From bit player to leading man

After mostly watching SK's state runs, Evan Atwater now has a prominent role at George Fox

When the starting lineup was announced for the South Kitsap boys basketball team, he waited and watched for three years.

Evan Atwater might have started for multiple years at other schools in the area. But as a backcourt player for the Wolves, he came off the bench even as a senior.

After all, the team future college players such as Tippy Burk (Northwest Nazarene), who was the Narrows League Bridge Division MVP as a senior, Tysaiah Curry (Olympic College) and LP Neloms (Highline Community College). Each played in the backcourt and limited Atwater’s opportunities for playing time.

That limited his exposure to college recruiters even though South finished second, sixth and third in the Class 4A state tournament during his three seasons at the school. To pursue his dream of playing college basketball, Atwater had to find another venue to hone his skills.

Enter Total Package, a club basketball team coached by Craig Murray that included Atwater’s aforementioned backcourt mates. One day, Atwater said he sat down with Murray to discuss potential opportunities to play college basketball and areas of his game he needed to develop. He said Murray allowed him that opportunity through intense individual workouts and games that featured him against former Bainbridge star Steven Gray, who now plays at Gonzaga University.

“I didn’t get a chance to play a whole lot in high school, which was pretty rough because I really wanted to play college basketball,” Atwater said. “Through working with him and traveling to play top-level players, guys who went on to the NBA … they make you better.”

The strategy appears to have worked as the 6-foot-3 Atwater returned to the area last week for games against Pacific Lutheran and Puget Sound. Against UPS on Feb. 2, he scored 27 points and converted two free throws with 15 seconds left to clinch a 78-77 win for George Fox in Northwest Conference play.

It’s the type of play eighth-year George Fox coach Mark Sundquist has come to expect from the sophomore.

“He’s a confident kid,” he said. “He wants the ball when the game’s on the line and that’s a good thing.”

As a Division III school located in Newburg, Ore., George Fox cannot offer athletic scholarships. Sundquist noticed him when he played for Total Package and was intrigued by his development.

“All that credit goes to him and Coach Murray,” he said. “Evan has developed himself into a good player, I just happened to be the one who calls plays for him.”

There was more work to be done, though. Atwater shot just 34.9 percent from the field and averaged 5.3 points in 23 games as a freshman. Sundquist said his pupil committed himself to becoming stronger and refining his shot during the offseason.

“Evan’s the type of kid who lives in the gym and is a great example for our younger kids to see that hard work pays off,” he said. “The type of commitment he made in the offseason has made him a better player and us a better team.”

This season, Atwater has been named the Bruin Athletic Association Men’s Athlete of the Week. He averaged 14.6 points per game and hits 35.9 percent of his 3-pointers for the 9-16 Bruins.

“There’s been some individual success, but I would trade that if we got a couple of bounces, a couple of breaks,” Atwater said. “We’ve had some injuries and bad luck. We would be in the top three or four in the conference if the ball would bounce a different way.”

Atwater said he has worked to not just be the “one-dimensional shooter” he was in high school and now feels comfortable driving for a layup. But his next adjustment might come outside of transition. Sundquist envisions him as a leader next season and has given him reading material on the subject. It’s a role Atwater, a business major and coaching minor, relishes not only for next season, but in the future as a coach.

“I think he would be a great coach,” Sundquist said. “He lives, eats and breathes basketball. He’s got a high basketball IQ and I think you need that as a coach.”

Until then, Atwater is “looking forward to a lot of good games ahead” and has some advice for South athletes who are struggling to find playing time.

“We had a lot of success as a team,” he said. “Being there on the sidelines was a lot of fun.

“But if you want to play after high school, you have to pursue some extracurricular activities.”