Champion and father of cute kid Riley Stephen Curry). And yet, Evans has been productive in his NBA career (he ranks 11th in Win Shares in a loaded draft class that also includes Blake Griffin, James Harden and Ty Lawson just to name a few) despite injuries, and he did win the 2009-2010 Rookie of the Year award, which gave a lot of Kings hope in his future initially. So he hasn’t heard total bust status in the Greg Oden or Adam Morrison mold, but it’s obvious that the Kings got hosed in what was a legendary draft class.
Let’s take a look at the brief, but lasting legacy Evans left with the Kings and if there is anything the Kings or Kings fans can learn from Evans’ four years in Sacramento.
The Theus-Natt Disaster, Looking to Rebuild and Settling for Fourth
The 2008-2009 season, you could argue with good and valid reason, was the worst in the history of the franchise. After a 6-18 start, the Kings fired second-year head coach “Hangtime” Reggie Theus and assistant Kenny Natt took over in the interim to disastrous results. Under Natt, the team finished 11-47 and 17-65 overall, the worst record in the NBA that year. The Theus-Natt-led Kings that season were catastrophic on all kinds of levels and let’s compile a list of what they were putrid at:
- They ranked dead last in SRS (Simple Rating System) at negative-8.60.
- They were awful defensively, as they rated dead last in defensive rating, allowing 114.7 points per 100 possessions, and were second to last in points allowed per game, allowing 109.3 ppg.
- Kings fans noticed this too, as they ranked second-to-last in attendance. While you could contribute the empty seats mostly to a lousy team with no recognizable stars, this season was also the beginning of the Maloofs losing money and looking to sell and possibly move the Kings.
The Kings had a couple of pieces to build around. Rookie Jason Thompson had a decent, though unspectacular rookie campaign, helping satisfy fans who thought the product out of Ryder was an over-draft at No. 12. (For a while former GM Geoff Petrie was really good at drafting unheralded guys and getting the most out of them). Thompson averaged 11.1 ppg and 7.4 rpg and put up a 49.7 percent field goal percentage while average 28.1 MPG. Furthermore, Thompson was the only King to appear in all 82 games that season. Second-year center Spencer Hawes complemented Thompson in the low block, and greatly improved from a lackluster rookie campaign. In his second year, Hawes appeared in 77 games and started 51 and put up a similar stat-line to Thompson, averaging 29.3 MPG (over double his 13.1 MPG average his rookie year ) as well as 11.4 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 1.9 apg and 1.2 bpg. With his balance skill set and surprising passing ability for a big, Hawes reminded many Kings fans of Vlade Divac and Chris Webber, who also were adept passing big men during the Adelman-era Kings.
Beyond Thompson and Hawes though, things looked rather bleak roster-wise. The Kings the past couple of years tried to toe-the-line in NBA no-man’s land, trying to still be competitive as a playoff team even though they didn’t have the firepower to get past the first round. Theus kept the team respectable in his initial season as coach, helping the Kings go 38-44 after the 1 year disaster of Eric Musselman when the Kings went 33-49 after making the playoffs the year previously. But it was obvious that the Kings needed to go a different direction after 3 seasons with Ron Artest (i.e. Metta World Peace) and playing in that 8-12 seed level. The Kings traded Artest to the Rockets before the season, and as the team floundered, they also traded John Salmons and Brad Miller (a long-time Kings standout) for practically peanuts (i.e. Drew Gooden, Andres Nocioni, Michael Ruffin and Cedric Simmons). Martin was heralded as the “star” of the group and he put up gaudy numbers (24.1 ppg and team-leading 19.1 PER and 4.7 win shares), but he only played in 51 games, and his frail frame and lack of defensive value made Kings circles wonder if he really was the “man” going forward.
Due to a mixture of incompetency and subtle tanking, the Kings earned the worst record and thus, the most ping-pong balls in the lottery. It was obvious that Blake Griffin was going to go first, and even though the Kings were already set with Thompson and Hawes in the post, Griffin was such a special player that they could make room for him amidst their crowded front court. However, as typical with the Kings, luck bounced them out of the Top-3 (LAC, Memphis and OKC earned the top-3 picks), and they had to settle for the fourth pick, which put them out of the franchise-changing Griffin sweepstakes.
“Stuck Between a 1 and 2”: Evans vs. Curry
With Griffin out, it was obvious that the Kings needed to focus on the perimeter (Center Hasheem Thabeet was a consensus Top-3 pick, but with Hawes, he wouldn’t fit in the Kings’ plans anyways). Beno Udrih was expendable, as he put up a lackluster 12.3 PER and 1.2 win shares in 73 appearances the previous season. So, the shift focused on upgrading the point guard position, (James Harden was known as the most polished player in the draft, but with Martin manning the same position, there didn’t seem to be a lot of outcry for Harden from Kings fans at the time).
That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing as the draft was loaded with point guard prospects such as Ricky Rubio, Ty Lawson, Brandon Jennings, just to name a few. However, the “pure” point guard prospects certainly had their concerns. Rubio wasn’t averse to playing in Sacramento, but he was still signed with his Spanish club DKV Joventut, and he would have required a $6-8 million dollar buyout to come state-side. Though Rubio certainly had the most upside out of any of the point guard prospects in the draft (he was only 19, and he impressed people with his performance with the Spanish National Team in the Olympics the previous summer), it didn’t seem like the Kings were all that hot on Rubio sporting a Kings hat on Draft Day. Jennings was another impressive prospect who ended up skipping out on college to play a year in Europe, but stories about his struggles with Roma as well as maturity issues seemed to push him out of the No. 4 pick discussion.
So the discussion centered on two guys who were considered point guard prospects in the draft but really weren’t pure point guards in college: Memphis’ Evans and Davidson’s Curry.
If you look at Evans and Curry’s Draft Express profiles, it is funny how they both are labeled “stuck between 1 and 2”. Evans made the transition to the Point midway through the year at Memphis and helped Memphis rally to a No. 2 seed in the tournament (though they did get bounced in the Sweet 16 by Missouri). Evans size and ability to get to the rim was lauded and pointed out as a key reason why Memphis was able to not miss a beat after their National Runner-up campaign a year ago. Furthermore, Evans’ strong season at Memphis was constantly compared to Derrick Rose, who led the Tigers as the point the previous season. Evans averaged 17.1 ppg, 5.4 rpg and 3.9 apg, and some people at the time preferred Evans to Rose due to Evans’ size and rebounding ability, which was superior to Rose in college.
As for Curry, he was known for his strong performances in the 2008 tournament, but he played mostly off-guard that year and had a much deeper, polished Davidson team. In 2009, with a lot of players gone, Curry took the reigns as point, and suffered some growing pains, as the Wildcats missed the NCAA Tournament after making the Elite 8 the previous year. Despite missing the tournament, Curry was lauded for carrying the shorthanded Wildcats, as he averaged 28.6 ppg and 5.6 apg his junior season, all career highs.
Curry had the shooting touch, NBA pedigree (his dad was long-time NBA sniper Dell Curry) and the “star” value to merit the No. 4 pick in the draft, but Evans had the size, the tutelage (Calipari was being dubbed a “point-guard whisperer after getting successful one and done season from Evans and Rose back-to-back) and the versatility that attracted Kings fans more. Even if Evans didn’t pan out as a point guard, the thought amongst Kings fans was that he would develop into a versatile enough wing that would eventually push Martin out-of-town, and then the Kings could get the point they wanted down the road. In Mock Drafts, the consensus seemed to be Evans at 4, even with the sharp-shooting Curry available.
Quick Start, Regression and Internal Strife Lead to Departure
For a season, it looked like the Kings made the right decision. Evans got off to a hot start with a couple of buzzer-beaters, and his strong, confident demeanor was backed up by an impressive 20.1 ppg, 5.8 apg, and 5.3 rpg line in 72 games for the 25-57 Kings. Evans was most impressive in the beginning of the year, as were most of the Kings, as they got off to an 8-8 start and were 18-34 at the All-Star break, not bad considering that was 1 win better than they had all season a year ago. But new head coach Paul Westphal failed to keep any momentum as they struggled in the second half (they went 7-23 post All-Star break) and on the road (7-34 away from Arco). Evans also suffered regression after the All-Star break, with his scoring declining (from 20.3 to 19.8) and shooting regressing as well (53.8 to 51.3 True Shooting pct. from first to second half). The silver lining in all of this? Evans’ rebounding jumped (from 4.8 to 6.2) as well as his assists (5.1 to 6.9). Despite all the concerns with his “tweener” status, Evans showed hope to Kings fans that he could be the Kings primary playmaker (the assist jump was a nice sign) as well as bring different strengths to the Kings lineup (such as rebounding).
Despite Curry’s solid campaign (17.5 ppg, 5.9 apg, 43.7 3-PT percentage), Evans’ hot start and gaudy triple category numbers (points, rebounds, assists) earned Evans the Rookie of the Year award. After that season though, Evans simply struggled to replicate his rookie year in the subsequent seasons with the Kings. Evans battled through injury (he suffered through plantar fascitis) and played in only 57 games through a rough 24-58 campaign. Evans’ numbers tumbled down as his PPG (17.8), RPG (4.8), True Shooting (48.2%) and PER (14.4) all regressed greatly. And to make matters worse, the Kings, hoping Evans would turn into their versatile point guard of the future, rarely played the position. After earning 10% of his floor time at point his rookie year, Evans only played the position 1% of the time his sophomore season. This proved to be a trend, as Evans hasn’t played point guard more than 1% of the time until this season (where it bumped up to a whopping 2%).
As Evans floundered, Curry improved, posting 18.6 ppg and a 19.4 PER his sophomore campaign under Keith Smart. But a coaching change to Mark Jackson his third season, who gave Curry more leash and ability to be creative really marked the difference in Curry going from fringe-star to bonafide-star. Since his third season, Curry hasn’t posted a PER less than 21.2 and has totaled 49.1 Win Shares from his third-year on. And Curry has been a two-time All-Star, won a MVP award and helped the Warriors win their first title since 1975.
As for Evans, well he didn’t quite have the continuity in Sacramento that Curry benefited from in Golden State. Though the Kings upgraded in talent the following year by drafting Demarcus Cousins, the two never really fit and struggled to concede Alpha Dog status in the three seasons they were together in Sacramento. And it made sense. Cousins needs the ball to be productive, and Evans, who showed glimmers of ability to be a playmaker, ended up showing his true colors: as a score-first guard. These two styles were bound to clash (which they did) and considering where both players were at in their careers (just starting out) and without good leadership on the coaching staff or front office, it was just bound not to work out in the long run for both of them despite their talent. Add that with the fact that Evans never seemed to mesh with either Paul Westphal or Keith Smart (who replaced Westphal in the middle of the 2011-2012 season and coached the entire 2012-2013 season as well), and the emergence of another shoot-first guard (Isaiah Thomas) and Evans, who was originally seen as the cornerstone of the franchise, seemed expendable.
And he was. With a new ownership (Vivek), a new coach (Mike Malone) and new GM (Pete D’Alessandro), Evans seemed to be a relic of the old guard that wasn’t worth keeping around. On July 10, 2013, Evans was traded to New Orleans in a three-way trade (along with Portland) that basically saw Evans swiped with more pass-first oriented Grievis Vasquez.
What went wrong with Evans in Sacramento?
After being traded to New Orleans, Evans signed a four-year extension worth a little over $43 million. The money really isn’t that bad when you think about it. Despite the disappointing tenure in Sacramento, he still has a career PER average of 17.3 and has accumulated 21.7 Win Shares. In terms of traditional stats, his career ppg average is 16.8, his career rpg average is 4.9 and his career apg average is 5.2. Yes, Evans struggles from beyond the arc (career 27.8 3 PT percentage), and he still seems privy to taking that shot (he shot 2.9 3 point attempts per game last seasons). But Evans finishes well around the rim (55.8 fg percentage on shots 0-3 ft out) and has demonstrated a decent mid-range (39.8 fg percentage on 16<3-pt shots) to still merit himself as an above-average NBA player. Also, his improvement defensively (he was consistently less than 1 when it came to defensive win shares, but he actually earned 2.2 defensive win shares a year ago) also demonstrates that his game is maturing and becoming more well-rounded in New Orleans than it was Sacramento.
However, why didn’t things work out for Evans after so much promise his rookie season? How come Evans didn’t progress like Curry did in Golden State? Yes, a NBA title and MVP for Evans might have been a bit of a stretch, but you think a guy who earned Rookie of the Year in that draft class would have at least one All-Star appearance in Sacramento, right?
Well, what killed Evans was management’s lack of building around him in the right way. Yes, it’s hard to argue the drafting of Demarcus Cousins, but if the organization was really serious about making Evans the centerpiece of the Kings, they would have drafted somebody more complimentary, such as a Greg Monroe, who would have complemented Evans more with his passing ability from the high post. (And I am NOT supporting drafting Monroe over Cousins BTW…I am just saying that is what they should have done if they were serious about building the team around Evans). And Cousins is really the tip of the iceberg: the drafting of Jimmer Fredette, the acquisitions of John Salmons and Marcus Thornton, these were all decisions that really clashed with Evans truly being the “man” in Sacramento. If you look at Golden State, they took the opposite route of Sacramento. Instead of getting talent that clashed with their “franchise” player, they built around him, even letting talent go (Monta Ellis) in order to build around their star player. That lack of foresight didn’t just hurt the Kings (they have consistently been a lottery team since drafting Evans), but hurt Evans as well, who was never able to find the right cast around him to succeed beyond his individual numbers.
Of course, to play Devil’s Advocate, you could argue that all the chaos in ownership and the front office hurt Evans’ development in Sacramento. You could also argue that they never felt Evans was a franchise guy to begin with, and that when they had a chance to draft Cousins, the writing was on the wall for Evans in SacTown. You could also argue that Evans was subject to bad coaching in Sacramento, and if that he had the kind of coaches that Steph Curry had in Golden State maybe Evans would have closed that gap between them a little more and maybe he would be wearing purple and black still. There are a lot of scenarios of course, and all are plausible. Evans really is a fascinating case because the talent is there, still productive and he is still young at 25 years old. One would think there is still hope for the guy even if he will never, ever touch Curry’s career heights.
And really, a comparison to Curry isn’t fair because they aren’t the same player. Curry really is a point guard who needed time in the position. Evans probably never was and was unfairly expected to be one because he played half a season in the position at Memphis in a pinch. But it’s tough to stomach for Kings fans because they were initially seen as the same type of player in the draft, they were only 3 picks apart, and they were just hours apart in terms of their respective teams’ distance. Maybe the Kings would be celebrating their title and the Warriors would be looking at the lottery if Curry and Evans swapped. Maybe the parade would be a couple of hours north in Downtown Sac rather than in the Bay Area.
It’s those kinds of things that gnaw at Kings fans. And it’s those kinds of things that really make the drafting of Evans over Curry hurt more and longer than it really should.