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October 17, 2012As he walked into the men's basketball practice facility at John Paul Jones Arena last week, senior point guard Jontel Evans had the same smile on his face, the same spirit about him. Except for the crutches and the sock that covered his healing right foot.
After a promising junior season and a summer during which he says he grew as a person and player, Evans' final year at UVa will very likely start later than he had hoped. A stress fracture in his right leg that required surgery will keep him out until just after team tips off the 2012-2013 season at George Mason on November 9.
"It was hard at first,"Evans said. "I'm a person with a strong faith and I know God has a plan for me. He doesn't plan to harm me; he's planning to prosper me. And that's how I look at it."
"It was something that needed to be done," head coach Tony Bennett said, noting that he's seen his only returning senior mature. "Similar to how I saw Mike (Scott) just take a step, having a balance.
"His attitude is great and I think he's excited."
That excitement, of course, was impacted greatly by the injury. But asking Evans about his mindset will quickly reveal a confidence that shows no signs of relenting.
"When I got the news, obviously I was down," he explained. "But one of my close friends, China Crosby, she had a season-ending injury last year. And she gave me her thoughts and told me it was going to be okay. Her words really lifted me up. She doesn't know it but they really lifted me up and gave me a positive outlook on this injury."
By all accounts, the injury that Evans suffered as well as the surgery needed to repair it are very normal. His recovery time, unlike that of fellow guard Malcolm Brogdon who is still rehabbing from foot surgery in March, should be quick. Doctors have told Evans that he's progressing ahead of schedule. That shouldn't surprise people because it certainly doesn't surprise the player they call "Bub."
"Like I told Coach Bennett, this is a minor setback for a major comeback," he said. "And that's how I feel."
The worst part about the injury was that Evans thinks he was playing the best ball of his life at the time of the injury. Coming off the summer trip the team took to Europe, he was poised for something significant.
"I felt like I was clicking on all cylinders," Evans said. "I felt like I was getting better in the areas I needed to work on, my shooting, my decision making, change of pace. I felt like I was right there, I was about to peak. And then I had this injury."
So now, rather than bringing the ball up the floor, driving the lane, and displaying the tenacity on D that landed him on the ACC's All Defense team last year, he's watching from the sideline and missing his opportunity to represent the University at the conference's media kickoff in Charlotte this week.
How does one lead when they aren't able to play?
"You just have a voice," Evans said. "I'm not the type of person to let my teammates see me down. Because these guys look up to me, they know I'm the leader, if they see me being positive, it's going to pick their spirits up and make them want to work harder. Even though I'm not out there physically, I'm still out here and I still have a voice and I still have to lead."
Without Evans and Brogdon, UVa's early-season play at the point guard spot will be by committee, Bennett said last week. That means true freshmen Taylor Barnette and Teven Jones will see a lot of time. Barnette, a 6-foot-3, 172-pound shooter from Kentucky, and Jones, a 6-foot, 180-pound former football player from North Carolina, have both heard plenty from Evans about how they should exist on the floor.
"First of all, don't be nervous," he said in describing his message to the first years. "When you're out there, you run the show. A point guard runs the show. Get guys going. Get them in positions to be successful scoring the ball. Be vocal. Demand the respect. I feel like those two are going to do a good job at that."
That Barnette and Jones were part of the group that played in Europe this summer significantly helps them, not just on the court at the point guard position but also in terms of the players coming together off the floor. Evans said that chance to get a jump start on the season was tremendously valuable.
"We went over there with a great group of guys," he said. "I felt like we were close before but that trip made us even closer, built this camaraderie. We played really well. On the court, we learned a lot. If we don't do it Coach Bennett's way, then we're going to look foolish. And it all starts on the defensive end.
"We also learned that we have to be physical. Our physicality has to meet everyone else and we have to learn to compete every minute, every trip down, on both ends."
That the team was playing against older, more-seasoned players also helped plant a lasting memory in the minds of the Cavaliers that Evans said was evident.
"There were games where we came out kind of lackadaisical and people busted our behinds," Evans said frankly. "Then there were games that we came out competing, physical, and we looked really good. I feel like if we continue to do that then it should be a successful year."
In terms of his own play, Evans said he felt like he was improving with each game.
"I got guys open and distributed the ball," he said. "When the opportunity presented itself for me to score, I took advantage of those chances. I was happy with my performance."
That Bennett makes the connection between Evans and Scott, who sat out his senior season with an injury before returning last year to be an All ACC pick, makes sense. Evans sees it, too.
But how does this group replace not just the production but also the leadership that Scott showed last year. Is there something missing?
"No, there is no difference because I've filled that void," Evans said, his face as resolute as his words. "I feel like I'm able to criticize and critique my teammates and they're able to take it as a positive instead of it being a negative. They allow me to do that. And vice versa.
"I tell these guys that if they see me doing something wrong, tell me. I'm trying to get better just like them. I feel like once I told them that, they've respected me even more."
In terms of Scott's production and making up for it, balance will be the key, Bennett said. His point guard agrees.
"Life without Mike Scott, it's kind of different," Evans said. "Every time we needed that bucket, I'd just give it to Mike and it was going in. But this year, I feel like our offense is going to be much more balanced. We have a lot more weapons. It's going to be interesting this year."
That year will likely begin without him on the floor. And though months will have passed between when Evans sees the floor again, don't expect the Hampton native to be down.
Instead, he says he feels like he'll pick up right where he left off, returning back to where he and his team were in Europe.
"I was just glad to go over there with the University of Virginia and with this group of guys," Evans said.
A group that he can't wait to rejoin. And lead.
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