WASHINGTON - Watching practice from the sideline with a bunch of wires and electric stems attached to his right ankle wasn't exactly the vision Tyreke Evans had of his college basketball experience. But for the first month as a member of the Memphis Tigers, that's exactly what the 6-6 freshman standout from Chester did.
He would watch. He would gnash his teeth. He couldn't even shoot. It's the first time in his basketball life he ever watched practice. Or came off the bench. It led to some shoddy play when the Tigers visited Puerto Rico in late-November.
That didn't last very long. The Tyreke Evans who was MVP of the McDonald's All-American Game, the Tyreke Evans who every major college in the country wanted, and the Tyreke Evans who Memphis coach John Calipari expected to see, is gradually arriving.
A severe ankle sprain, followed by a bout with plantar fasciitis - a painful inflammatory foot condition - has slowed Evans. But at maybe 80 percent, Evans still leads the Tigers in scoring, averaging 16.1 points a game after eight games.
What's more, Evans is pulling down 5.8 rebounds a game. He's blocking shots. He's distributing the ball. He's consistently showing parts of his game that he didn't have to show when he played at now-defunct American Christian School in Aston, since he was so much better than everyone else on the court.
Last Saturday against Georgetown, that hadn't changed, either. Evans was the best overall player on the court there, too.
Memphis, which entered the game ranked No. 15 by the ESPN/USA Today coaches poll as of Dec. 8, lost to the Hoyas in overtime, 79-70. That came despite Evans dropping 20 points, and leading Memphis with three assists and three steals. He also snared seven rebounds.
Evans was the Tigers' go-to player. Calipari had no problem going to Evans for every major possession late in the game, and again in overtime.
"I haven't been fair to him, I haven't been fair to him at all," Calipari said of Evans. "He's a freshman and I want him to make big shots, and when he misses, I'm all over him. That's not fair. I tell the kid to do something, he does it. I really placed the bar high with Tyreke, and he's reaching that sometimes. By the end of the year, he's going to reach that all of the time. But I'm not going to take it easy on him. He knows I'm going to push him."
Calipari has pushed Evans to play hard every possession, offensively and defensively. The coach also realizes that his prized freshman will make mistakes.
"What I want is for him to go after every ball," Calipari said. "The difficult part for Tyreke is that we haven't seen him at his best. He didn't look good in Puerto Rico, he couldn't get down his shot. But we're also talking about someone who hadn't taken a shot in about a month, and didn't shoot 10 days before he left for Puerto Rico. I think what you saw against Georgetown, what everyone saw against Georgetown, is just the beginning of how good Tyreke can be and he's already very good to begin with."
It's been somewhat frustrating for Evans. Watching practice wasn't easy. Things were so difficult that Evans had trouble landing every time he took a jump shot. His biggest adjustment has been the physical nature of major college basketball. He's put on 20 pounds of muscle and looks more like an NFL wide receiver now.
"I don't know when I'll be 100 percent," Evans said. "I think I'm about 80 percent right now. But I think I've gotten better. Coach Cal has brought some things out in me. He's taken some bad habits out of me. He gets on me, but I accept the challenge. I realize he wants what's best for me."
After the game, Georgetown coach John Thompson III just shook his head and grinned when asked about Evans.
"Tyreke is a terrific, terrific player," Thompson said. "Cal does a great job creating angles for him, and putting him in nice positions each possession. I think what I liked most is how calm and poised Tyreke is, and they rely on him a lot. He's such a natural scorer, we had to constantly watch where he was on the court. Tyreke puts a lot of pressure on a defense, and the kid is only going to get better." *
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