POSTED: May 31, 2013 11:12 AM ET
James Ennis averaged 16.5 points and 6.7 rebounds a game last season at Long Beach State.
In another life, Long Beach State's James Ennis, who's done his best in the two months since his final college season ended to boost his NBA Draft stock into the first round, might have become an Olympic track star.
Long Beach coach Dan Monson and his assistant Rod Palmer remember a recruiting visit when they received a convincing demonstration of Ennis' athletic ability. It was after one of Ennis' practices at Ventura College, and the team convened to the school's track for some conditioning work. The task: a series of 200-meter sprints.
"James just blew every single one of his teammates away," Palmer said. "Just humiliated and ran past them. And that was after practice. That's when we knew we had something special."
Monson was so impressed he felt compelled to see how fast Ennis was running.
"I probably exaggerate more than Rod," Monson said, laughing. "But there's no exaggeration here. After about the third , where James was probably 15, 20 yards ahead of the other guys, I started timing him. I said to Rod, this kid's running these things in 21, 22 seconds. One after the other."
At the time, Ennis was also dabbling in the high jump. He'd cleared 6-foot-5 in high school but thought he could do better, so he consulted YouTube for education and inspiration.
"Just watching some of the better high jumpers," Ennis said. "Trying to look at their form."
Ennis went out for Ventura's track team and promptly came up with a 6-foot-11 jump. He eventually signed at Long Beach State with Monson's promise he could join the school's track team after basketball season. In the spring of 2012, Ennis gave track his best shot.
"Our track coach told me that James' high-jump form needed some work when he first came out, but that in another two weeks he'd have been jumping over seven feet," Monson said.
But becoming the next Dwight Stones wasn't meant to happen for Ennis. Early one morning, on the final day college underclassmen could declare for the Draft, Monson got a call from Ennis. Of course he thought the worst.
"He'd had a couple people in his ear that he should come out after that first year," Monson said. "He comes from a tough background and money was tight. When I got that call, I thought, 'Oh no, somebody's in the kid's head.' It was so odd that it was at 7 in the morning."
Monson didn't think of it at the time, but Long Beach State was also competing in a track meet that day. Try as he might, Ennis couldn't muster the energy to compete. His call to Monson wasn't to inform his coach he was taking at shot at the Draft.
"James said, 'Coach, I'm supposed to jump in this track meet. I don't know how to tell my coach I can't do it, that my legs are just gone after basketball season.' I just told him that'll be an easy call to make. I can take care of that."
Could track's loss be the NBA's gain? Right away, in assessing Ennis' next-level worth, athleticism is one box NBA scouts can check off. At the Portsmouth Invitational and later the Chicago pre-Draft combine, some other boxes were checked, too.
Ennis measured 6-foot-7 in shoes, and he has a 7-foot wingspan. So if length and explosive athleticism can predict NBA success, he has them covered. Ennis also has a mechanically sound shooting stroke he can repeat time after time and he's a willing defender who guarded three positions in college. Monson thinks he can do the same in the NBA.
That early-morning call to Monson -- "He just didn't want to let the track team down," the coach said -- shows the character that those who know Ennis best rave about. And then there's this:
"He believes he belongs [in the NBA]," Palmer said. "That's half the battle. He really believes in his heart he belongs there. And now he knows how hard you have to work to get there and stay there."
Ennis comes by that work ethic honestly.
"It's all about coming from nothing," Ennis said. "My family's living situation was rough, always traveling around for financial reasons. That's what's made me work so hard. I'm very appreciative of everything, and I'm humble. I'm just trying to get better. And the only way you can do that is through hard work and dedication."
Ennis has made all the right moves for a player who toiled well away from college basketball's spotlight. Monson, the coach who began the Gonzaga dynasty before moving on to Minnesota and later Long Beach State, did a great job of helping Ennis refine his raw athletic gifts.
"When these NBA guys call me, I tell them all if you're impressed with James now, wait two more years," Monson said. "He's just scratching the surface. The improvement he made between last year and this year was quantitative. He's still very raw, and yet, usually when you see kids that are raw, they don't understand basketball.
"James is a unique blend because, for a kid who hasn't played a lot, he's very instinctive. The game moves slower in his mind. Defensively, he's naturally in the right place and he anticipates where the next pass is going to be. I don't know if he knows why he's standing at the help line; he's just there because he's got a great feel for the game. He's also a very good passer, a great feel for it that you don't see out of 6-6 guys very much. You just can't teach that."
In his preparation for the Draft, Ennis has accomplished everything he has set out to do.
"My goal at Portsmouth was to show the scouts I could put the ball on the ground," Ennis said. "And I think I was able to do that.
"Chicago was like a dream come true for me. My brothers and I used to talk about that all the time -- playing in the NBA combine. And there I was. It was a good experience for me, because I could tell my hard working was paying off. It was good to see that."
Ennis also showcased his skills in the Brooklyn Nets' draft combine, leaving there brimming with confidence after a workout with the Portland Trail Blazers. Ennis' college coaches think the NBA will welcome him, and that he'll make the most of his opportunity.
"Once basketball is James' job, once he wakes up and that's what he has to do every day, he's gonna be something else," Palmer said. "It's in his heart. That's what he wants to do."
Said Monson: "James has come from nowhere. He's fought through a lot of adversity to get to this level. And now, I think he's going to realize his dream of playing in the NBA. It's fun to see kids get stuff when they work for it."