After practice Thursday, Tyreke Evans was at it again, working on his game — and, more specifically, his shot.
This time, it was the stepback jump shot. It’s a move he has used, but with the New Orleans Pelicans’ upcoming games, one he felt needed sharpening.
Dribbling the ball between his legs while stepping backward and then pulling up for the shot, Evans didn’t look smooth at first, even though he was going at about three-quarters speed. But it didn’t take long for him to make several in a row at full speed.
He couldn’t hold back a broad smile as he left the court.
“I think that’s a big part of my game, especially when I have the ball in (late) shot-clock situations,” he said. “Instead of going all the way to the rim, just mixing it up. So that’s the new thing we’re planning.”
Evans has started this season much the way he ended the previous one — on a roll. He’s averaging 16.7 points, 9.0 rebounds and 6.0 assists through four games. Aside from Anthony Davis playing like an early MVP candidate, Evans’ play has been impressive if not yet spectacular.
But Evans faces big challenges Saturday and Monday, both on the road. First, when the Pelicans (2-2) visit the defending champion San Antonio Spurs (2-1), Evans will be matched at small forward against Kawhi Leonard, the MVP of last season’s NBA Finals. Then comes a matchup with the Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James, considered the best player in the world.
Those games will be tests for Evans on both ends of the court. Leonard and the Spurs can slow Evans offensively, and it would be interesting to see how the Pelicans respond. They’re coming off their best offensive performance of the season Tuesday in a 100-91 victory against the Charlotte Hornets: They had 26 assists, and Evans had five of those along with 16 points and 10 rebounds.
Evans compared Leonard to Houston Rockets forward Trevor Ariza.
“They both have good hands (and) they like to gamble, slap for the ball,” he said. “So you’ve got to be careful around them, make one or two moves, get by them and play basketball. His wingspan is pretty long, but he’s also got big hands.”
That smile suggested Evans has something up his sleeve — a move off the stepback dribble in which he appears set to take a jump shot only to continue dribbling and go around the defender.
“(It’s to) freeze the defender,” Evans said. “We were talking about how Kawhi is going to be playing. He’s a good defender. Just getting that space separation. If he comes up, just read it and let it fly.”
The next two games shape up as difficult defensive assignments for Evans, too. Both Leonard and James will look to exploit Evans’ size.
Pelicans coach Monty Williams said the team concept of defense will be important in these games in particular.
On Tuesday, all three backup small forwards — John Salmons (birth of child), Darius Miller (family matter) and Luke Babbitt (injured finger) — were sidelined. Salmons has returned, but the other two are still out.
“You’re not playing against one guy; you’re playing against their team,” Williams said. “Team defense has to nullify Kawhi when he’s attacking the basket. They’re going to post him up more, I would imagine, against us. Our team defense has to be solid. That’s what we always talk about when we’re playing against marquee guys.”
Evans said he’s looking forward to seeing how he fares against Leonard and James. As effective as he has been with the ball, he has made 62.0 percent of his 3-point attempts on spot-up shots this season when playing off point guard Jrue Holiday and others.
He came into this season as a career 27.3 percent 3-point shooter and shot 22.1 percent last season. He has shot 46.7 percent overall on 3s this season.
His after-practice work clearly is paying off.
“We’re not backing down from anybody,” he said. “We’re going to come in and play our game, try to be aggressive. Trying not to commit turnovers on the road, that’s going to be the key.”
NOTES: Leonard had been out since Oct. 31 with an eye infection but returned Wednesday against Atlanta, playing 29 minutes, 55 seconds with 11 points and six rebounds. … Twenty local Marines were at Pelicans practice Thursday as part of the NBA’s “Hoops for Troops” week. The Marines shot free throws with the team and participated in a shooting drill, then had lunch with the squad.