Pushing the boundaries: Ellenson, Brown, Thomas leave Las Vegas with a blueprint for what’s next

Henry Ellenson got to push the boundaries of his comfort zone over six games in the NBA Summer League.
Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

Henry Ellenson led the Summer League Pistons in assists. Bruce Brown led them in rebounds.

Somewhere in there is a lesson of Summer League. It means different things to different players. For rookies, it’s getting their feet wet and learning what the NBA is all about – from two-a-day practices, to being at the appointed spot on time to morning shootarounds to getting a cram course on organizational terminology and tenets, it’s an instant immersion to see how the new guys respond.

For the many players brought in to fill out the roster and allow for complete teams that enable a setting to approximate the NBA, it’s a jobs fair before the probing eyes of all 30 NBA teams and a smorgasbord of scouts for international teams across several continents.

Those guys – often well into their 20s and playing for their livelihood – love to put a few notches on their belts by beating up one-and-done lottery picks with much physical and mental development ahead of them.

And then there are players like Ellenson, two years into their NBA careers but still among the youngest players in Summer League. For perspective, while more was expected of Ellenson than any of the 17 players on the Pistons roster, he was the youngest among them.

For players in his position – not a rookie, not a desperate street free agent looking to catch on somewhere, anywhere – Summer League is about pushing the boundaries. It isn’t about doing the things Dwane Casey’s new coaching staff already knows Ellenson can do well; it’s about putting him in some new and perhaps uncomfortable – or at least unfamiliar – situations to expand the scope of his tool set.

Pistons assistant coach Sean Sweeney a few times referenced a player’s “circle of competence” and the balance between understanding who you are as a player by staying within that circle while also trying to expand its diameter.

The Pistons most definitely tried to expand Ellenson’s circle of competence in Summer League and that, more than anything, explains his wobbly shooting numbers. Ellenson shot less than 30 percent over six games and less than 20 percent from the 3-point arc.

But shot-making is the one area of Ellenson’s game that is least in doubt. Even in limited sample sizes, he’s already shown that in real NBA games. The player development coach Casey brought with him from Toronto, D.J. Bakker, said he saw a “knock-down” shooter in his first workout with Ellenson.

So some of that 17 percent 3-point accuracy from Ellenson in Summer League was simply him missing the variety of 3-point attempt the Pistons most desire – good, open looks off of side-to-side ball movement. But some of it was Ellenson being caught in late-clock situations when he was utilized as the de facto point guard in half-court offensive sets.

If Luke Kennard had played – Kennard tweaked his left knee on the first day of Summer League practices and was held out of all games – Ellenson would probably have been able to play closer to his comfort zone and almost certainly would have posted better shooting numbers. He’d have gotten more good shots and taken fewer bad ones and been used less as a facilitator and more as a finisher.

He’d have stayed more within his circle of competence, in other words, but wouldn’t have had as many opportunities to expand its diameter.

Kennard’s absence also put the ball in Brown’s hands more frequently and he, too, pushed his boundaries beyond what he likely would have otherwise. How Brown gets used probably will have more to do with what the Pistons need, but he showed in Las Vegas that he can make an impact on pretty much every facet of the game.

The other rookie, Khyri Thomas, sat out the last two games with a minor hamstring injury but showed over the first four games that he’s as advertised: plays every possession, digs in on defense and has the makings of a plus 3-point stroke. He also caught the eyes of the coaching staff for his ability to get to the rim in practices.

Ellenson, Brown and Thomas all came away from Summer League with a clearer idea of what the rest of their summer should entail in order to hit the ground running in training camp. And that alone made it a productive Summer League for the Pistons.