For Wisconsin basketball forward Ryan Evans, it has always been about the pride.
The very pride rattled when coaches cut him from the basketball team as a sophomore in high school, the same quality that brings immense pain, he says, when an opposing player nets even a single basket on him.
And such strong emotional attachment seems more than necessary for the completion of Evans’ unlikely tale from a self-described high school “scrub” to a two-year starter at a Big Ten program.
“I’ve always been kind of an arrogant individual, I always think I’m a leader in my own mind,” the fifth-year senior said from a chair courtside after a recent practice. “Other people might not think that, but I’m pretty stubborn and arrogant, and I say that about myself because I’ve always felt that way.”
Known for his sculpted flattop rather than his numbers on the floor in his first two seasons, Evans has the tools to blossom into the versatile player Wisconsin needs to help replace the scoring void left by point guard Jordan Taylor. Once a defensive specialist tasked with guarding the likes of Duke’s Kyle Singler and Ohio State’s Evan Turner as a redshirt freshman, the Phoenix native is hoping the pieces will fall into place in his final year on the floor for UW.
A once undersized, 175-pound freshman, Wisconsin’s second-leading scorer last season has turned into a muscled-up forward who has slowly developed into the all-around player Evans has always envisioned himself as.
“He was a very young player in a lot of respects coming in, hadn’t had a lot of experience playing basketball,” UW assistant coach Gary Close said. “He’s a very smart player, he knew what he had to do to get onto the court, and now I think he’s just a more well-rounded, talented player that’s still got a lot of upside.”
That remaining upside is a product of the fifth-year senior first playing competitive basketball in the seventh grade and averaging all of two or three minutes per game until his junior year of high school. His first collegiate offer arrived from Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan after his final game as a senior at Arizona’s Hamilton High School.
In his first year on the floor for the Badgers in 2009-10, Evans showed enticing athleticism, his 6-foot-6 frame sailing above the hoop for crowd-juicing dunks. But after increasing his scoring by over eight points from his sophomore season as his minutes climbed to 30.5 per game in 2011-12, the once wide net of development has narrowed.
Evans said he focused on ball-handling in his last collegiate off-season as he continues to grow comfortable sinking 10- and 15-foot jumpers.
The approach, Evans says, has remained the same. Only now, he’s the one watching freshmen players develop their raw talent into refined, Big Ten-caliber skills on the hardwood.
“[My development] has been more of a confidence thing for me,” Evans said. “So I’m excited to see how George [Marshall] and Traevon [Jackson] and those guys all build their confidence up and how quick they can do it and contribute.”
A 2012 all-Big Ten Honorable Mention selection, his “Fresh Prince of Bel Air” looks are no longer his sole identity among Badger fans. But his old-school hair – complemented by the plain white, vintage Adidas high tops he broke out at a recent practice – is genuine for the man who says he has “always stepped to my own drum.”
And the flat top is nothing new, a look Evans said he first sported as a toddler with his dad acting as barber.
“He’s a kid that’s always been confident enough to know that he has the ability to get the job done, and that’s something, even when he’s gone through struggles, I don’t think he ever doubted himself,” fellow fifth-year senior forward Jared Berggren said. “That’s a trait of a great player and that’s something he definitely has.”
Evans, who earned his undergraduate degree in May and is pursuing a graduate degree, just missed out on a double-double with nine points and as many rebounds in the Badgers’ season-opening rout of Southeastern Louisiana. But his startling 1-of-8 finish from the free throw line indicates his game is still developing.
Never the most vocal player on the court, Evans says building confidence in a cardinal and white uniform is the most marked change from the 18-year-old who stepped onto the Kohl Center floor four years ago.
That confidence may be precisely what he needs to play, alongside Berggren, the role of mentor for a backcourt that became much less experienced when point guard Josh Gasser went down with a season-ending knee injury.
“We’ve had a couple talks about it, just knowing that we are the seniors now and being fifth-year guys, that we’re expected to take on more of a leadership role and lead by example as well as being vocal,” Berggren said.
Close and Berggren are both quick to talk about Evans’ steady improvement, how he has added a fresh piece to the puzzle each year. An arduous nonconference slate ahead, what Evans adds this year may shape the potency of the Badgers’ offense this season.
With lofty visions of a dream senior season coming true in March providing the constant drive, Evans offered a fitting description of his own career path when describing how this Wisconsin team can fulfill its goals.
“We’ll get there one day at a time,” he said. “It’s a marathon, so there will be ups and downs, but as long as we’re going up gradually, we’ll get to where we need to be.”
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