Ellenson bides his time, stays positive and keeps grinding to wait his turn with the Pistons
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MILWAUKEE – Henry Ellenson got the name of a barber from his old college roomie, Haanif Cheatham, because, well, “Gotta look sharp when I’m back home,” he smiled.
The truth? It stings to come back to the place he starred in his only college season at Marquette, have friends and family from Rice Lake, a five-hour drive away, in the stands and not get in the game.
“You know, I want to be out here playing in front of them and show ’em what I can do on the court,” he admitted before Wednesday’s loss at Milwaukee. “It’s always good to see all those guys, coming back home and just getting support from family and friends, so it’s tough. I know one day I’ll be able to get a chance to play in front of them here.”
Stan Van Gundy isn’t so narrowly focused on winning that he can’t empathize with Ellenson’s situation. He praised Ellenson’s play throughout training camp and proclaimed in the season’s first week that although it essentially had been a dead heat between Ellenson and Anthony Tolliver for spot minutes in the power forward rotation with Tobias Harris and Jon Leuer, he was determined to give Ellenson a shot.
And Ellenson shined in early wins over Charlotte (13 points in 16 minutes) and Minnesota (14 in 21). But after some rough matchups on a late-October West Coast road trip that featured wins over the Clippers and Warriors, Tolliver’s more reliable and versatile defense leap frogged him over the 20-year-old Ellenson and Tolliver hasn’t loosened his grip since.
Whatever disappointment Ellenson is processing, Van Gundy says he’s not seen any hint of it dampening his youngest player’s enthusiasm for the game or his embrace of his future in basketball.
“Henry’s a great worker and you just want him to realize the situation,” he said. “It takes time. But I think it’s made doubly hard because he started the year playing well. He really did. He had a good preseason, had a good couple of games early on and then to not be playing, I’m sure it’s really, really difficult for him.”
“Basketball, that’s all I know,” Ellenson said of keeping his spirits up despite the disappointment of playing only sporadically since October and mostly late in games already decided. “I feel like I’ve always been a fast learner. I’m a smart player. I know that I’ll be on the court eventually. I don’t think that the end of the bench is where I’ll be forever. I’m just looking at this as an opportunity to keep getting better, just keep learning, keep growing as a player so when I’m out there I’m ready to go, for sure.”
Ellenson has adopted the approach that he’ll use the time he’s not in the rotation to full advantage. He can push harder in the weight room than he’d be able to do if he were absorbing regular minutes, get up more shots than he’d otherwise have the chance to get in pregame and post-practice workouts.
“That’s how I’m looking at it. If it’s after shootaround or extra things I can do on game day, I’m looking at this as a workout day. If I’m not working out on these days, then it’s like an off day and I can’t have that. I try to do a lot of work on these days – conditioning, getting a lot of shots up, go get a lift. I’m focusing on keep getting better, keep working.”
Before the Milwaukee game, he went through a rigorous workout that involved getting up dozens of game-situation shots, running into 3-pointers or darting into the post and then bouncing back outside for baseline or wing jump shots. Over 15 to 20 minutes with assistant coach Charles Klask feeding him passes, Ellenson made at least 80 percent of his jump shots – if it had been a predraft workout, it would have made scouts’ pulses race - beforesitting with assistant Otis Smith to review videotape.
“I feel like my shot’s gotten a lot better,” he said. “The ball comes off my hand really well. A lot of the shooting I’m doing right now is just getting a lot of shots up, as many as I can, moving and not even thinking about the shot but just having the rhythm, the feel off of my hand. When you’re in games when you’re tired or you’re coming off (screens), you’ve got to get a shot up quick. It’s all kind of rhythm and reaction. I think that’s something I’ve been continuing to grow from, year one to year two.”
The Pistons, from Van Gundy on down, remain optimistic about Ellenson’s future as a uniquely skilled big man with high-end scoring potential. And Ellenson, too, remains confident that he’ll soon be a regular contributor, drawing off the experience he banked in helping produce those early-season wins.
“Having those games like that, just showing myself that, yeah, I can do it at this level,” he said. “And that’s only the beginning. Those games were nice. I’ll continue to try to build off of that with every opportunity, even if it’s the end of the game. I just want to go out and play hard – 20 up or 20 down – and try to make the most of my time out there and have fun with it.”