TIM PEELER: Fifth-Year Leader
Nov. 17, 2005
BY TIM PEELER
Sendek understands why. Even though Evtimov, the native of Bulgaria, was obviously a skilled player with a basketball background - his father Ilia was a long-time professional player in Europe and brother Vasco played at North Carolina and professionally overseas - there were some drawbacks.
Ilian Evtimov played at three high schools in three years, two in Winston-Salem and one in New York. He had some physical limitations that might have turned some recruiters off. But there was something about Evtimov's maturity that Sendek liked.
"He knew how to play the game," Sendek said. "Obviously, I wasn't confused about his jumping ability, and if you watched him, he was a guy who was easy to dismiss.
"But the more you watched him, you had to say `Wait a second, the son of a gun seems to get a lot done out there, doesn't he?' You could have easily crossed him off your list."
Sendek, however, was willing to take a chance on Evtimov, offering him a late scholarship to go along with Julius Hodge, Levi Watkins, Jordan Collins and Josh Powell, all of whom signed in the fall of the previous year.
Evtimov paid immediate dividends as a freshman, impressing ACC media enough to earn mention on the 2002 All-Freshman team. His passing and shooting skills fit in nicely with the new offense Sendek had installed that season, and even though he found himself playing out of position at times, his skills made him a good fit into Sendek's concept.
But that was several knee surgeries and a red-shirt season ago. Evtimov has entered the last two seasons with serious questions about his knees. He suffered torn ligaments in his left knee in a preseason exhibition game in 2002-03, and had a difficult rehabilitation as he recovered during his medical redshirt season. When he came back the following season, even though he still contributed strong shooting and passing, he wore a heavy knee brace that limited what mobility he had.
Last year, he was healthy when the season began, but had missed an entire summer's worth of work-outs and conditioning because of a torn meniscus in his right knee, which he suffered during a summer pickup game. He started the season slow, but showed his true abilities in the second half of the season when he became one of the most dangerous shooters in the ACC. He had three consecutive games of at least five 3-pointers, and collected 13 3-pointers in the ACC Tournament in Washington.
He made more than half of his 3-point shots in conference games, and finished second in the league in 3-point shooting overall, hitting 42.6 percent of his shots behind the arc.
"If he is the worst recruit in his class, then I will take the worst recruit every year," Sendek said. "It's amazing. Some of our guys have been the recipients of some caustic remarks when they first signed up to play for us: Ilian, Engin Atsur, Andrew Brackman.
"But if those guys are the worst of the litter, we will continue to volunteer to have them on our team."
Evtimov knew from the beginning that he would be a major contributor for the Wolfpack. He even told one of his work-out buddies at the YMCA in Winston-Salem that he would be a starter as a freshman, which he was 11 times back in 2001-02.
"I knew what people were thinking of me," Evtimov said. "My purpose was to prove them wrong. I knew all along that I was much better than what people were saying about me.
"I put a lot of work into my freshman year. I think it has been a great accomplishment. There are people who dream, when they are growing up, about playing in the ACC, being a factor on a team, scoring, playing in front of 20,000 fans. It feels great to be a part of that."
There's no doubt that the injuries have caused some setbacks in Evtimov's game. But, heading into Friday night's season opener against Stetson, Evtimov is as healthy has he has been since his freshman year.
And now, he has the benefit of experience, good health and the loss of nearly 20 pounds off his frame, which makes him a little more mobile and capable of playing out on the wing, instead of inside.
"Ilian has always been someone who is wiser than his years, even as a freshman," Sendek said. "He has always had a tremendous level of awareness and an excellent basketball IQ.
"His experience is only enhancing an area where he was already strong."
You may contact Tim Peeler at email@example.com.