As Pistons brace for playoff stretch, Ellenson keeps his head up by keeping his nose down

Henry Ellenson is making sure his development isn’t derailed just because he’s stuck behind Blake Griffin and others on the Pistons depth chart
Chris Schwegler (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

AUBURN HILLS – The two youngest Pistons were last off the practice court Thursday. One, Luke Kennard, is being counted on to help them win enough over the season’s final 25 games to crack the playoff field. The other, Henry Ellenson, is buried on the depth chart.

You wouldn’t have expected such a line of division if all you had seen was the shooting exhibition Ellenson just put on. Or, to hear Stan Van Gundy tell it, if you’d seen practices the last two days.

“Two really good days,” he called the work Ellenson turned in.

But the season’s statistical composite tells a different story. Ellenson has played in just 22 games and hardly a meaningful minute since the season’s first few weeks. He opened the season in the rotation, remember? In the opening-night win over Charlotte, Ellenson scored 13 points in 16 minutes.

And that was when Van Gundy had his choice of Tobias Harris, Jon Leuer, Anthony Tolliver and Ellenson to divvy up the 48 minutes available at power forward. Then Leuer went down – for the season, though nobody expected it at the time – before October ended … and Ellenson’s role remained minuscule as Tolliver seized opportunity by playing reliable defense, knocking down 3-point shots and keeping mistakes to a minimum.

Adding Blake Griffin – signed for four seasons beyond this one, at a salary level that ensures the Pistons will build their roster with him in mind for the foreseeable future – further clouds Ellenson’s future.

“I have thought about it,” Ellenson admitted after wrapping up his shooting contest with Kennard. “You’ve just got to take it how it is right now. Blake’s a great guy. He came in with the right attitude. Guys like him. I like him. It’s someone I can learn from. Yeah, he does play my position. So do a bunch of guys on this team. I’ve just got to be a good teammate and learn from him.”

He’s not as powerfully built as Griffin – few are – but there is some overlap of skill set. Not many power forwards can put the ball on the floor with the ease of Griffin or create their own shot. Ellenson can.

“He’s a guy who knows when to pop and when to roll,” Ellenson said. “He has a good feel for the game – not just always popping, switch up. That’s one thing I’ve noticed with him right away. When we practice, Blake’s with the first unit running those plays and I’ll go right in with the same stuff.”

When the Pistons have enough gaps in the schedule to allow for a meaningful practice more than once in a blue moon, Van Gundy is comfortable that Ellenson can benefit. The trying times – like the one they went through just prior to the All-Star break and the stretch they’re going into now with six games over nine days – come when practices are rare and limited when held.

The silver lining is that Ellenson’s DNA is 100 percent gym rat. He yearns to be playing a significant role but he’d be in the gym under any circumstances. Van Gundy pushes back on the notion that this has been a wasted season in the development of Ellenson, who turned 21 just last month.

“I don’t think it’s been a lost year,” he said. “I see him out there. I think he’s gotten better. The key for him is when we get practice time. Practicing here against Blake and A.T. and Andre (Drummond) and Eric (Moreland) is better for him than what he can get in (Grand Rapids with the Pistons G-League affiliate).”

Ellenson has both gained weight and lost body fat, “great indications,” Van Gundy says.

“You can see it out here functionally on the floor. We’ve got to remember, this is a college junior right now and big guys are a little different than other guys.”

The patron saint of young big-man development is Jermaine O’Neal, drafted as an 18-year-old out of high school in 1996. It wasn’t until his fifth season that O’Neal became an NBA starter – or a rotation fixture – but by year six he made the first of six consecutive All-Star appearances.

“So the idea that you can’t develop when you’re not playing a lot just doesn’t hold true,” Van Gundy said. “Henry’s gotten better as the year’s gone on. He’s a guy in love with the game, so he doesn’t check out. He keeps working at it and trying to get better all the time.”

Otis Smith devotes hours to working with Ellenson before practices and games and after game-day shootarounds. Ellenson works on other things with Aaron Gray and others still with Charles Klask.

“We call it lab work,” Ellenson said. “We just stay busy on the court. Me and O – after shootaround, after practice, before games, getting here early – just getting in extra work. That’s the best thing to do right now. Keep growing. I’m only 21. I know I’m talented, so just continue to build on that and hit the weight room hard. I do that three or four times a week, so I focus on maturing as a player and keep growing.”

Ellenson went back to his hometown in northwestern Wisconsin, Rice Lake, over the All-Star break, doing things you do in a Rice Lake winter – cross-country skiing and curling.

“And just chilled in the house with the fam by the fire,” he said. “It’s crazy. I come here and it’s 60 degrees. I went back home and there’s a lot of snow and 11 degrees. Usually people go somewhere warmer; I just went somewhere colder.”

Something else there was a lot of in Rice Lake: questions about why its most celebrated native son wasn’t playing.

“Yeah, it is tough, people asking. They’re just wondering how I’m dealing with stuff and I explain,” he said. “My time will come. Not right now. You never know. That’s kind of where I’m at. I love basketball. Basketball is fun for me. Coming in the gym every day and being able to compete, that’s what I enjoy.”

Under the circumstances that confront the youngest Piston, Henry Ellenson keeps his head up by keeping his nose down, to the grindstone.