On April 9, 2015, Bobby Hurley left Buffalo to become the head coach of the Arizona State Sun Devils.
15 days later, Shannon Evans followed the man he calls his “best friend” westward.
Coming off second-team All-MAC honors and Buffalo’s first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance, Evans sat out Arizona State’s 17-loss season due to NCAA transfer rules. But finally, after more than a year without a meaningful step on the basketball court, Evans is set to make his name known in the Pac-12.
A ‘Bullish’ start
A two-star recruit out of Hargrave Military Academy, Evans held offers from the likes of Appalachian State, Tennessee Tech and Jacksonville before selecting Buffalo. However, Evans decision was in doubt after Buffalo fired 14-year head coach Reggie Witherspoon.
Evans considered committing to a school closer to his home in Virginia. Evans, who lettered thrice in football as a receiver, defensive back and punt returner, also held a few mid-major offers to play Division-I football.
Evans’ father - Shannon Sr. - encouraged his son to give Hurley a chance. Hurley visited Evans and his family in Virginia, and shortly after, Evans followed through with his commitment to the Bulls.
“A lot of coaches will promise you a lot like, ‘You’ll come here. You’ll change the program. We’ll give you the keys to the program,’ things like that, which is all nice and stuff, but Hurley is a guy that has always been real with me since day one,” Evans said. “[Hurley] told me I have to work for everything I get, and he’s always been true to that. That carried a lot of weight with me and gave me the utmost respect for him.”
Evans immediately made his impact felt at Buffalo, averaging 8.5 points and 3.3 assists in 26.4 minutes per game as a freshman, impressing his coaches with the amount of responsibility he could handle.
Sun Devil assistant coach Levi Watkins was also with Hurley and Evans at Buffalo and noticed what they had in Evans.
“He has always been on a mission to prove people wrong or prove that he was definitely a Division-I basketball player,” Watkins said.
On top of the success on the court, Evans and Hurley continued to hit it off. With his ultra-competitive nature and ability to handle the stresses of playing point guard, Evans formed a special bond with his head coach.
“They were almost like one [person] on the court,” Watkins said. “A lot of times, the point guard is an extension of the head coach. He always played really hard and always had a chip on his shoulder, but he really developed his skills all around, whether it was ball handling, shooting, decision-making, he played a lot of minutes as a freshman, and he made mistakes here and there, but he learned from them.”
After earning All-MAC Freshman honors following the 2013-14 season, Evans helped the Bulls elevate their play in the year that followed. Led by Evans and MAC Player of the Year Justin Moss, Buffalo made it to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history.
Evans earned second-team All-MAC honors after averaging 15.4 points, 4.6 assists and a team-high 34.5 minutes per game as a sophomore. His blend of quickness and high-energy play complemented his fiery play and further earned the trust of Hurley.
“[Hurley] gave [Evans] a lot of responsibility in terms of guarding some of the best players we were playing against at Buffalo, and obviously he had a lot of freedom,” Watkins said. “He had all the opportunity in the world to make plays for himself and for others. He was very good at it.”
Between his improving play, Buffalo’s improving program and Hurley’s continued success as a first-time head coach, Evans seemed poised to become a front-runner in the MAC for Player of the Year heading into his junior year.
But then Hurley signed on at Arizona State, and Evans knew there was only one option for him.
Evans was granted his release from Buffalo and landed in Tempe a couple of weeks later, which was a big boost for the newly minted Sun Devil coaching staff. Watkins and Hurley knew the importance of bringing in Evans as they molded a new version of the ASU program.
“[Evans] was a big part of the reason why we were here at Arizona State - because of the things that he did during his two years at Buffalo,” Watkins said. “He was already very familiar with some of the drills that we did and obviously the offensive system. He’s helped guys. He really pushed Tra Holder in practice last year, and Tra made a significant jump from his freshman year to sophomore year, and those guys were going at it all year last year.”
As soon as he stepped on campus with his new teammates, he made an impact in relaying the messages and attitude Hurley’s staff wanted to instill in the team.
“Shannon kind of showed us the way because he was used to coach Hurley,” junior guard Kodi Justice said. “It helped us a lot to just get used to the style that he wanted to play, how practice was going to be held and everything. Shannon was a big help to us last year."
Forced to sit out the season due to NCAA transfer rules, Evans was particularly helpful and hard on junior guard Tra Holder, who entered the 2014-15 season as the Maroon and Gold’s most potent offensive weapon. As a sophomore, Holder doubled his scoring average to 14.2 while averaging a team-high 31.8 minutes per game.
In practice, Evans challenged Holder to up his level of play on both ends, and it paid off in spades. Even though Evans had to sit out, Holder says there was never any animosity between himself and the new point guard on the team.
“Always as a competitor, you want to be the best, but I really didn’t think much of it,” Holder said. “I knew if I controlled what I did on the court that there wouldn’t be any problems, so I just tried to focus on my job on the court and it has worked out.”
Even though Evans had a big role as a bridge between Hurley and his new team, watching Arizona State stumble to a 15-17 record took its toll on him. Having never endured a major injury, last season was the first time Evans was forced to miss a significant amount of games, let alone a full season.
“It was just the fact that coming off an NCAA Tournament run, winning my conference, being an All-MAC player, just coming off the best year that I’ve had individually as a basketball player, then the next year it was nothing,” Evans said. “It was all taken away from me. I was healthy, but due to the rules and the restrictions, I wasn’t allowed to play...That took a toll on me.”
A connection beyond basketball
Already having helped increase Evans’ quality as a player, Hurley also helped his young point guard deal with the pain of waiting on the sideline.
“It helped great, just having a guy like that, somebody I trust,” Evans said of Hurley. “Somebody in my ear I respect more than basketball. Somebody that’s been where I’ve been. Succeeded. Just having that figure to be in my ear, telling me there’s some reward at the end of it, so that meant a lot and it helped a lot.”
Their relationship goes well beyond the normal dynamic of a coach helping a player. It’s something that anyone around the two notices, and it also gives a window into the kind of coach Hurley is with his players.
“Being around Shannon who has a relationship [with Hurley] and seeing their relationship on the court and how he’s able to talk to him, it’s special,” ASU freshman Sam Cunliffe said. “You can see there’s a different kind of vibe there.”
As any great friendship goes, the help goes both ways.
When Hurley infamously ejected in his first Territorial Cup game against Arizona, it was Evans escorting his riled-up coach into the tunnel. Of course, that caused some of his teammates to give him some heat.
“It was kind of funny because we did give him a little crap about him walking coach Hurley out when he got thrown out of the U of A game,” Justice said. “He was his bodyguard, but it’s just kind of the relationship they have, and it’s pretty cool to see.”
At the 0:27 mark in the above video, you can see a then-21-year-old Evans in an all-black suit escorting a then-44-year-old Hurley out of the game, and that’s about as much as you initially need to know about their connection that has built up over the last three years.
“Coach Hurley is a guy that he doesn’t have a lot of people in his circle,” Evans said. “I’m just a person - I disclose early. I disclosed [to] him. I gave him something. He gave me something back. We kept giving, giving, giving, and ever since then, we’ve been best friends.
However, if someone asked Evans about kind of relationship he expected to have with his head coach in college, his answer would be a far cry from how he’d describe himself and Hurley.
“It’s actually weird. When I was in high school, my coach used to always tell me, ‘You’re going to hate your head coach. He’ll be on you so hard,’” Evans said. “Having a guy like Hurley, a guy that I really like and I respect, it was kind of weird. It is what it is. That’s a guy I trust. I trust him more than I trust myself at times, so having a guy like that is always good.”
An eruption in waiting
Those who spent time around Arizona State’s team last season knew Evans would’ve been a big help on an undermanned Sun Devil team, and now, heading into the 2016-17 season, that knowledge has evolved into expectations and hype. In the first media session of the season, Hurley said Evans is the “equivalent of a McDonald's All-American” as far as new talent coming into the season.
"He is just as gifted as any player in our conference coming into this year on the perimeter,” Hurley said. “When you see that guy work every day and make plays, whether it's hitting the deep threes, getting in the lane, finding teammates, playing the defensive end at a high level or guarding the ball, the guy doesn't get tired. He can just run all day.”
His teammates know better than anyone the type of player Evans has developed into as he sat out last season, and having another person to run the offense will result in plenty of free-wheeling play.
“The thing that separates Shannon is his competitive edge,” Holder said. “He wants to win at everything he does, and I think that’s what separates the good players from great players. A lot of people have talent, but it’s what motivates them and how they drive and how they want to win, and I think Shannon has that ability. It’s been a joy to watch and I’m happy to play with him.”
Holder and Justice both commented on how much Evans helps them to play off the ball and keep defenses guessing, and with the lack of frontcourt depth on the team, they and Evans know they have to be willing to mix it up inside.
“We just got to be feisty,” Evans said. “We have to get down to the gritty. We can’t be afraid to box out. We can’t be afraid to go in there and rebound with the seven-footers, put a body on them. Just be a pain, be a pest on defense, and when we get the stops, we need to go out and run and get buckets.”
Even though this is his debut season in Tempe, Evans is likely to take on the role of an emotional leader. A smile permanently hangs on his face off the court, and on the court, he seems to always be on the move. Hurley said Evans clocked a 4:59 time on the team-mile this offseason, the fastest Hurley had seen in his coaching career.
Nicknamed “Hollywood,” Evans has been cited as the biggest trash talker on the team, a title Evans confirmed when asked.
“[Shannon and I] go at it every single day,” Cunliffe said. “A lot of talking. What I like about this team is that we can talk, but off the court, when we’re done, it’s straight. Everything is good. Yesterday, we were beefing, just talking, but then we had to be on the same team right after, and it was good. We smacked the other team.”
Evans won over the fans at Buffalo with his energetic play, and continuously impressed his coaches with the amount of responsibility he could handle on the court. Now, Hurley is excited for his point guard to do the same thing in Tempe.
“The intangibles and electricity that he plays with, I think that his team will feed off his positive energy and I think the fans will enjoy that too,” Hurley said. “This kid wants to play so bad that I think I will have to calm him down the first few games because he will be so amped to play."
When fans do get to see what Evans can do, it’ll be a new sight for them, but for Hurley, Watkins and Evans, it’ll be a welcome return as well as the product of patience and trust between Evans and his coach.
“[Hurley]’s a guy I trusted beginning my college career,” Evans said. “To play for him is a dream come true. People did whatever they could to keep me from going to ASU, so for me to be able to come here and play for him again, it’s a dream come true all over again.”
That dream played several roles last season:
A bridge from Hurley to his new players,
A challenge for a developing Tra Holder,
A “bodyguard” for his best friend after an ejection.
But on November 11, 602 days since Evans’ last took the court, Sun Devil fans get to see the 6-foot-1 guard back in his natural position: a basketball player trying to win games.
“I’m a competitor,” Evans said. “Being able to compete with my teammates every night is going to be great.”