Jazz's Evans goes from small town to the big time
The smile never stops. Bright and shining, it breaks through everything. It has carried him when he has been afraid, guided him when he has been unsure.
When rookie Jazz forward Jeremy Evans was a lanky kid growing up in small-town Crossett, Ark., the smile was there.
When his dad wasn't around or his uncle was jailed, it still shined.
When Evans began to blossom, relying on natural, raw athletic talent as he leaped skyward and made heads shake in amazement, the smile began to grow.
And when the 6-foot-9, 196-pound Evans went from being the 55th overall selection of the 2010 NBA Draft to Summer League to an NBA roster spot and then 11 points on 4-of-5 shooting Wednesday during the Jazz's 2010-11 season opener, it absolutely beamed.
"He's a really special kid," Utah coach Jerry Sloan said. "I just hope we don't mess him up."
Two personalities • Gwyn Evans had a plan.
She knew her son was special. Unique. Evans was supremely talented on the basketball court; quiet, gentle and reserved off it. Exceptional and vulnerable.
Gwyn had seen similar talent up close before. Her brother, Don Evans, was once NBA material. He had gone to college and matched up against Scottie Pippen. He was a legend on the playground. He could make every shot he took. But he was also taken with drugs.
After being in and out of jail several times, Evans' uncle is now incarcerated in Wrightsville, Ark. He was set to be released later this year, but he's now likely to be freed by November 2011.
"We're not trying to make my brother look bad. I love my brother very much. I love my family," Gwyn said. "But he's had struggles with drugs, issues with child support and things like that. That's why he's in there right now."
Gwyn saw the same talent that Don had in her son. So to prevent his downfall, she sheltered him. No going out unless he had a purpose. No cable television. No shady friends. And as a single mother dealing with an absentee husband and a jailed brother, working long hours and raising two children, there was no room for error.
"I didn't want the TV raising them because I knew what was on TV," Gwyn said, adding, "We're just a close-knit family. And because of my upbringing, I took that over to my children."
The only places she would allow her kids to go swimming pools, the Boys & Girls Club and basketball courts were safe havens.
To Evans, the confines were stifling initially. But by the time he was 12 and his friends asked him if he wanted to try something different, he had a realization. He loved his uncle but didn't want to walk down his dark path. And he knew his mother was right.
"Parents always say they've been down the road they don't want you to go," Evans said. "I think it just helped a lot. Because she knew what was best for me. When I was younger, I didn't know. Now you look back and say, 'Thanks.' "
Evans is still saying thanks. Gwyn has become his best friend. She helped guide him from high school ball to Western Kentucky University. And as the bighearted but inexperienced Jazz forward has navigated his way through the NBA, his mother has been his closest ally. The duo talk on the phone at least once a day, resorting to text messages when either Gwyn is working or Evans is on the court.
The mother-son pair are so tight that Evans' newest companion couldn't help but notice and tease.
"Gordon's [Hayward] like, 'Man, how many times do you talk to your mom every day?' " Evans said, smiling. "I'm like, 'A lot.' "
Early hurdles • Ken McDonald remembers him as "J-Bo."
When McDonald took over the Western Kentucky men's basketball program in 2008, Evans was a promising sophomore.
The promise wasn't a problem for Evans. The evolution was.
Evans was too skinny. He also wasn't aggressive. But the highest hurdle to overcome was one that initially confounded McDonald: Evans didn't want to shoot. Almost every player who reaches the Division I level dreams of touching and shooting the ball as often as possible. Not Evans.
McDonald was also forced to confront other issues. Evans was homesick. He had spent only a week away from small-town Crossett during his entire life prior to becoming a Hilltopper. But since signing with Western Kentucky in 2006, Evans had considered leaving school every year.
Then there was Evans' diverse mind. He was a serious artist whose sketches would soon hang in galleries, be shown on national television during the NCAA Tournament, and even draw praise from the normally reserved Sloan.
Topping it off, Evans was a natural high jumper, clearing 6 feet, 10.75 inches for the Western Kentucky track-and-field team in 2009 and setting a season record.
"I used to always say, 'If Jeremy just put his mind to one thing, he'd be amazing,' " McDonald said. "But I didn't know if that thing was basketball."
Once Evans locked in, he soared. He set career highs in points (10.0), rebounds (6.9) and assists (6.9) during his senior season, while shooting more than 62 percent for the fourth consecutive year. In addition, the once-silent Evans had become a do-everything leader, earning the Hilltoppers' outstanding teammate award.
"I think it evolved into a really good relationship," McDonald said. "I completely knew where [Gwyn] was coming from, and she completely trusted me that I thought he could be great. And that's all I ever wanted: I thought the kid could be absolutely great. And he was."
The long, lean Evans was a rising star. And the quiet kid from Crossett was prime NBA material soon to be locked in on the Jazz's radar and on his way to Salt Lake City for a new life and a lifelong dream.
Budding friendship • All is quiet early Friday morning at the Jazz's practice facility, a short night removed from the team's second consecutive blowout loss to open the 2010-11 season. All-Star guard Deron Williams is frustrated. Meanwhile, Sloan stands by himself, silently eyeing two practice courts and his players.
As a series of free throws sail through the air and bodies are warmed up, Williams begins to make his way toward his traditional spot on top of a trainer's table. As Williams slowly walks, Evans smiles.
He and Hayward are trading shots and jokes, slowly waking up while pulling each other through another day of newness and uncertainty.
The night before, Gwyn had flown on an airplane for the first time in 27 years just so she could see her son up close.
That same night, a rookie mistake by Hayward drew a public scolding by Williams on national TV. But by Friday, Hayward has moved on, and Evans is helping him think of other things.
The duo are only the rookies on a Jazz team otherwise filled with veterans, many of whom have already developed close friendships. So Evans and Hayward converge. They talk about video games, TV and girlfriends still in college. They hit the practice facility during off days, putting up extra shots. And they laugh through everything autograph signings and playing the role of a rookie by carrying grade-school backpacks and Al Jefferson's heavy luggage forming a bond and building a friendship that has only grown since they traded college colors for NBA logos.
Hayward sees himself in Evans, and he can crack a wide, easy grin with his rookie friend.
"He knows how to have fun. Not only in basketball, but in life," Hayward said. "That's the way to live life. Try to get as much as you can."
That fun has carried Evans through the first month of his new life. Everything is different, but everything is also the same. His mom still watches. His uncle still waits. His college coach still hopes and wonders.
And Evans keeps smiling.
"Man, it's a dream come true. Not only for me, but for them, too," Evans said. "Just to see someone from our family here, from a small town, it gives a lot of confidence to a lot of people."
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Jeremy Evans file
Position • Forward
Year • Rookie
Age • 23
Vitals • 6-foot-9, 196 pounds
Stats • 11.0 points, 2.0 rebounds
College • Western Kentucky
Born • Crossett, Ark.
Did you know • Evans competed in the high jump for the Hilltoppers, setting a track-and-field team season mark in 2009 with a jump of 6 feet, 10.75 inches. The mark was less than 3 inches off the school record.
Check out the blog • A happier, more relaxed Deron Williams showed off a new perspective Saturday before the Jazz's practice. > sltrib.com/blogs/jazznotes
Jazz at Thunder
P At Ford Center, Oklahoma City
Tipoff • 5 p.m.
TV • FSN Utah, NBATV
Radio • 1320 AM, 1600 AM, 98.7 FM
Records • Jazz 0-2, Thunder 2-0
Last meeting • Jazz, 140-139, OT (April 6)
About the Jazz • Utah dropped its first two games by a combined 38 points. â¦ The Jazz are shooting 40.9 percent from the field while allowing opponents to connect on 45.0 percent of their attempts. â¦ Utah is averaging 19.0 turnovers per contest.
About the Thunder • Forward Kevin Durant is averaging 30.0 points and 7.5 rebounds. â¦ Oklahoma City is shooting just 18.2 percent behind the three-point line. â¦ The Thunder are averaging 105.5 points per game.