Parents, sports psychologist helped Louisville's Dana Evans become a top WNBA prospect

Evans could win her second ACC Player of the Year award

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Dana Evans still has some unfinished business to tend to before her college career is over, but that doesn’t mean the reigning ACC Player of the Year isn’t thinking about what life will be like after Louisville.

Several mock drafts have Evans slated as a top-10 pick in the 2021 WNBA Draft, including ESPN’s latest projection. When asked during a Zoom call on Friday about evaluating college seniors, Evans was one of the players mentioned by Atlanta Dream head coach Nicki Collen.

It sounds cliché, but for the girl from Gary, Indiana — who averaged just 5.1 points per game as a freshman — hearing her name called in the first round really would be a dream come true.

“I'm definitely looking forward to that day. That's something that I've dreamed about since I started playing this game,” Evans said during a recent Zoom call. “So that would be a really exciting day for me.”

It’s been a long journey for Evans, who was a McDonald’s All-American and Jordan Brand All-Star in high school with a plethora of scholarship offers from top programs, including Tennessee, UCLA and Baylor. But when she first got to Louisville, she wasn’t happy.

“We were a pain in each other’s butts there for a while,” Louisville head coach Jeff Walz said. “I wanted to get the most out of her and she was trying to get me to change. We butted heads … Every great one has a will about them. You’re not just going to change them overnight. You’ve got to be patient.”

Unsatisfied with her role, Evans wanted to quit. She considered transferring. There are dozens of places she could have gone to where she would have started immediately as a freshman and been given the green light to take any shot she wanted.

But the values and work ethic instilled in her by her parents wouldn’t allow that. Abandoning Louisville was not an option.

“My parents are my biggest blessings. There were a lot of times when I wanted to give up,” Evans said while fighting back tears. “I wanted to go somewhere else. I just wanted something else. I didn't think this was the place for me. But I'm so grateful that my parents — they made me stick it out. And they made me figure it out on my own … My parents were always hard on me, but they also always showed how much they loved me and that they only wanted the best for me.

“A lot of people would’ve gave up. They wouldn’t have been able to handle how Coach Walz coached them, because he’s a tough coach, but he wants the best for you and he wants you to be successful.”

Walz has long told Evans that one of the happiest days for him will be the day she gets drafted because he has seen firsthand the work and the time that she has put in to become an exceptional player.

Evans went from playing sparingly as a freshman, to being named ACC Sixth Player of the Year as a sophomore, to being the top player in the conference as a junior, to now, when she is one of the best guards in the country as a senior.

As a freshman, Evans had eight games where she didn’t connect on a shot from the floor. From three-point range, she simply wasn’t good — finishing the year making 11 of 49 attempts from beyond the arc, a 22.4% clip. C-3PO gave Han Solo better odds at making it through that asteroid field.

But Evans kept working. She didn’t fold. When the NCAA Tournament rolled around in 2018, she was a valuable asset off the bench and helped propel the Cardinals’ run to the Final Four, marking just the third time they had ever advanced that far. Evans had eight points and three assists in Louisville’s Sweet 16 triumph over Stanford and nine points and four rebounds in its semifinal loss to Mississippi State.

Evans made the ACC All-Freshman team and led all rookies in the conference in assists. And along the way, she was educated a great deal by players such as Asia Durr, Myisha Hines-Allen and Arica Carter.

“I just got a lot of feedback and advice from them: how to get better, what did they do? And I just learned from them when they were here,” Evans said. “I watched how they trained. I watched how they went about games, how they approach certain things, different aspects. And I just tried to put everything into my game that I could and take away from them because they're obviously great players.”

Indeed, Evans didn’t go from being a rookie reserve to a star in the ACC overnight or on her own. In addition to soaking up all the information she could from Louisville’s coaches and veteran players, she improved her mental health by speaking to a sports psychologist.

Vanessa Shannon has been the director of mental performance at Louisville since 2015. Evans first sought her out as a freshman and they began meeting on a weekly basis. That habit continued through Evans’ breakout sophomore season, in which her points-per-game average doubled, her turnovers decreased and her 3-point shooting improved by 16.1 percentage points.

“We would just talk about different ways to be able to think about the next play, or I [would] write down some things that I wanted to forget,” Evans said. “The biggest thing that I took away from her is taking a deep breath in being able to regroup during a timeout. Or if something’s not going my way, I can just take a deep breath and just let it go. Because you can’t get that play back. You can’t get anything back that happened in the past.”

Sometimes, Evans will write that message on the side of her Adidas sneakers as a reminder: “Next play.”

Evans grew leaps and bounds as a sophomore, and it can really be seen in two games. On Dec. 20, 2018, Central Michigan threw a triangle-and-two defense at Louisville in an attempt to stop Durr and Carter. They dared Evans to shoot and gave her several wide-open looks, but she couldn’t connect. Louisville escaped with a narrow 72-68 victory, but Evans shot 2-for-10 from the floor and missed all four three-pointers she attempted.

Instead of sulking, she went to work, vowing to step up to the challenge should it be presented again. About six weeks later, Louisville and Evans were in the spotlight as the mighty UConn Huskies were in town. With the whole basketball world watching, Evans was exceptional — she scored 20 points, made 5-of-10 three’s and didn’t turn the ball over once in 29 minutes of action. The Cardinals beat the No. 2 Huskies 78-69, and Evans proved she could play with anyone and bounce back from subpar outings.

Her ability to move on expeditiously from a poor shooting performance — and then put the Cardinals on her back and carry them to victory — has been on display several times this season.

Evans had one key episode of amnesia on the road against Wake Forest on Jan. 24. With 12 seconds left, the Cardinals were on the ropes, trailing by a single point as the clock wound down. Evans caught a pass from freshman Hailey Van Lith on the left wing. With the gritty Gina Conti guarding her, Evans took four dribbles to make her way to the rim and connected on a lay-up while drawing a foul from Conti. Louisville won, 65-63. Until that last shot, Evans was shooting 7-of-21 on the day, but those 14 misses didn’t matter much in the end.

On that play, Evans used her ability against Conti to speed up and slow down in the blink of an eye. Evans drew Conti to her right, then stepped back and sped past her on the left. Evans’ ability to switch gears in an instant is sort of like her long eyelashes, in that they are her signatures. That ability and that appearance is synonymous with Evans.

“In high school, she could get by anybody at any time,” Walz said. “She’s learned that you can’t play at one speed. You can’t play at 100 mph all the time because you are going to face other players that are as quick as you … Her court vision has gotten so much better over the past four years: the ability to see her teammates, to see when a trap is coming, to see when they’re running two people at her at one time.

“All of those things come with growth, come with experience, come with film work. She has dedicated herself to all of those things. She wanted to be great.”

After the Wake game, Demon Deacons forward Ivana Raca called Evans “the best player in the country right now.” After N.C. State upset Louisville in early February, Wolfpack point guard Raina Perez had similar praise for her and used her own play against Evans as a measuring stick of sorts.

“She’s definitely a good player. I know why she’s at the top of the ACC and at the top of the nation,” Perez said. “It was good going up against her, just seeing that I could compete and seeing that I could stay with her.”

Against N.C. State — Louisville’s only loss of the season — Evans did everything she could to keep the Cardinals in the game, scoring a season-high 29 points.

“What about Evans? I mean, holy cow,” N.C. State head coach Wes Moore said. “You know, she just takes over ballgames.”

When Evans won ACC Player of the Year last season, she averaged 18 points, 4.2 assists and 2.8 rebounds per game while shooting 41.6% from the floor, 43.1% from three and 89.0% from the free throw line. She was incredible and Louisville looked like a Final Four contender.

Then the pandemic came and wiped out the 2020 NCAA Tournament. Louisville has charged on this season, but it hasn’t come without a few cancellations and pauses in play due to COVID-19. Through all that, Evans has leaned on her faith, her Bible, lessons from her parents and what she learned about her own mental health from talking with Shannon.

“I definitely recommend it because it's helped me in so many different ways. Like I mentioned before, it's a game-changer; it changes how you go about things, it even changes how you go about your day,” Evans said of speaking with a sports psychologist. “It's not about what other people think. It's your career. It is how you want to approach things. So you have to swallow your pride and you just have to do what's best for you. Because even professional athletes talk to people like Vanessa, so there’s nothing wrong with that.”

When Louisville has taken the court this season, Evans is often the best player on it. She’s averaging an ACC-leading 21.2 points per game along with 4.3 assists, 2.8 rebounds and 1.4 steals. According to Her Hoop Stats, Evans has the 14th-best free throw percentage in the nation with a 94.4% mark. She’s also third in the nation in win shares with 7.1. Among ACC players, she has the second-highest usage percentage at 30.4% and the third-best player efficiency rating at 27.3.

Evans is on the watchlists for the Drysdale and Naismith awards, and she’s a near-lock to be named an All-American for the second straight year.

Before Evans heads off to the WNBA, she has some work to do with the Cardinals. Louisville hasn’t won the ACC Tournament or made the Final Four since 2018, Evans’ freshman season. Her leadership qualities and vast arsenal of skills should put the Cardinals in position to accomplish those goals.

And she’s betting on her game translating pretty well to the pros when the time comes.

“Something that I think I can bring to a WNBA team is just my will to win, my will to do whatever it takes to get the W with the team,” Evans said. “My defense, me just getting after it on the floor. I feel like whatever the team needs me to do, I'm ready for it and I'll do it.”