Tyreke Evans is putting himself among some unique company. In this case, I don’t mean that as a compliment.
Evans currently has the unique distinction of being one of a small group of players in the three-point era to have failed to match his rookie performance in his next three seasons.
That is, Evans looks to be one of a rare group of players to peak as a rookie.
To determine this, I used Basketball-Reference’s Player Season Finder to find all qualified rookies (in terms of minutes) in the three-point era. I then pulled the second, third and fourth seasons for each of these players to determine who else had failed to meet the bar they set as a rookie.
To avoid including great players who may have fluctuated around a strong level of play, I took out all players who had a Win Shares Per 48 (WS/48) of greater than 0.100 in subsequent seasons (this is a somewhat random cut off, as all cut offs are, but 0.100 roughly splits the league at 150 players). In essence, I eliminated any players who remained “starting quality” beyond their rookie years to find players who began as capable rookies but failed to remain effective.
For Evans, he appeared to be a superstar in the making as a rookie. He was just the fourth player ever to average 20-5-5 as a rookie, joining Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Oscar Robertson. He had an 18.2 Player Efficiency Rating and was worth 5.4 wins according to Basketball-Reference. In his sophomore year, though, he fell off a cliff, coming in at just 1.6 wins, a 14.4 PER, and declining efficiency across the board. He had a slight rebound to 2.7 wins and a 16.4 PER last year, though his rates didn’t match his rookie season. And so far this year, his WS/48 is nearly identical to his terrible sophomore year, with his PER at a career low 13.9.
So how rare is it for a player to appear a potential star as a rookie, only to become a hardly usable player in the three years thereafter?
I found eight such players, and the list isn’t pretty.
Sam Mitchell - a 26-year old rookie, Mitchell basically settled in as who he would be right away, though he would have small spikes in Year 6 and Year 9.
Manute Bol - had his highest WS/48 as a rookie and only remained an effective player for his first three seasons, primarily since his terrible offense negated much of his shot-blocking prowess.
Ron Mercer - using basic stats, he was an adequate player for some time, but advanced stats show that his usefulness was based almost entirely on volume. He would never post a league-average PER and his rookie season was by far his best in terms of total contributions (WS/48).
Courtney Lee - has remained on the periphery of usefulness thanks to some decent defensive acumen and floor spacing, but his rookie season was his best thus far. In his fifth year, the Celtics mark his fourth team and, while he’s off to a very rough start, there’s certainly evidence he can stick as an outside-shooting defensive rotation player.
Popeye Jones - had a great rookie season and didn’t drop off too much in subsequent years, though his fifth season (with the Raptors, of course) was an injury-shortened disaster. He bounced back afterwards and essentially produced at the same level in Years 1-4 and Years 6-9, so he probably doesn’t fit here.
Herb Williams - had a spike after the fourth year with a strong fifth and sixth season, but once again fell off until an odd resurgence in small-minute efficiency with the Knicks at age 34. If he were a guard, he’d be a nice glimmer of hope for Kings fans, but it’s not clear if a guard has the same potential for a bounce back.
Danny Vranes - great as a rookie, good as a sophomore, okay as a junior, and on his way out of the league shortly after. He fits the narrative of a rookie-peaker best, enjoying a steady decline thereafter.
Tyreke Evans - his fourth year isn’t done so maybe it’s not fair to include him yet. But a few notes on how Evans has changed since his rookie year, courtesy of his Hoopdata page:
*In Evans worst seasons, he’s shot more from 16-23 feet. Not a surprise here, as he is a terrible shooter from this range, hovering around 30%. It’s probably in his best interest to give up the long-two pull-up (less than 20% of these shots are assisted).
*Evans hovers around 60% at the rim but, not surprisingly, got there much less often in his two down years. This has also led to steadily declining free throw rates.
*He’s decided to try and get himself going more this year, posting a career-low assist rate of 17%. He has also used his penetrating ability to create for others less, assisting on only half as many threes as usual.
So not only is Evans in unique company as a player who peaked as a rookie, but he also appears to be trending in the wrong direction. This isn’t a matter of shots just not falling, but an apparently declining skill set and an eroding basketball IQ.
There’s certainly still time for Evans to turn things around, but teams should be wary of tendering him a sizable restricted free agent contract this summer unless he shows a turnaround between now and then.