When news broke today that the Pelicans had tendered Tyreke Evans a four-year, $44 million dollar contract, the nearly universal reaction was that this was a laughable overpay, a team on the fringe of playoff contention (at best) throwing caution and cap flexibility to the wind in pursuit of an enigmatic talent. And, when all is said and done, that may very well be the case.
But think back to 2010, when Evans was named Rookie of the Year after averaging better than 20 points per game on 46% shooting from the field, as well as chipping in better than 5 rebounds, 5 assists, and 1.5 steals per game as a prodigiously gifted, big point guard. If any team in the NBA had been offered the opportunity to sign Evans from age 23 to age 28 for $44 million, they would have at least given it long, careful thought—and many would have jumped on the chance without a moment’s hesitation.
The problem, of course, is that Evans has not blossomed into the superstar that he appeared to be. Injuries and what is perceived as a me-first attitude have prevented Evans from capitalizing on his significant physical talents, and last season he averaged only 15 points per game, with peripherals worse than his rookie campaign—45% shooting, under 4.4 RPG, 3.5 APG.
Also in 2010—namely, 18 games into the 2010-2011 NBA season—Eric Gordon was averaging 24 points per game for the Los Angeles Clippers, pairing with eventual Rookie of the Year Blake Griffin, before Gordon went down with a serious wrist injury. Gordon was developing a reputation as an ascendant star, a slashing two-guard who was equally deadly from deep. While lacking ideal size for the shooting guard position, he went on to be the centerpiece of the trade for Chris Paul before the 2011-2012 season.
While he was not on Chris Paul’s level, Hornets fans were enamored of their new franchise cornerstone. Few to no complaints were heard from the NBA punditry when Phoenix attempted to pry him away from New Orleans with a max contract, nor when New Orleans matched, despite Gordon’s protestations that his heart was in Phoenix. However, a disappointing 2012-2013 season, combined with injury woes and rumors of behind-closed-doors dissent, has many Pelicans fans ready to ship Gordon away for anything they can recoup.
And so, barring a trade or a surprise matching of Evans’ contract by the Kings, Gordon and Evans find themselves poised to become teammates with the Pelicans. Both will be asked to prove they are worth the hefty contracts they are playing under, and both face considerable skepticism as to their ability to do so. A pairing that in 2010 would have been praised as a killer backcourt for the next half-decade or more is suddenly viewed with trepidation, in part because one of the two will have to come off the bench (probably Evans), to accommodate Jrue Holiday.
But wait a minute.
Tyreke Evans is 23 years old. Eric Gordon is 24. Last year, Tyreke’s numbers were perfectly respectable, when viewed from the perspective of a 23-year old attempting to muddle through a year with one of the most dysfunctional franchises in the NBA. If Gordon bounces back from his injuries and, perhaps with the perspective of being a year removed from his contract fiasco, returns with greater focus and a more positive attitude, this could be a potent three-guard rotation. By all rights, Evans and Gordon should still be on the ascent, still figuring out the nuances of the professional game. There is still potential to be realized.
But these players are not viewed in a vacuum. That’s not Tyreke Evans; that’s former Rookie of the Year Tyreke Evans, and By the Way, What Ever Happened to His Career? In some ways, the early success flashed by both Evans and Gordon, and the outsized expectations for both that resulted from that success, has irrevocably changed our perceptions of their careers. If one or both eventually becomes a borderline All-Star, he will be viewed as, at best, someone who wasted a portion of his career before eventually returning to the straight and narrow. If either had been slower to make their mark in the NBA, and progressed slowly from a prospect buried on the bench into the players they are today, they likely would be viewed as young, talented pieces with the potential to continue improving into bona fide stars. And that is the paradox of precociousness.