By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — After the recent addition of first-year guard Teven Jones, the UVa men’s basketball roster includes 10 scholarship players. Virtually all have this is common: By the 12th grade, they had given up every sport except one: hoops.
Then there’s the Cavaliers’ starting point guard. Jontel Evans, like Jones, played basketball and football throughout high school.
“Football helped me to be physical, be quick and be a competitor and always want to win,” Evans said this week at John Paul Jones Arena.
Those are the benefits. The downside is that Evans, a 5-11 junior, isn’t as advanced in basketball as he might be. Most of his peers in Division I played hoops year-round when they were in high school. When Evans could have been honing his shooting and ball-handling skills in the fall, he was starring at tailback for Bethel High in Hampton.
“I always had to play catch-up when basketball season came,” Evans said. “I feel like if I’d had the whole year just to work on my basketball game, then I would have been a better basketball player.”
Virginia coach Tony Bennett said: “Your individual skill development is probably the biggest thing you lose, in the offseason, when you can really work on specific skills and develop them. From the hours put in and the time spent, those are the things that you just can’t do when you’re playing another sport.”
Bennett is 42, which makes him old enough to remember a time when multi-sport athletes were more common.
“Your parents would tell you you’d play football, basketball, baseball, or track,” Bennett said. “You’d play three sports. Now it seems like with personal trainers and individual skill development, it’s specialized. You’re focusing on your sport and trying to make that your deal.”
Bennett grew up in Green Bay, Wis. So perhaps it’s not surprising that he appreciates what has become the most popular sport in the United States.
“Football is about second and third effort, being continuous,” Bennett said. “You hit the hole and you keep driving. And it’s about real physicality. We talk about physicality in basketball, but real physicality is [in football].”
No one has questioned Evans’ toughness, strength or quickness since he arrived at UVa in 2009. His shooting has been the issue. But the young man known as “Bub” to friends, teammates and coaches has steadily improved in that area.
As a freshman, when he started 11 games, Evans shot 36.9 percent from the floor and 56.3 from the line and averaged 2.4 points. As a sophomore, he started 27 games and averaged 5.7 points. He also improved his shooting percentages, to 39 from the floor and 59.6 from the line.
He’s coming off a game at Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium in which he went 0 for 6 from the floor, his final miss a 3-pointer that would have forced overtime. But Evans has scored in double figures three times this season, and his percentages are up to 44.9 percent from the floor and 68 percent from the line.
His scoring average (5.6 ppg) remains modest, but Evans has become proficient with an array of floaters and runners, shots that weren’t really part of his repertoire in 2009-10. It’s common to see Evans working on his shooting with assistant coach Ron Sanchez after practice at JPJ.
“He’s certainly improved,” said Bennett, who like Evans is in his third year at UVa. “He’s had good offseasons, and he’s had great experience. Because of where our program was upon his arrival — and my arrival, really — he had opportunities where he was thrown into the fire when older guys had injuries. He was put in some spots where you learn through success and failure, and that’s been a positive thing for him. He’s used those and developed, and he’s continuing to add things to his game.”
After starting all but one of Virginia’s first 28 games last season, Evans came off the bench for the final three, with Sammy Zeglinski taking over at point guard. With Zeglinski coming back this season too, there was no guarantee that Evans would reclaim the starting job. But Evans’ progress has allowed Bennett to start Zeglinski, the team’s top 3-point threat, at shooting guard.
“It just motivated me,” Evans said of his late-season demotion. “I just felt like my lack of offensive abilities last year was the reason why I didn’t start those last couple of games during the end of the season. So I took that and I turned it into motivation in the offseason. I worked on my offensive game, and now I’m right here being the starting point guard and playing solid.”
No. 15 Virginia (1-1, 14-2) faces ACC foe Georgia Tech (1-2, 8-9) in Atlanta at 8 p.m. Thursday. Evans leads the Wahoos in assists (3.6 per game) and steals (1.7 per game) and, as he has throughout his career, specializes in harassing ball-handlers.
“I’ve been happy with my play,” Evans said. “I’ve been showing a lot of people I can score, I can run the team. My defense has picked up since my first two years. I’m not a gambler. I just feel like I’ve been very solid this year.”
Evans still can be overly aggressive at times on defense, Bennett said, but he’s a major reason why UVa’s Pack Line defense has been so effective this season.
“I always say, Bub’s got a little bit of riverboat gambler in him in terms of his defense,” Bennett said. “So you don’t want to take that away and squash it completely, but you just have to be sound when you gamble.”
During a playing career that took him to the NBA, Bennett was a point guard known for his 3-point shot. Evans has a different skill set, but it’s effective, too.
“I really love guys that can set your defense first, and he can do that,” Bennett said. “When Jontel’s locked in, he’s so strong and quick, and he can really get to the lane. I’ve been on staffs with different kinds of point guards. Some have been real good scorers that can really stretch the defense. Some have been not as [strong on offense], but they set the defense, they make the extra pass, they get in the lane and distribute.
“It just depends what’s around you. As long as you’ve got the right pieces, you can win with different types of point guards.”
In UVa’s 61-58 loss to then-No. 8 Duke last Thursday night, Evans totaled 6 assists, 1 steal and no turnovers in his 31 minutes. It was an emotionally draining game for him. About 36 hours before the ‘Hoos and the Blue Devils tipped off in Durham, Evans’ great-grandmother Agnes Buchanan passed away in York, Pa., the city where he was born and where many of his relatives still live.
“If you go up there and visit and you see somebody walking down the street, most likely they’re my cousin,” Evans said with a smile.
Mrs. Buchanan, a York native too, was 92. She had 46 grandchildren, 103 great-grandchildren and 59 great-great-grandchildren, according to her obituary.
“I didn’t have any thoughts about missing the game, but it was tough,” Evans said. “I loved her to death, and I was just sad to see her go.
“Every time I visited up there, we always stopped by her house and spent some time with her. She was one of my biggest fans.”
Mrs. Buchanan’s funeral was Saturday in York, and Evans was in attendance. He got back to Charlottesville around 4 p.m. Sunday and turned his attention to the Yellow Jackets.
Fourteen regular-season games remain for the Cavaliers. Then comes the ACC tournament and, they hope, their first trip to the NCAA tournament in five years. Evans finds it hard to believe that he’s well into the second half of his college career.
“It feels like I just got here yesterday,” he said, “but that’s what the coaches and some of my old teammates told me: If you blink, it’s going to be gone, so just take advantage of every year, and that’s what I’m trying to do, because I know the end is near.”