STORRS — Every Wednesday night, R.J. Evans becomes a robot with full flight capabilities.
In case you’re wondering, no, Evans isn’t crazy. He’s just a student in a cutting-edge class.
“I’m in this education technology class,” says Evans. “You ever heard of `second life?’
(Blank stare from reporter.)
“It’s a virtual reality class where we create our own avatar,” Evans continues. “I’m a robot. We meet a certain link and the teacher is teaching through the computer. … We like fly around the world together, it takes us to different places. It’s weird.”
Sounds like it.
This class, part of his grad school curriculum as an educational psychology major, offers a brief reprieve from reality.
Reality is Evans can’t fly. Not even close. He’s got some spring in those 22-year-old legs, but he also has 210 pounds (at least that’s his listed weight) to propel upward. He’s not the best shooter, either, and he’s not a standout ball-handler.
But so far, he’s been a damn valuable piece for the 2-0 Huskies. Evans played 28 minutes Friday against Michigan State, earning a crunch-time spot in favor of heralded freshman Omar Calhoun. And Tuesday against Vermont, Evans, the model of everything Kevin Ollie preaches, needed just 17 minutes to score 11 points, nearly all of them coming on straight-line, don’t-get-in-my-way attacks to the rim.
Indeed, Evans, a dual-threat quarterback at Norwich Free Academy many moons ago, could probably play fullback at UConn these days. He’s a bull, the type of player that you don’t want to take a charge against.
“If the game was on the line, I would,” says UConn point guard Shabazz Napier. “But he’s a big dude.”
After a summer of isolation — he began grad work in May and didn’t meet most of his teammates until the end of the summer — Evans has emerged as UConn’s most vocal player. He exudes enthusiasm the same way Ollie does.
Take pregame warm-ups Tuesday: Leon Tolksdorf buried a 3-pointer in the corner and Evans shouted out “Lee-Lee!” He gave the same treatment for Omar Calhoun — “O!” — and kept the good vibes going for Ryan Boatright.
“Through talk, I feel like it promotes energy,” Evans says. “If I’m energetic, then other people might be energetic and our whole team will be energetic.”
When he’s on the bench, he’s often the only player standing. You know how football teams have the designated “get back coach,” the guy responsible for keeping the bench behind the line? Well, Ollie needs to assign a “sit down, R.J.” coach.
People used to say Shabazz Napier — brutally competitive, sometimes combative and never afraid to voice his opinion — was an extension of Jim Calhoun. Two games in, it’s abundantly clear that Evans is an extension of Ollie. On Evans’ first defensive possession Tuesday, his call of “LET’S GET A STOP!” (the game was tied 7-7, by the way) was probably audible halfway up the Gampel stands.
“He’s just a very positive person,” Napier says. “For example, he texts us every day to see how our day is going. He just does things that a big brother would do.”
There was, however, an adjustment period when Evans transferred from Holy Cross, where he starred for three seasons. He joined a UConn team that had been through an awful lot together: one of the most improbable and exhilarating of national championships in 2011 and one of the biggest disappointments in 2012. Although he strikes you as the type of kid who eagerly raises his hand in class, Evans says he was quiet during the summer. He can’t exactly pinpoint when he came out of his shell.
Maybe it was when his teammates started joking about his AARP card. Or maybe it was when Boatright called him “Phillip Banks,” as in Uncle Phil from the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
“They actually haven’t called me that in a while,” Evans says with a laugh.
Truth be told, Evans’ father — among the dozen or so fans wearing the “UConn No. 12” T-Shirt Tuesday — is the one who looks like Uncle Phil. Evans, bearded and muscular, just looks like he’s in his late 20s. He plays like it, too, never attempting anything outside his skill set.
“He’s a grown man,” Ollie says. “He’s mature. I can tell R.J. something and I don’t have to tell him twice. He knows his role, and he knows his limitations, too.”
Except on Wednesday night, of course. That’s when he flies around the world.