The single biggest question that will determine whether the Sacramento Kings legitimately contend for a championship this decade is this one: will Tyreke Evans make the leap to stardom? We're not talking a quasi-All-Star level. We're talking legit, no-brainer max contract, MVP contention superstar level. Is that in the cards?
We had a strong feeling in the affirmative during his rookie season. The second year was like a firehose of cold water on all of that. The third year will be a big flashing arrow in either direction. What are we going to see?
The popular comparisons among Kings faithful are Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook, who happened to have both just finished their third seasons. The thing is that Rose and Westbrook both went from having glimpses of stardom but overwhelming inefficiency as rookies to stronger indications of stardom and solid efficiency as sophomores to full-blown All-Star level play in their third seasons.
In his first two seasons, Tyreke did it backwards. He was as good as a rookie as Rose and Westbrook were in their second seasons. But he was as flawed as Rose and Westbrook were as rookies. The players' Win Shares per 48 minutes are almost perfect reflections of this. (In this measure, 0.100 is "solid player" and 0.200 is "elite player".)
Rose: .078 --> .100 --> .208
Westbrook: .035 --> .105 --> .159
Evans: .097 --> .036 --> ???
To take the optimistic view, Evans was stronger as a rookie than either Rose or Westbrook ... and look at them now. To take the pessimistic view, Evans profited off his weird style, the league figured him out, and he'll top out at a performance comparable to what he did as a rookie.
I'm not sure either are accurate; the pessimistic view is highly suspect if only because Evans famously struggled with plantar fasciitis all season. You have to look at what went wrong specifically for Tyreke in 2010-11 in terms of performance. What's attributable to the injury? What's attributable to a failure of development?
We can ignore rebounding and playmaking -- he held his rebounding steady (elite for a point guard, solid for a two-guard) and his assist rate was level, though his turnovers edged up a bit. (This was a team-wide scourge.) The Kings' defense improved, and while he didn't have a signature stop like he did as a rookie (what up, Gil) his steal and foul rates remained level.
So it's in scoring where he saw a drop in production and efficiency. He went from 20.1 points per game to 17.8. He did that despite his FGAs/game rising slightly. The two glaring differences in his scoring performance as a rookie and as a sophomore were his free throw rate and the percentage of his shots taken at the rim. And yes, they go hand in hand.
Bear in mind that Tyreke's shooting percentage at the rim stayed steady and his three-point shooting improved. His mid-range percentages dropped, but the bigger factor was that he was taking more of them. He averaged 6.5 FTAs per game in '10, and 4.7 in '11. He took 51 percent of his FGAs at the rim as a rookie, and 38 percent last season.
Let's add them up. Assuming that a free throw attempt constitutes 0.44 shooting possessions (due to players getting two FTAs for a shooting foul, while accounting for and-1s), 59 percent of Rookie Tyreke's shooting possessions came at the rim or from the line. For Sophomore Tyreke, that figure was 45 percent.
Over both seasons combined, Tyreke scored 1.36 points per shooting possession taken at the rim or from the line.
Over both seasons combined, Tyreke scored 0.67 points per shooting possession on all other shots.
You decrease Evans' at-the-rim-and-line skew, you're killing his scoring efficiency.
The single biggest question facing the Kings' future is whether Tyreke Evans will become a superstar. The single biggest determinant of that is whether Tyreke Evans will re-find his ability to get inside as well as any perimeter player not named LeBron.
I can't wait to watch it happen.