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SPRINGDALE — D.J. Evans went three weeks without even touching a basketball after he was dismissed from Springdale High’s team in October 2012.
The then-junior wing couldn’t help but feel a little lost.
“I was depressed,” Evans said.
He tried to go to a game in the spring semester, attending the Bulldogs’ home showdown with rival Fayetteville in January. But he could only bring himself to sit in the stands for a half before walking out of the gym at intermission.
“I missed it,” Evans said. “It was hard not to be out there.”
He didn’t think he would ever get back on the court for Springdale, even beginning to look at different prep schools to attend for his senior season. Springdale coach Brad Stamps didn’t see a reunion happening, either.
“To be honest, I’d already cleared my mind, thinking, ‘Hey, it’s probably never going to happen again,’” Stamps said.
But that changed over the summer when several Springdale players, including Evans’ close friend and junior point guard Tereke Eckwood, approached Stamps individually — without Evans’ knowledge — about him rejoining the team.
Stamps did his homework, checking with Evans’ 17-and-under Arkansas Wings AAU coach and looking into what he was doing off the court. He polled his seniors, who were largely in favor of bringing the talented wing back.
Evans was shocked when his mother told him they had a meeting with Stamps in mid-August.
“I didn’t expect it,” Evans said. “It was kind of out of nowhere.”
Evans left the meeting with a checklist of responsibilities he had to fulfill in order to get a final shot to play high school basketball at Springdale, including avoiding missing practice or class, which were among the main issues that led to his dismissal. Stamps also wanted Evans to stay out of trouble off the court.
“Staying away from certain people, which I haven’t been around them at all,” Evans said.
Giving Evans an opportunity to return bolstered an already-talented team and vaulted Springdale into the conversation of the top Class 7A teams in the state. Stamps was well aware of the reaction the decision could generate when he made it.
“We’ll have critics,” Stamps said. “We’ll have people that look at it as they’re just bringing him back to win basketball games. I think nothing can be further from the truth. We’re bringing him back because we feel like it can be a life changer for him, an opportunity to use God’s gift of basketball to find his way and pave his way.”
So he gave Evans the checklist and promised him a jersey on Nov. 1 if he could live up to his end of the bargain.
Evans earned his No. 22 jersey.
And it didn’t take him long to take advantage of the second chance and establish himself as one of the top players on a deep Bulldogs team.
The 6-foot-2 wing scored a career-high 23 points in a season-opening win against Russellville, showcasing the ability to shoot from 3-point range, score around the rim and make plays for his teammates.
He entered the Fayetteville Bulldog Classic this weekend averaging 9.8 points per game on a team-best 53.4 percent shooting. His performance during nonconference play was key to Springdale starting 7-0 and hanging with North Little Rock, the consensus top team in the state, in a loss in the Fort Smith Coke Classic championship game.
“D.J.’s got a natural ability to play the game of basketball,” Stamps said. “His athleticism is a strength. There are few like him. He’s a very knowledgeable basketball guy.”
His scoring ability gives Springdale a weapon who can create offense for himself. But his length and defensive ability have been equally important additions to the team, allowing the Bulldogs to better match up against elite guards.
His value was especially apparent against the North Little Rock duo of Arkansas signee Anton Beard and five-star junior prospect Kevaughn Allen.
“One of the things Tereke kind of shared with me when he came here and talked to me one-on-one was, ‘We’re going to beat a lot of teams, but are we going to beat the (Fort Smith) Northside’s and the North Little Rock’s without him?’” Stamps said. “And that was a good point to me.”
Evans helped the Bulldogs avoid being starstruck by arguably the most star-studded Arkansas high school team in recent history. He’d played against several of the North Little Rock players before, even briefly living and practicing with Allen in Little Rock after moving to Arkansas from Washington in elementary school.
“It’s really not that big of a deal,” Evans said. “A lot of players, I think, get hyped up. Here, we get a lot of great players. To be honest, I think if I would have been more aggressive and we got a couple more stops, we would have won that game.”
Evans figures to be one of the leading reasons Springdale wins many more games this year. Maybe enough to set up a rematch with North Little Rock deep in the state tournament.
Springdale wrapped up its final pre-Bulldog Classic practice early Wednesday afternoon, a workout in which Evans was the loudest person in Bulldog Gym.
It’s not an uncommon occurrence.
“He’s very vocal,” Stamps said. “He’s a natural. He’s just got leadership skills and ability. He’s talking, demanding people where they need to be.”
The demeanor carries over into games, where Evans can often be heard directing traffic on both ends of the court.
“What I’ve tried to stress to D.J. for several years is he’s got leadership ability,” Stamps said. “Kids, for whatever reason, they cling to him. Sometimes that can be a good thing and sometimes that can be a bad thing. Especially when you have a gift or a talent and there’s people around you that don’t have the same interest or the same goals as you. You have to be careful.”
Evans has spent a lot of time playing Mortal Kombat or NBA 2K video games on his new XBox lately.
That or spending time with his family. Both are options that keep him out of trouble, part of a new approach that is evidence of him maturing in the last year.
“I used to be wild,” Evans said. “But I’ve gotten more mature. I really don’t do much now except stay inside with my family. Because I know I’m going to college.”
He picked up an offer from Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College in September, one of the top junior college basketball programs in the nation. It gave Evans a legitimate opportunity to better his future, much like his cousin, Curtis Evans, who also played under Stamps at Springdale and now starts for Northeastern State.
Curtis has tried to emphasize the importance of college to his younger cousin.
“He’s like my brother,” Curtis Evans said. “It’s really important to me to try to help guide him through the things I went through.”
Coffeyville coaches are scheduled to come watch a Springdale game soon. Evans has also been contacted by a number of other interested junior colleges.
And while he is focused on what looks like a promising Bulldogs season, he can finally do so with a sense of stability for his future.
“I think it will really get me on track to get away,” Evans said. “There’s a lot that goes on, that went down here. I think it would be better if I get my life better, distance myself from the crowd.”
And that’s what his second-chance senior season is all about.
Sports, Pages 7 on 01/05/2014
Print Headline: AIMING HIGH