Tyreke Evans and the Elusive Free Throw Line


In almost every way, Tyreke Evans is producing at the same high level this season that he reached last year. From a statistical perspective, Evans’ rebounds, assists, and steals are down ever so slightly from last season, and his blocks and turnovers are pretty much the same; hardly enough in total to cause concern over his play. From a scoring perspective, his effective field goal percentage (shooting percentage which incorporates the added value of a 3-pointer) is actually up slightly from last season, going from 44.8% to 45%. Furthermore, Tyreke is averaging more drives to the rim per game this year than anyone in the NBA except for Ty Lawson and Michael Carter-Williams. Between last season and this one, Evans has maintained about the same ratio of shots within the restricted area, taking about 56% of his total field goal attempts less than 3 feet from the rim.

Despite all this, Evans’ PER is down nearly three full points, falling from 18.4 in 2013-14 to 15.5 in 2014-15. I don’t mean to use PER in order to say that it is the best tool to evaluate Tyreke’s value, but given the consistency within the data that I just outlined, it should be quite perplexing that there is such a significant difference in his efficiency rating between last season and this one. What gives?

Tyreke Evans is a player who is at his best – both for himself and for his team – when he is attacking the rim. When he drives into the paint, there are many possible positive outcomes for the Pelicans:

  1. The defense collapses into the lane to stop him, freeing up other offensive players on the perimeter
  2. Evans scores
  3. Evans misses, but his miss becomes a put-back dunk (AKA “Kobe Assist“) for either Ryan Anderson, Anthony Davis, or Omer Asik, three above-average offensive rebounders over the course of their careers
  4. Evans gets fouled and goes to the free throw line

Unfortunately, this season, one of those four options is occurring much less than would normally be expected. In each of his last two seasons, Tyreke Evans averaged about .35 free throw attempts for every field goal attempt. Yet, somehow, Evans’ free throw rate this season is only .23, easily a career low for him. Put another way: if Evans’ free throw rate was the same this year as it was last season, he would have attempted 48 more free throws so far, and at his career free throw percentage of 76%, those free throws would have resulted in an additional 36.5 points so far this season. The next question, naturally, is why he isn’t earning free throws at his usual rate, despite the high number of drives and the same elevated frequency of shots at the rim.

First, the bad news – there is really no other way to answer this question apart from using NBA.com’s stats tool to look at each individual shot that Tyreke has attempted within the restricted area this season – 260 of them through Sunday night’s victory in Oklahoma City. The good news (for you) – I had some extra free time this week (most of which because #JewishChristmas), so I went ahead and did just that.  After looking at each attempt, I assessed the degree and type of contact that Tyreke received (as well as some other factors). Additionally, I made some notes in regards to his specific actions taken, mostly related to recurring themes that I found.

The Film Study

Unfortunately, there is no way to specifically measure (with the tools at our disposal, anyway) a variable such as how hard Tyreke was hit, so that element ultimately comes down to the eye test. That being said, I did my best to be as conservative as possible in regards to what should or should not have been called a foul. Based on the degree and type of contact drawn, it looked as if the referees could have called a foul on about 10% of Evans’ 251 field goal attempts to date which did not result in free throws (he has drawn nine fouls on made shots thus far). Here are a few links to examples:

So, what can we learn from this? First, it indeed appears as if Tyreke Evans has been a victim of some bad luck in regards to officiating. That being said, without conducting a league-wide film study – which would take weeks – there is no way of knowing how far from “normal” this is. For example, it is possible that referees miss between 5-10% of foul calls on average for various reasons, and if so, then Evans’ “bad luck” may not be that bad after all. Therefore, it would be overly simplistic to simply say that Tyreke’s foul and free throw rates are significantly lower purely because of oversight by the referees.

Key Observations

Something else to consider is that it occasionally appears as if Evans will rush layups after he beats his man in order to finish the play before he can get hit, even when the only way the defender will be able to recover in time is by fouling him.

  • Screen Effectiveness. While many of Evans’ drives to the rim come out of pure isolation plays, he also gets there often via ball screens as well. For a fair amount of these screens, space still exists between Tyreke and the screener for the defender to fairly easily get through, making it much easier to keep up with him as he barrels his way to the rim. This happens for two main reasons – improper positioning by the screen setter, or a lack of patience by Evans. A few examples:
  • Lane clutter. Another possible reason that Evans’ free throw rate is down so much this season is that the referees’ line of sight may be impaired by the amount of bodies in the lane. Per NBAwowy, Evans’ free throw rate with Anderson on the floor and Asik off the floor is .29, compared to 0.18 when Asik is on the floor and Anderson is on the bench. Of course, this disparity could just as well exist because Evans has more room to operate with the floor spaced better, making it more necessary to foul him in order to prevent him from getting easy buckets. The same sort of effect also existed last season, as Evans’ FT rate jumped from .24 to .41 when Anderson replaced Stiemsma. A variable such as referee line of sight would be incredibly difficult to evaluate, but nevertheless something to keep in mind that may often be overlooked.
  • Playing Outnumbered. Tyreke Evans is fearless when attacking the rim, especially on fast break attempts. At times, it appeared as if a foul could have been called in these situations, but was not when challenging multiple defenders by himself. While not necessarily correct, it is possible that referees will give the benefit of the doubt to the defense when Evans attempts to score in one-on-three fast break scenarios.
  • Guard Chemistry. Though not really related to the act of foul-drawing, viewing all of Evans’ shots at the rim also shined a bit of light on he and Jrue Holiday’s chemistry. Jrue finds Tyreke often – and for the best results – on two types of plays:
    • Backdoor cuts to the rim. Tyreke has a knack for knowing when to cut from the corner, finding space near the rim to create a passing lane for Jrue to get a couple easy points.
    • Curls off of screens from the FT line extended. Tyreke will run the baseline, come up towards the free throw line on the strong side and come off of a screen tightly while coming up to the end of the FT line, then quickly catch a pass and dart to the rim. When the screen is set well enough, Tyreke finds a relatively easy path to the hoop.

Conclusion

Purely based on a regression to the mean, Tyreke Evans should see his free throw rate increase as the season progresses. However, improvements within the flow of the offense are also necessary for the Pelicans to improve in the long run. First, Tyreke Evans needs to better utilize his strength and embrace contact more frequently than he has to date. He doesn’t have to be a James Harden clone and actively seek out this contact, but when faced with the choice of either attempting a very difficult shot (such as a reverse layup in traffic) or driving right into a defender who is out of position to draw a foul, taking the latter strategy will lead to a better chance of scoring.

Secondly, the Pelicans big men – particularly Anthony Davis – need to work on screen setting effectiveness. The purpose of a screen is to force the defense into making a choice on how to defend a given play. If the player getting screened can easily pass between the screener and the ball-handler, then no decision has to be made by the defense, rendering the screen itself fairly useless. Solid screens either create mismatches on defense or give the ball-handler a head start on making his move, essential advantages for a player like Evans.By victimizing prone defenders and receiving more efficient screens, Tyreke Evans will become an even more dangerous offensive player.


5 responses to “Tyreke Evans and the Elusive Free Throw Line”

  1. Appreciate the amount of work that went into this research Mason, great analysis. Another possible contributing factor is that I remember at the start of the season Tyreke seemed to turnover the ball once or twice a game from charge calls but this trend has noticeably died off recently, perhaps this has lead to an increased desire to not go at defenders as much as he previously would. Obviously, this occurrence would be an accumulation of all the factors you’ve stated, but hopefully we will see regression to the mean as time goes on.

  2. PelicanDownUnder I agree. Tyreke was getting more charging calls earlier this season.
    Mason, what does this same statistical data imply when you take into consideration the different officiating crews?  I bet some crews call more charging calls then others. Check it out , this will send back to your lab.Lol

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