When St. Louis University director of basketball operations Mike Lepore asked forward Dwayne Evans if he wanted to play basketball in Africa this summer, Evans’ first response was, “What?”
Lepore explained that he was serving as an assistant coach on an Athletes in Action trip to Ivory Coast, and would Evans like to join the team?
“I was very confused at first,” Evans recalled. “He told me more about it and it sounded like an awesome opportunity.”
That is why Evans is, at the moment, in Dayton, Ohio, for a brief training camp before flying to Brussels and then to Abidjan, the largest city in Ivory Coast —or, as they call it in the former French colony, Cote d’Ivoire — a country of about 20 million on the west coast of Africa that’s about the size of New Mexico.
(Evans admitted recently that, because he was busy with summer school he didn’t even know much about his destination, though his mother had sent him pictures.)
Evans isn’t the only SLU player heading overseas. Guard Jake Barnett, who played games in East Asia last summer, leaves Aug. 7 for an AIA tour of Jamaica.
When Evans got the offer, one of the first things he did was talk to Barnett about the experience, and he got a resounding endorsement.
“I talked to him about pretty much every aspect of the trip and he came away with it being a really good time,” Evans said. “Obviously. He’s going on his second tour.”
Barnett gave his endorsement.
“He’ll do well over there,” Barnett said. “It’s a good opportunity all the way around.”
Barnett thought his experience in East Asia helped him get ready for the 2012-13 season, especially because he hadn’t played much the year before. The increased playing time helped his confidence, which helped him get comfortable on the court.
“A chance to play games before the season is always a really good chance to tune your skills in,” he said.
For Evans, who will be a strong candidate to be the Atlantic 10 player of the year next season, it will give him a chance to put into practice some of the things he’s worked on in the gym this summer. After his breakout play in the second half of the season — he averaged 17.9 points per game over the final two months — he was increasingly the focus of defensive attention and he’s looking for ways to deal with that.
He’s given special attention this summer to working on his outside shot and on his ball handling.
Evans tried just 19 3-point shots last season (and made five), but he wants to extend his range so he said he’s put in a lot of work with the Gun, a contraption that rebounds and passes the ball to players so they can do shooting drills alone. (“It’s been my best friend,” he said.)
He said he feels good about shooting 3’s and doing some of the pick-and-pop plays run for Cody Ellis last year.
“I’m trying to be more versatile,” he said.
As for his dribbling, he says that while his ball-handling wasn’t a big issue last year, getting it better will only help.
“If my ball handling is better, it’s going to make the team that much better,” he said, “especially with different matchups. … (I have to) dribble out of double teams, make quick moves. I’m sure defenses will do more on the help side than they did last year, as we started to see in the tournament games. Hopefully that won’t be a surprise.”
SLU coach Jim Crews said the work will be good for Evans.
“The better ball handler you are, the easier the game is,” Crews said. “Even if you’re a good ball handler, you have continue to work on it. You can go faster, quicker. Individually it’s hard to work on passing, but shooting and ball handling is something you can work on any which way.”
The itinerary for Evans, who has had shots for yellow fever and is taking anti-malaria pills, includes several games against different African national teams, which means a good level of play usually against older players.
Some of Barnett’s games will be against the Jamaican national team. Barnett’s play also improved at the end of last season and Evans is high on the progress Barnett has shown in the offseason.
Crews said that on these trips, it’s the off-court experiences that probably produce the biggest benefit, exposing players to what life is like in other countries.
“You come back with a little different mindset in terms of going about life,” he said.
Along with the basketball, that’s what Evans is after.
“I’m hoping it’s one of those life-changing experiences,” he said. “I’ve never been to Africa or anywhere on the other side of the world. Getting the opportunity to help people while playing high level basketball at the same time is a special thing.”
SLU has one remaining scholarship to offer for this season, but Crews said he doesn’t expect to use it. That will leave SLU with six scholarships for next season.
The Billikens already have two commitments from the prep class of 2014: Davell Roby, a 6-foot-4 guard from White Station High in Memphis and Austin Gillmann, a 6-11 post player from Oakville High in St. Louis County.
Gillmann is the first St. Louis-area player to commit to SLU since Femi John and Ruben Cotto joined the team in 2008. SLU hasn’t had two players commit this early since 2007, when Rick Majerus, having just taken over the SLU job, got commitments from Brett Thompson and Willie Reed.