(CBS)–The painting now hangs in Jeremy Evans’ house. No. 40 for the Utah Jazz skies over a shrouded easel, dunking a basketball that seems minuscule stretched out from his unending arms. Flashbulbs pop in the background.
Evans’ flight will last as long as the painting does, his athleticism transcendent through art-as-showmanship. He dunked over that painting in the 2013 Sprite Slam Dunk contest, the one that came a year after he emerged from nowhere to win the event at 2012 NBA All-Star Weekend.
Yet No. 40 for the Utah Jazz is grounded now. He’s planted to the bench in a season loaded with “Did Not Play — Coach’s Decision” box score lines and only the occasional garbage-time minutes. And while 27-year-old Evans is relentlessly optimistic about his future, he wouldn’t be the first NBA player to have a dunk contest championship overshadow his entire playing career: Think Kenny Walker, Harold Miner, Desmond Mason, Fred Jones.
Notoriety isn’t easy to shed.
“A lot of people know me just from the dunk contest,” Evans told USA TODAY Sports this month. “As players, we’re all labeled in some kind of way. As long as you know who you are and what you can do.”
The 2015 dunk contest is Saturday at the Brooklyn Nets’ Barclays Center. The field is young but promising: Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (20 years old), Minnesota Timberwolves guard Zach LaVine (19), Orlando Magic guard Victor Oladipo (22) and Nets center Mason Plumlee (24). All four are great dunkers, but all four also are young players with starting experience and high upside, selected in the first rounds of the past two drafts.
Evans, a late second-rounder barely known before the contest, they are not. Terrence Ross, on the other hand …
Ross beat Evans in the 2013 contest, using a Vince Carter tribute dunk to overcome the oil-painting showmanship. The Toronto Raptors swingman was a rookie then, drafted eighth overall out of Washington. In the 2½ seasons since, Ross has gone in and out of the Raptors’ starting lineup.
He scored 51 points in a game last season, can hit three-pointers and still flashes the talent that made him the No. 8 overall pick in the 2012 draft. But Ross was benched again recently, and Raptors coach Dwane Casey says the 24-year-old isn’t ready to regain his bigger role.
“I’m not sitting around waiting to see if it happens. If it happens, it happens,” Casey said. “Nothing’s permanent in this league. … I’m not going to announce what we’re judging Terrence by or any player by. It’ll happen when it happens.”
But player development isn’t easy. The NBA has shifted toward specialization over recent seasons, and “dunker” is not one of the options. Teams are looking for players who can contribute in specific ways around the court, ideally by playing off of more established stars.
Dunk contest champions often are the most athletic players on the court for their entire lives. Evans conceded that he needed to learn to play differently at the NBA level, where he no longer could jump over smaller and less athletic opponents.
TNT and NBA TV analyst Brent Barry won the 1996 dunk contest, as one of the more improbable victors because he mostly was known for his shooting ability. But Barry knows shooting won’t come easy for all great athletes.
“More often than not, those guys are players who you would love to have focus on the defensive end of the floor,” Barry told USA TODAY Sports. “If a coach can develop the defensive abilities, that guy can be a player. But the player never sees it that way.
“Every player who gets into the NBA has at some point been a stud, has dominated and gotten attention for dominance because he could do those things. But you start to understand that guys who are very sound in their understanding of the game are the ones who succeed. Even guys who are very athletic have to understand what they are doing.”
That’s the hard part. And having an athletic player draw an immense spotlight early in his career doesn’t always help.
Ross looks past the dunk contest now, saying it was fun but not something he’d do again. He’s looking toward the games that count and the grinding schedule.
“I’m done,” he told USA TODAY Sports of the possibility of competing in the contest again. “No (veteran) wants to do that when you play so may games, take a lot out of your body. You don’t want to waste any extra energy you have just doing the dunk contest that really doesn’t mean nothing.”
Evans echoed his sentiment. It’s a young man’s game, for better or worse.
That’s why Gerald Green declined interview requests for this story. The Phoenix Suns guard won the contest in 2007, his second season after being drafted 18th overall in 2005 by the Boston Celtics out of high school. Green was 21 then, and his immaturity showed on the court. All flash, he was traded by the Celtics in the offseason following his victory, and he was out of the NBA as soon as his rookie contract expired in 2009.
Green scrapped. He played in Russia, China and the NBA Development League to get back in the NBA by 2012. He wanted to shed his image as a dunker but still was called into action for the 2013 contest, alongside Ross and Evans. In the two seasons since last participating, he’s found an NBA home at 29 with the Suns.
“I don’t think Gerald Green, in the early part of his career, was ready to listen,” Barry said. “You’re not going to get much out of him if that’s the case. There has to be a willingness to listen, and some players, when you get to the NBA and coaches are telling what you can’t do, there are a lot of players who don’t believe they can’t do those things.”
Fame is at stake. That’s the flip side to the dunk contest, of course. Superstars from Julius Erving to Kobe Bryant to last year’s “dunker of the night,” John Wall of the Washington Wizards, have announced their arrivals through dunk contest victories. Michael Jordan and Miner, whose nickname during his undistinguished four-season career was “Baby Jordan,” are at opposite ends of the spectrum, but the other two two-time champions, Jason Richardson and Nate Robinson, used the dunk contest to propel their fame in ways their solid, lengthy NBA careers wouldn’t have.
Fame can be tricky. Evans went from a small-school, seldom-used bench-warmer to being recognized by Las Vegas tourists. Ross, though, seemed more annoyed than anything by the idea that he would be known for one skill.
“I don’t know, it’s just something that I wanted to do my first year, something they made me do my second year,” he said, explaining the NBA asked him to return as defending champion last season. “It was fun doing it, but I don’t think it defined me.”
Barry laughs his victory off these days. Like Ross, he won the contest as a rookie. But he went on to have a 14-year NBA career, winning championship rings with the 2005 and 2007 San Antonio Spurs and now ranking 25th in career three-pointers.
It doesn’t always play out so cleanly. Evans has spent five NBA seasons trying to carve out a niche, but after more than doubling his career minutes last season, he can’t find the court under first-year Jazz coach Quin Snyder. Evans is an unrestricted free agent this offseason, and he hopes the dunk contest could help him stick in the minds of general managers, who also will look at his strong efficiency stats despite the limited workload.
He has the name. He’s worked on the game, the shooting and the defense and the ballhandling expected from even the best athletes at this level. Asked what kind of player he would be as a starter, Evans answered quickly.
“Unstoppable, probably,” he said, jokingly, before going back to his athleticism. “I’m pretty tough for a lot of fours to guard and also threes. Not to say I’m a lot bigger, but I’m taller than three men. Fours, I’m quicker then. I think I can drive the ball.
“I feel like I can finish.”
If nothing else, there’s a painting to prove it.