RIVERSIDE, CALIF. — Dennis Evans III stepped out of his mom's car, shielding his eyes from the sun on a late-November afternoon at Riverside Hillcrest High.
The five-star, 7-foot-1 Gophers recruit — Minnesota's highest-ranked incoming freshman in 20 years — had just returned from an eye exam and wore shaded spectacles for protection against the light.
Long before he started playing basketball seriously at age 13, Evans' eyes grew too quickly, along with his height. He started wearing glasses at age 6.
In those days, he was into fishing and camping with his family and playing with his ant farm. A bright future as a budding basketball star had once been hard to imagine when he struggled just to run.
"I didn't think I'd be known at all," said Evans, who was already 6-7 in seventh grade.
But once he committed to basketball training, his recruiting profile grew even faster than his limbs, as he jumped spots in one ranking to No. 12 in the country. Defending national champion Kansas and Texas Christian offered him a scholarship, but he wound up signing with Ben Johnson's Gophers, rewarding their efforts to recruit him from two time zones away.
All this attention coming Evans' way from the valley east of Los Angeles is the result of big developments on the court. He had a triple-double last season with 16 blocks — the fifth-most in California prep history.
In his first big matchup this season, Evans notched 23 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks vs. Jacob McFarland, a 6-10, four-star recruit signed by top-ranked Houston.
Away from California, Evans averaged 1.2 blocks per game for Team USA's junior national team over the summer during a gold medal run in the U17 FIBA World Cup in Spain.
"He's a great kid," said Evans' Team Inland AAU coach Kool-Aid Perry. "When he starts college, he'll be 18. His future is unlimited. He has a chance of being a top NBA pick. That's honest. I've been doing this a long time."
More than sports
The oldest of four children, Dennis James Evans III grew up with his parents and siblings in Victorville, Calif., a desert town off famed Route 66 about 90 miles northeast of L.A.
Evans' father, DJ, is 7 feet tall and played high school basketball in the San Bernardino area. His mother, Tayonah, was a cheerleader and did competitive dance. Their first child would slowly find his own way into sports.
"I always tried to keep a ball in his hands," Tayonah said. "But it was always his choice. I didn't force him to play ball just because he was tall."
For years, the younger Evans would rather spend time outdoors digging in the dirt or fishing for catfish and trout at the lake. He knew everything about ants and loved family camping trips, especially to Hesperia Lake Park.
"I learned to fish as we started camping more," Evans said. "I just did kids' stuff like running around outside with my dog, Sparky, who had a lot of energy. My siblings and I liked to play handball."
In school, math was Evans' favorite subject. Figuring out formulas came easy. His height made basketball the easy choice, too. But it wasn't until the seventh grade that his attitude changed about the game. Nothing came easy for him, but he enjoyed playing.
He remembers a middle school coach having a military background, emphasizing being more conditioned than the opponent. "Trying to outrun them," said Evans, who initially struggled to keep up.
"It was definitely something new to me," Evans said. "But I really wanted to start playing sports [seriously]. It was really tiring, but I found it fun to block shots. I had long arms, so I was good at it."
Come a long way
Evans was already a few inches taller than Hillcrest's 6-7 varsity coach Jackson Wood when he showed up for high school after his family moved to Riverside for his mom's job. His defensive potential was obvious with a 7-7 wingspan, but "he's come a long way," Wood said.
Last month, after returning from the eye doctor, Evans eagerly led a visitor on a tour of his high school's trophy case. He pointed to Hillcrest's CIF Southern Section runner-up trophy from 2020.
Playing on that squad as a freshman, Evans gained confidence and "definitely learned a lot" from the upperclassmen, especially standout Sebastian Mendoza, who now plays at San Jose State.
"When [Evans] arrived going into his freshman year, I didn't know if he was going to be a varsity player," Wood added. "But by the time the season came along in November, he was starting every game."
Evans took training to another level during early morning workouts with his AAU coach, Perry, and his cousin, Harrison Gaines, who played college basketball at Penn and UC Riverside.
Added Perry: "Dennis wanted to get better. He got up every morning at 5 a.m. in the lab working on his game. He does that six days out of the week. That's Dennis Evans."
How the Gophers got him
UCLA and USC coaches can drive due east to Riverside in about a 70-minute trip, but they were late to show interest in Evans. Those two schools will be joining the Big Ten in two seasons, but Evans will get there first, with Minnesota.
Johnson and Gophers assistant Marcus Jenkins, a California native, got in contact with Evans after recruiting his former AAU teammate and current Gophers freshman Jaden Henley from nearby Ontario, Calif.
UC Riverside gets credit for making the first scholarship offer to Evans, but the Gophers weren't far behind.
"My name was barely even known when they started looking into me before everything got hectic," Evans said. "It was definitely something unexpected for me at the time."
Evans' shot-blocking prowess combined with his developing offensive skills drew more offers after this past summer. Besides the Gophers, TCU and Kansas wanting him to visit campus, other schools tried to get involved in his recruiting late in the process.
After visiting the Gophers and TCU, Evans saw himself fitting in well with everything Johnson and his program had to offer. He's interested in majoring in business.
"Dennis is a player-development type kid," Johnson said. "That's where we really connected. He's a relentless worker. He's up every morning trying to get better. The strides he's made from last year to now are due to the people around him. Sky's truly the limit for him."
Evans is averaging 17 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks so far as a senior, though he missed three games recently because he was sick. He's expected to return by the time Hillcrest plays in the Jerry Tarkanian Classic on Dec. 19-22 in Las Vegas, a tournament NBA scouts are now allowed to attend.
He has NBA dreams and goals of making an immediate impact as a college freshman, but he's just as fascinated taking a sign language class his senior year of high school. That's Dennis Evans.
"I find it a little bit more fun to speak with my hands," Evans said.
The Gophers love that Evans is comfortable in his own skin and intrigued by going to college thousands of miles away in the cold.
Evans learned to adapt at a young age. Glasses were an adjustment at first, but now he wears them all the time without thinking twice. "They're part of who I am," he said. And towering over his classmates at Hillcrest High, Evans still finds ways to blend in with the crowd.
A few years ago, he wouldn't have imagined turning himself into arguably the best center in high school hoops. But his basketball future gets brighter by the day.
"I just knew that if I continued to play as hard as I could and just had fun and enjoyed it," Evans said, "the opportunities would take care of themselves."