Eyes on Ellenson – still the youngest Pistons player – as he hits the reset button

Henry Ellenson will have his best chance yet to make his mark on the Pistons in his third season
Chris Schwegler (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

AUBURN HILLS – The Pistons got more bang out of last week’s draft than they could have reasonably hoped for a team without its No. 1 pick, coming away with two players who could be ready to challenge for minutes as rookies. But it looks even better if you add Henry Ellenson to the haul of Khyri Thomas and Bruce Brown.

And Ellenson, for all intents and purposes, was the Pistons No. 1 pick for 2018.

Still the youngest player on the team – the only one with a 1997 birthday – Ellenson might have 57 games on his resume but only a handful of them came in anything but the end of already-decided games or the final few games of his first two seasons. If this were college, he wouldn’t have played enough to burn his redshirt.

So, yeah, consider Ellenson the 2018 No. 1 pick and poised – at last – to fill a void in the rotation.

Ellenson was mentioned in the same breath as Stanley Johnson and Luke Kennard by both Ed Stefanski, running the front office, and Dwane Casey as the Pistons introduced Casey as head coach last week.

“We think the three young guys have upside potential,” Stefanski said. “I think the upside for these three young guys is much better than they’ve shown.”

Ellenson joined the Pistons West Coast contingent, Casey said, training there as are Andre Drummond, Blake Griffin, Reggie Jackson, Kennard and Johnson. Even before a few names started to trickle out as Casey staffers this week, there were Casey-picked coaches working with those players in greater Los Angeles.

Ellenson will perhaps be the most closely watched of all Pistons players when Summer League practices and games start in Las Vegas next week.

Kennard will have the ball in his hands more as the new staff explores expanding his game, but his role next season is secure. The rookies will be under scrutiny to gauge their readiness, but the Pistons can cobble together a complete rotation without them.

Ellenson is the guy the new administration seems eager to move into Kennard and Johnson territory – not just a player with potential but one with an immediate role.

As with the rookies, Casey can devise a rotation that doesn’t include Ellenson. Even with Anthony Tolliver hitting free agency – and due to both roster configuration and finite resources, it’s likely he lands elsewhere – power forward remains a deep position for the Pistons.

Blake Griffin will gobble up the majority of minutes. Jon Leuer is firmly in the mix. Leuer at his best – the guy who averaged 11.2 points and 5.7 rebounds while shooting 51 percent in 27 minutes over 51 games before the 2016-17 All-Star break – helps at both ends.

But both Griffin and Leuer can play backup center minutes, so there’s room for all three in the rotation. Ellenson, too, can play center. And, in fact, Stan Van Gundy by the end of his tenure figured it was inevitable that he would spend a good chunk of his career there as the NBA increasingly looks to big men with Ellenson’s varied skill set.

Van Gundy didn’t think Ellenson was physically ready for the NBA as a 19-year-old rookie, but during training camp that year – after Ellenson consistently showed his shot-making ability in practices – he raised eyebrows by saying Ellenson would force the staff to make a decision at some point during his rookie or second seasons.

After first opting for Ellenson to start the 2017-18 season, Van Gundy went with Tolliver for backup minutes. While more limited offensively than Ellenson, Tolliver – who responded with the best basketball of his career – was the more consistent 3-point shooter and reliable defender.

But Ellenson’s ballhandling and potential as a scorer separate him from most players his size and have Stefanski and Casey eager to see more. They’ll take full advantage of the opportunity starting next week in the desert.