The NBA draft is almost upon us, and the Minnesota Timberwolves will be selecting at the 20th overall spot. For the Timberwolves going forward, this selection is huge, as the team find themselves in an awkward limbo between needing someone who can help them win now, but also a rookie who can give four years of production under team control to help the Front Office manage their difficult cap situation.
One prospect who intrigues me is Jacob Evans of Cincinnati, and the more I found myself watching his tape, the more enamored I became with his overall game. Evans is one of the best defenders in college basketball, and that alone would make him a brilliant fit with the Timberwolves, as the team does lack players who can disrupt elite shot makers. However, the offensive upside is the main reason I like Evans at 20 over other players in that range. He has been criticized for a lack of shot creation on secondary actions, but in all honesty it will be refreshing to see a Minnesota reserve not charge towards the basket every time they get the ball; his off-the-ball intelligence is something the Wolves have needed for the entire Tom Thibodeau era.
Jacob Evans projects to be a primarily off-the-ball threat in the NBA, and he is a better fit on an NBA roster with already established players. He is not really a potent off-screen threat, and looks to be a player who is better at spot-up shooting and cutting, meaning screens can be set elsewhere when Evans is on the court.
Due to the nature of Cincinnati’s roster, Evans had a relatively high usage percentage of 22.5%, which put him in the top 15 of players in his conference. Evans will likely never hit such a usage in the NBA, but if he did the results likely wouldn’t be pretty. He struggled on what I call ‘individual’ play types, notably as an isolation player (0.50 PPP), and also struggled attacking downhill on handoffs, which was an important part of the Cincinnati offense against better teams. If Evans ever found himself in an isolation situation, he usually passed the ball into the post and tried getting his teammates to reset the action. Some use this to knock Evans as they feel this shows a lack of confidence and assertiveness, but I personally like that he knows his limitations, and forces an action reset, rather than forcing up a bad shot.
Evans’ best asset without a doubt is as a spot-up shooter, and he has a very good understanding of half-court systems, something that the Timberwolves need as Thibodeau likes to play a slower brand of offense. One of the things that stands out on Evans’ tape is how well he understands modern defensive schemes as an offensive player. Switches are common, and he knows exactly when they are coming, and times his cuts to perfection. Below was perhaps my favorite Evans play on offense, as it shows his intelligence and versatility in half-court setups.
He sets a screen alongside Eliel Nsoseme, and the latter rolls to the basket. Evans times his slip perfectly and ends up with an easy perimeter jumper. This is a simple play that Evans executes perfectly, which is why his game is so attractive. Cincinnati’s offensive scheme looked to be quite basic at times, but he was able to work within this setup and produce easy buckets for himself more than he could create for others. Evans seems to set a lot of screens for a small wing and Minnesota could potentially use him to screen the screener and create switches for Bjelica and Towns on the perimeter. A high pick-and-roll with Karl-Anthony Towns and Jacob Evans setting screens is quite mouth-watering. Someone would end up with a very easy shot.
Though Evans’ offensive game doesn’t present him as a jack of all trades, he screens well for a wing and Minnesota’s scheme could use this, as they were 28th in screen assists last season.
Another example of Evans’ ability to read a defense came in the thriller against Wichita State. This set perhaps illustrates Evans’ entire offensive game in a 12-second clip.
Evans hands the ball to a teammate, then waits deep behind the three-point line, knowing that eventually his defender will slack off and attempt to help inside. When the defender finally tries to get a hand in, Evans times his move to perfection and his quick release gives him an open jumper. Evans is at his best off-the-ball — his is how he wants to play — and has a great feel for how to behave as a spot-up guy.
Evans intelligence as a spot-up shooter is something that is much needed in Minnesota. The Timberwolves were last in the NBA in wide open three-point attempts per game at 7.3, and though Thibodeau’s sets are designed to create inside shots, one of the reasons Minnesota struggled was due to the lack of true shooters on the outside who could be effective spot-up guys. Jeff Teague was perhaps their smartest spot-up shooter, but the rest of the wings and guards are either not great three-point shooters, or they don’t offer enough to justify heavy minutes in 2018.
Something else that impressed me about Evans is how good he was when plays broke down. As Cincinnati was primarily a defensive team, many of their offensive possessions broke down. But Evans was really good at resetting action and moving away from traffic to create easy looks. Below, he takes advantage of an aggressive defensive rebound policy and floods out to the corner.
This is a simple move, but too many college prospects will fight for the rebound and take a contested lay-up, a pet peeve of mine. Instead, Evans creates the most valuable shot in the sport, and little things like this allowed Cincinnati to get by offensively.
Minnesota does not need anyone else to carry a big offensive load, so someone who is able to make simply reads well and make smart cuts to and from the basket will fit nicely alongside Karl-Anthony Towns and Jimmy Butler. Adding someone who actually requires a high usage would be counter-productive. Instead, adding a player like Evans who makes simple, yet deliberate and effective moves could help the team quite a bit. Too many sets ended up in isolation ball, especially when the bench unit was out there last season.
Evans’ struggles as a shooter coming off-screens, as he often has trouble navigating through traffic and maintaining aggressiveness, but this shouldn’t be a problem in Minnesota. Their off-screen play type usage is dead last in the NBA, with only 1.9% of their plays involving shots off a screen or layup after a cut from a back screen. Some folks such as JJ Mazlich of The Stepien believe that Evans needs to add an off-screen game to his arsenal, but in Minnesota he will be able to be used primarily in spot-up situations, as Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns both draw double teams. Sure, Evans lacks a complete offensive profile, and he may be limited to just a few play types, but good isolation, post-up, and pick-and-roll players already exist in Minnesota. The next piece to the puzzle is adding people who move off-the-ball and create space for others.
Offensively, the major knock on Evans outside of a lack of variety in play type is that his jump shot could be problematic. Evans does have a quick release, and when watching the tape at first, I actually labeled his shooting stroke as a positive. His quick release was doubly effective when combined with his terrific timing on the perimeter, but in a recent workout video with the Lakers his shooting form looks downright ugly.
Though Evans is getting the ball out relatively quickly, I question whether this shooting stroke will work in the NBA. He seems to be pushing the ball towards the basket as opposed to shooting it, and this might be something to monitor. Evans can quite clearly get into good positions — his tape shows this — but if his shooting stroke is broken then none of this matters.
Overall, Evans would be a seamless fit in the Timberwolves scheme which relies on double teams to create three-point looks, as opposed to screens and back screens, but the strange mechanics might limit his ceiling as a major part of offensive sets.
Evans’ offensive game is solid, but not particularly exciting. You can’t say the same about his defense. Evans excels in multiple areas, including disrupting set plays, denying penetration to guards, and switching on to bigs. Minnesota’s defensive troubles are well documented and while Thibodeau’s outdated scheme of overloading the strong side and pre-rotating is a part of it, the lack of solidity on the wings creates problems that very few schemes could cover for.
Evans formed part of an elite Cincinnati defense alongside Gary Clark and was an outstanding defender often matched up on scoring guards. Evans posted a ridiculous defensive rating of 88.3 and while six Bearcats did post better numbers, Evans played more minutes than any of them, and only one of the people above him was also a starter (Clark). He also had a heavy load on both ends of the floor, which makes his number more impressive than most. Advanced stats paint Evans in a good light for the 17-18 season, as he ranked 3rd in all of college basketball in defensive win shares and had a defensive box plus-minus of 6.1, putting him in the top 30 amongst all prospects.
The primary duty of any defensive wing is to deny penetration and defend on an individual level, and Evans’ tape was fantastic in this regard. He struggled in screen situations on offense, but this is not the case on defense — he stays aggressive and knows that at the collegiate level denying initial penetration will destroy most teams. The play below is one of my favorites, and it came in a huge game this past season:
Wichita State’s set has a lot of action going on, but Evans doesn’t panic and get caught on the screen. He reads that the ball will be staying on the perimeter and holds a good position, which gives Austin Reaves no driving angle. When Reaves has to reset, Evans moves in to make a big-time steal. He is good at forcing teams into secondary actions and wrinkles, something the Timberwolves are not good at.
Evans averaged 2.6 steals per game in his final year at Cincinnati and though he isn’t a guy who gambles often, he is so good at forcing players into uncomfortable positions that steals come naturally to him.
In addition to being able to get steals and disrupt offensive sets, Evans has excellent feet on the perimeter and never seems to over-extend himself. Below is a textbook example of how he likes to defend:
He doesn’t worry about the big man rolling to the basket because he knows that help defense would come from the left corner. Instead, he stays aggressive and switches on to the guard, denying the initial angle. He then keeps his balance and manages to force a contested mid-range jumper without allowing room for a pump fake. Evans disrupted the initial action and forced the worst shot in basketball.
Evans ability on the perimeter also stretches to transition defense, as you can see in the play below:
Evans’ effort never dropped. He played hard every game and never took possessions off. Here, he tracks the man in transition, gets in front of him and forces him into traffic. This creates a block, but it really just shows that Evans has the strength to stay in front of anyone and not give up easy transition buckets. This is a simple play yet it highlights his excellent feet, work rate, and understanding of where buckets come from. The main thing I like about Evans is you rarely see him beaten for layups; if people beat him, it’s generally because of play design rather than someone purely blowing by him.
A lot of swingmen come out of college being able to deny penetration and nothing else. Evans, on the other hand, reads schemes well and can switch effectively on to bigger players. He will likely not be able to go toe to toe with seven-footers, but the thing he does well is deny initial post position, as you can see in the play below. Evans does absolutely everything required from an NBA defender in this play and if you take one thing from this article, take this:
Evans gets forced out to the perimeter and holds good position, he makes three switches on time, and ends up in the post with a center, albeit a smaller one in the form of Shaquille Morris who stands at 6'8”. Wichita State’s set was designed primarily to get Morris posting up on a wing or guard, and they got the match they wanted. Evans, however, first denies the post position, but when Morris does eventually fight through it, he holds his own and doesn’t give up position to the stronger player.
Thibodeau’s system uses less switches onto bigger players than most, but Evans could certainly still be a valuable defensive weapon. He fights hard against bigger players and knows that disrupting post position allows teammates to stay aggressive and potentially create steal opportunities. Outside of Butler, Minnesota lacks wings who play like this, meaning Evans could contribute fairly quickly as a rangy defender.
The ‘little things’ often get overlooked as NBA fans search for the complete prospect, but at the 20th spot in the draft there are always going to be flaws in each player still on the board. The Wolves already have two elite offensive threats in Butler and Towns, and Andrew Wiggins and Jeff Teague are both high usage players. The two lines Evans gets littered with are that 1) he lacks upside and 2) doesn’t do anything great. The former is simply not true, but the latter is actually a good thing for Minnesota. The Wolves need someone who can come in and do a bit of everything, as these are the type of players you surround your stars with.
Evans won’t be a guy who is used much offensively outside of spot-up and cutter situations, but this fits with the rest of the roster. He is a good decision making wing who knows his role on offense and doesn’t force things. Defensively, he denies penetration to guards, reads set plays well, and can switch on to bigger players.
I don’t speak for everyone, but you can go ahead and sign me up for that.