Chris Webber may have given Sac the winning ticket (or ping pong ball, that is).
by Tracy Weissenberg
There is a looseness in the Kings locker room before Wednesday’s game against the Hawks. If winning starts with chemistry, the future should be bright for Sacramento. And everyone in the locker room seems to believe that.
After posting a league-worst 17-65 record last season under two head coaches, the Kings entered the 2009 Draft lottery with former face of franchise Chris Webber as a good luck charm.
Webber, who ignited a winning culture in Sacramento by leading the Kings to six straight postseasons from 1998-2004, says, “I was actually nervous when the Kings asked…I felt like I had the pressure of the world on my shoulders.”
While the franchise and fans hoped the most ping pong balls would equal a No. 1 draft selection, the Kings’ representative thought differently. “Four is my favorite number,” says Webber, “so I knew we were going to get the fourth pick!”
And with that selection came Tyreke Evans, a player with the potential to post the same rookie stats as Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson and LeBron James.
“Point guard in my opinion is the hardest position to play as rookie…Tyreke has done an incredible job facilitating with very few turnovers, which to me is remarkable considering how much he’s has the ball in his hand,” says Webber.
And part of having the ball in his hands means having the ball for last possessions. Though Evans has stumbled at times, such as failing to get a shot off at the end of regulation in a December game against the Lakers, he has made the right plays more often than not. Halfway through his rookie season, Evans already has two game winners on his resume.
What gives a first-year player the confidence to take and make those shots? Teammate Spencer Hawes says, “It’s in his nature. You got it or you don’t… and he’s got it.”
“He has the confidence because he’s good…he knows that he has the ball handling skills, the size, and the quickness to get where he wants to go and he’s just had enough success to feel that he’s able to make those plays.”
While Evans calmly hits game winners, it is his teammates that put him in the position to take them. Jason Thompson, playing more like a veteran than a sophomore, says “It’s good to see the potential that we have…and how close we are to being a really good team.”
Part of being a good team rests on whether Evans and sixth year shooting guard Kevin Martin can form the dominant backcourt envisioned by the Kings. Though the Kings have struggled with both Martin and Evans in the lineup, head coach Paul Westphal isn’t concerned. “Kevin’s a proven commodity in this league and Tyreke’s a proven commodity after half of his rookie year…as long as they play to the level they’re capable of, we’re good at those positions.”
Martin says that playing with Evans enables him contribute in other areas besides scoring. He specifically mentions focusing on rebounding and freedom from having to guard the other team’s best player every night. “It’s going to take a little bit of time but the more we play together the better we’ll be.”
“Like all great guard combos, they’re going to have to find a way to be productive together,” says Webber.
After a January 20 loss to the Hawks, Westphal spoke about the team’s progress. “We want to try to accelerate our development. I think our recognition of situations needs to get better…on the one hand I want to expect some of our young guys to see things, but on the other hand, they have to see them and experience them before they’re going to recognize what’s happening out there.”
As Martin and Evans expect to get comfortable as they log more minutes together, Evans is experiencing every aspect of the NBA for the first time and is making adjustments accordingly. He said after draft night, Webber told him to “stay focused when you get to the League and just try to do the best you can to work hard…you’ll get better and better and you’ll bring the Kings to a winning season.”
In Webber’s first year with the Kings—his sixth in the League—the team reached the playoffs after seeing the postseason once in the previous 12 seasons. “Vlade [Divac] and I wanted to change the mindset of the franchise which was not easy at all,” says Webber.
Asked if he sees any similarities to Webber’s turnaround, Evans says he sees the beginnings, yet there is still a long way to go. “We show signs where we could be a good team…then we show signs where everybody just says throw up the red flags.”
The biggest key says Martin is, “if we’re down two or up four, just don’t let an 8-0 run or a 6-0 run just kill the whole momentum of the game because there’s still a lot of game left.”
And with a core of fresh talent including Webber’s frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, the young Kings look like they are on the way to doing big things.
When asked about his personal play in relation to the Kings improvement, Evans says, “I know what I’m capable of doing out there…I heard people say that, you know, I’m in the same mix as LeBron and Jordan and those guys…That’s a great achievement for me, a goal for me to have, but at the same time, I want to win.
With time, it looks like Evans can accomplish both.