Leistikow: Bakari Evelyn 'not coming to save' Hawkeyes, but his commitment is a big deal

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Bakari Evelyn is well aware that he will become the first graduate transfer of Fran McCaffery’s coaching career.

That right there makes his Sunday-night commitment to Iowa extremely telling.

Heading into his 24th year as a college head coach (and 10th in Iowa City), McCaffery has been historically hesitant to accept graduate transfers. He hasn't wanted to shake up team chemistry with a fifth-year player; he also has said he doesn't want to be unfair to a graduate by recruiting him before putting him on the bench.

In Evelyn, though, the fit was too hard to pass up.

In this photo that Bakari Evelyn (against a full Carver-Hawkeye Arena backdrop) during his Iowa visit, he is flanked by his mother, Sandee Stone, and older brother, Tino Fernandez.

After news of Isaiah Moss’ transfer from the program and Jordan Bohannon’s hip surgery that might keep him out for the 2019-20 season, there was an immediate backcourt need for McCaffery.

And a major opportunity for Evelyn.

“With Bohannon and Isaiah Moss there previously, it may not have made as much sense,” Evelyn told the Register. “But now with them gone, he made it clear that it obviously makes sense for both of us.”

About that fit?

It's about as good as McCaffery could've hoped for in early June.

At 6-foot-2 and 180 pounds, Evelyn is considered a “combo” guard, meaning he can play at the point and on the wing. But it sounds like we should think of him as a point guard — his exclusive position as a redshirt sophomore at Valparaiso, when he played his best college basketball.

In Missouri Valley Conference games that year, he averaged a team-high 14.1 points and connected on 42.3% of his 3-pointers. He led the Crusaders in assists, with 93 overall, and was the only player to start all 32 games.

But a surgery to remove bone spurs in his right ankle kept him off the floor from May until he was cleared in October. He rushed back. He wasn’t the same as a redshirt junior, and he eventually was relegated to a reserve role where he was also playing off the ball. His numbers suffered.

“It was frustrating, of course, not being able to do things that you know you’re capable of doing before," he said. "Not being able to make moves, cuts and angles.”

Now, he feels healthy again. And considering Bohannon's willingness to redshirt next season if that means he has a better chance to be fully healthy in 2020-21, the door is seemingly wide open for Evelyn to be a one-year stopgap.

Iowa wanted Evelyn years ago. Assistant coach Sherman Dillard began recruiting him out of high school in Detroit and continued to do so after he moved to Arizona for his senior year. Evelyn said Iowa offered him a scholarship, but he played sparingly at Nebraska for one season before transferring to Valpo.

“They wanted me to come and redshirt,” Evelyn said. “That was the year they had Mike Gesell and Jarrod Uthoff and all those guys. And I ended up at Nebraska.”

So, when Dillard began recruiting him again as a graduate transfer, there was already a relationship in place. After Evelyn visited the Iowa campus over the weekend, he was sold. He hung out mostly with forward Cordell Pemsl and walk-ons Michael Baer and Nico Hobbs.

“I know this is cliché and it’s my third school,” Evelyn said, “but I really did feel at home when I was at Iowa.”

Bakari Evelyn had stronger numbers as a redshirt sophomore at Valparaiso, when he was the team's primary point guard. He was injured and more of a role player as a junior.

Evelyn, who was also considering New Mexico State, just needs to complete an internship in Arizona in order to graduate from Valparaiso, then hopes to be with the Hawkeyes late this month or in early July.

We can all agree that this has been a rough offseason for the Hawkeyes after their 23-win season that ended on the cusp of the program’s first Sweet 16 since 1999.

Sure, it was assumed Tyler Cook would probably go pro anyway. Moss’ news surprised some. Bohannon’s injury definitely qualified as a bombshell.

This was some much-needed good news.

There’s obvious upside here, with the hope that Evelyn can regain his sophomore form. Even though his numbers are not world-beating (10.5 points a game at Valpo), it’s important to know that the Crusaders played one of the slowest paces in the country. Iowa’s fast-paced, motion offense has Evelyn excited.

“I’m good with transition, ball screens,” he said. “I play good with other good players. And there’s a lot of talented guys on this team.”

There’s also stability, considering he averaged 34 minutes a game in MVC play as a sophomore. Again, all at point guard.

Stability, upside and a mutual comfort all wrapped into one grad transfer?

No wonder McCaffery was willing to break his life-long streak to bring Evelyn aboard.

“I’m not coming in here to save (the team) or anything,” Evelyn said. “I’m just coming to contribute to what’s already a well-oiled machine.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.