Utah Jazz 40 at 40: Jeremy Evans, more than just a dunker

USA TODAY Sports

Jeremy Evans is in his fourth season in the NBA, and people still don't know what he is capable of. Is he a real rotation player in the NBA, or will he never be anything more than just a dunker?

Jeremy Evans is a very intriguing player. Born with some natural athleticism that makes other professional athletes drool, Evans has been a workout monster by really building his body to maximize his gifts. He could jump, but after years of dedicated work to learn more about his strengths, and learn how to improve them, he's basically at video game level when it comes to his athletic ability. He's faster. He's stronger. He's quicker. He can get higher. And probably most important to his style of play, he has the conditioning to do it just as well in the 4th quarter as he can in the 1st quarter. He's relentless and when his true athletic ability shows itself, you can't help but to marvel at it.

P3 is a big part of this, but Evans' is just as important. He doesn't DeMarcus Cousin it in the off-season. His body is what Dr. J's body would have been, had Dr. J been playing in such an advanced biomedical era.

A body built for the game is nothing without the talent to play the game. We've all seen the dunks, but is Jeremy Evans more than just a dunker? Can he be a legit rotation player in the NBA? I think so, and I've felt this way for two seasos now (seriously, his sophomore NBA campaign was ridiculous). Finally getting a chance under Tyrone Corbin, and playing 18.8 mpg, Evans is showing the rest of the world just what he can do.

Before we go too far, let's watch some dunks. Those are great. He's a great dunker. I wrote for DimeMag a few seasons ago about how we could build a new offensive player archetype around him. I also felt like he would be amazing to use out of time outs as a guy to get the attention of the defense.

Yes, dunks are awesome. And Evans is great at dunking. But he's more than just a dunker.

On offense he has worked and worked on his shot. (It's part of the deal when you are BFF with Gordon Hayward, you end up in the gym a lot.) He has a jumper, and when given space he can knock it down from midrange. His three point shooting game is still under wraps, and it's more secretive than the Ugandan Space program. Does Uganda have a space program? Does Jeremy Evans have a three point shot? You can't say they don't just because you don't know.

I think it is fair to say that Evans can do things on offense that don't involve dunking the ball. He's a good enough passer for a back-up power forward. He tries to set screens when he can. And he always is moving towards where the ball is going. If you watch him in Synergy you're basically watching a highlight reel. This season he's ranked #51 in the NBA in PPP, and making 53.4% of his shots. (And that's a down year for him) The spectacular points of Evans as a finisher come when you isolate how he does as the finisher on pick and rolls, off of cuts, and of offensive rebounds. Finishing the P&R he's ranked #12 in the NBA, off of cuts he's #133, but a foul magnet on those. Most impressive is how he dominates the offensive glass, he's ranked #5 in scoring off of offensive rebounds in the entire NBA -- making 68.8% of his shots. It's not just rebound dunks, and it's not just tip ins. He is persistent, and patient. He knows where the ball is going so that defenders who have position don't get the ball. And then he has a variety of moves to put the ball in the basket. Sometimes he redirects it with a tip -- from like 6 feet from the basket. Other times he gets the board, gathers, pump fakes, and then lays it in after the two defenders take the bait. Still, it's always satisfying when he slams down an offensive rebound in one motion. He just dominates on the offensive glass. That's not all he does on offense, he's a terror in transition, and can score off of post ups too.

But the point is to move beyond this section quickly. I have no trouble with Evans' emerging offense. Especially with how it is tailor made to his physical strengths.

The critical thing for Jeremy, I believe, is if he can defend well at the NBA level. Playing defense is the barrier to playing time on a lot of teams. The Jazz are no different here. Evans has to be able to defend bigmen, but more and more, is getting caught having to help guys pick up guards.

It's one thing to make the guy you're defending miss, but it's another thing if you don't help out your teammate. If you get lost on defense then you're going to find yourself on the bench.

This is Jeremy on defense in a nutshell:

Season G MIN MPG DRB DRPG DRB% BLK BPG BLK% STL SPG STL% POS PPP RK M A %
2010 2011 49 463 9.4 61 1.24 16.1% 17 0.35 3.0% 17 0.35 1.9% 130 0.92 283 46 111 41.4%
2011 2012 29 217 7.5 31 1.07 16.6% 24 0.83 8.8% 6 0.21 1.5% 60 0.78 75 17 52 32.7%
2012 2013 37 215 5.8 32 0.86 17.6% 13 0.35 4.8% 8 0.22 2.0% 55 1.07 420 20 44 45.5%
2013 2014 29 545 18.8 92 3.17 19.9% 21 0.72 3.0% 15 0.52 1.4% 127 0.91 253 41 107 38.3%
144 1440 10.0 216 1.50 17.8% 75 0.52 4.1% 46 0.32 1.7% 372 124 314 39.5%

I didn't include any +/- stuff because that really depends on who else is on the floor way too much for my liking. For his career guys are only shooting 39.5 fg% against him. That's low. He doesn't jump off the page anywhere, but as his minutes increase so does his DRB%. That's really the only thing that does go up.

40_at_40_-_28_jeremy_evans_defense_1

It's the only advanced rate that goes up. If you look at his four year progress in his actual per game stats you see almost the exact same thing:

40_at_40_-_28_jeremy_evans_defense_2

This is not exciting at all. Not at all like dunks. So he plays more, and rebounds more. Well, rebounding isn't exactly defense, but a defensive rebound is one of the tell-tale signs that indicate that your team had a successful defensive stand. It's important, and Jeremy is capable of using his good hands, and idea of where the ball is going, to make sure that he gets it. It's like a defensive alley-oop. And naturally, he's great at that.

But there's more!

In order to prove himself as a capable defender it's important to see how he has done. Is he getting better at the hard things? Is he coasting on the things he's naturally capable of doing? How does he handle challenge? Well, let's put this all to rest and understand that Evans is a budding defensive stopper. He's got the length that bothers everyone. He doesn't have the bulk, and while that does hurt him, he has a better 2nd and 3rd jump than everyone else in the league. And few people can close out like he does.

When people try to iso on Jeremy they lose. Over his career people are shooting 39.3 fg% against him in these situations. And most of the time it's when he picks up a guard in transition. They try to beat him with moves, but he is quick enough not to be beaten by their first move. This season in particular he is dropping back a bit more and using his surprising explosion and extension to disrupt shots. A guard can take advantage of this and get an open look from deep against Jeremy when he's in the process of going back on his heels. Of course, that's only actually happened against Jeremy 7.7% of the time he's defending in isolation. Against guys who penetrate he baits them and does enough to make them miss, and get the rebound. In the cases where he has been iso'd against and he has lost it's due to a guard who doesn't pick up their dribble, and the 2nd or 3rd move beats Jeremy (either a foul or a score). In the cases where a big iso'd against Evans, he is only beaten by a guy self posting himself and using strength against him. However, the majority of the time he's defending an Iso is off of transition when the other team pushes the ball, and he has to pick up someone he shouldn't have to pick up. Still, guys rarely score against him.

Does this proficiency against Iso's mean that he has a future defending more wing players and guards? Perhaps. He does well at this, but I can only imagine Coaches don't try to build their minute by minute rotations by how well their back up PFs can defend PGs and SGs. Still, it's a feather in Jeremy's cap.

Jeremy also has to end up defending the ball handler on pick and rolls for some silly reason. You want to know the reason? It's the same thing with the Isos. He's quick enough to get back on defense, and ends up picking up a guard. That guard then does a pick and roll with one of his own bigs. And Jeremy (a big) is defending a pick and roll with another big. And it's hilarious. Most of the time both guys try to defend the screen setter. It's not a good look. Despite that, and despite the fact that this is something Jeremy has to defend more and more frequently in his 4th season in the league, he's still able to make it work. Why? Because he's quick enough to not be beat by the first move, and long enough to challenge shots he's not supposed to be able to. Of course, the same problem exists here where Jeremy does drop down to play the drive -- smart ball handlers are able to, and will, hoist up outside shots on him. The success rate of these shots are still too low to make one worry, only 35.3 FG% of the shots taken against Jeremy when he defends the ball handler go in.

But a pick and roll involves four people. Because his P&Rs are usually with another bigman team mate (because of poor transition defense?), one guy is left open. So far the ball handlers have been bricking shots. The screener, who is open, is building a house. The screen setter is 1/11 from downtown on pick and pops involving Jeremy, and overall is shooting only 24.3 FG%. In my opinion the issue here isn't that Evans is magic on defense. It's that the guys trying to exploit him are missing more than they should. If Evans has to D-up Jose Calderon it's different, but right now these situations  are happening against guys like Eric Bledsoe (who aren't really known for being triple threats).

Pick and Roll defense and Isolations are a small part of Jeremy's time on defense. The vast majority of the time he's closing out on guys, or defending guys up post up on him. Two years ago he was #15 in the entire NBA on defending close outs. This year he's #90. But being Top 100 is still very good. I have no trouble with his ability to close out on other bigs who are shooting midrange shots (see: Rony Turiaf). When he has to extend himself from help defending the paint and running out to a guy behind the three point line there is a problem. Those guys are making 38.3 3pt% against Jeremy. And again, about 40% of the plays he defends are spot ups. If he's going to be more useful, and perhaps be someone who can guard SFs, then he's going to have to improve on this. But it's hard. He's super long already. His wingspan is crazy. He can jump out of the gym. The only issue is does he trade off having a foot in the paint and help defending around the rim so that he's one step closer to guys spotting up? I guess that depends on if he's playing SF or PF. Andrei Kirilenko was able to make it work by defending three point shooters and the paint on the same play. Evans doesn't have Andrei's instincts though. If Evans decides to bail on help defense to d-up on shooters I can see the Spot up three point percentage go down. But maybe guys like Derrick Favors will have to foul more then, and be in foul trouble? Which hurts the team more? An open three, or less Favors? Aside from the deep back (which is an Xs and Os thing), people are shooting below 40% in spot ups against Jeremy.

The next biggest thing, and ostensibly the most important thing for a back up PF, is post defense. Evans is currently the #161th best post defender by PPP in the NBA right now. He is pray to fouling but has only given up 3 And-1's on his career. A big guy can bully him a bit. But he's still doing enough to be ranked close to the Top 150. That's not bad for a backup. And it gives me confidence in his ability to defend all comers.

If Evans is to progress as a 4 / 3 (four slash three) that means he has to be able to defend fours and threes. And that really means he has to be able to defend occasional fives (these are the guys who hurt in on post ups) and ones (these are the guys who get him to foul on isos). The bigger problem is that the proportion of what he does on defense also changes. His instincts are to defend the paint, collect boards, and block shots. If he's on the perimeter more he has to be able to stay in front of his man and face new challenges -- like screens. He's not amazing when he has to defend against dribble hand offs. And he has little experience defending guys running around screens. He can do both. And if he's playing SF he's going to have to do more of both. How well he can will determine if he really can step out on the court and play power forward and small forward. Because the thing that really determines minutes is how well can you defend a position or two.

Ultimately though we have a chance to recreate the same problem all over again like we did with Andrei Kirilenko. AK was a dominant defensive presence as a PF. He was a great help defender with his length, got offensive rebounds, and made life hell for the other team. When he was moved to SF he was never the same. Injuries played a part in that too. But when it's always been your job to defend the paint, having to check Kobe Bryant is a little different. Right now Evans is almost a mini-AK on defense (he just doesn't have the steals, but the deflections come with more playing time). He would get more playing time if he was more than just a power forward, but I don't know if he can defend guards full time.

The data says he can. But the "do I d up on the spot up guy, or help defend" problem is the microcosm of the macrocosm of him playing the three would be like, I think.

I like the idea of Evans being able to defend multiple positions. The game film says that he can. And I'm all for him playing more. I don't know how all of it is going to play out, but what I do know is that he's much more than just a dunker. At the very least it would be good for the coaching staff to understand how terrific a defender he is.

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