Tolliver puts competition aside to offer wisdom, solace to Ellenson to Pistons’ benefit

Anthony Tolliver and Henry Ellenson, though competing for the same minutes, have a mentor-protégé relationship for the Pistons.
Chris Schwegler/NBAE/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

AUBURN HILLS – When Stan Van Gundy completed the roster by bringing Anthony Tolliver back after a one-year detour, he was attracted as much by Tolliver’s presence as by his 3-point shot and defensive resume.

Here’s a slice of what that means.

Tolliver was thrown into the mix for minutes at power forward, a position job shared by Tobias Harris and Jon Leuer last season and who remain entrenched – and a position where the future might well be Henry Ellenson.

So impressive was Ellenson in training camp and through the preseason, Van Gundy decided his potential was the tiebreaker for whatever role would be left for a third power forward. Ellenson had two strong regular-season performances: 13 points in 16 minutes in the season-opening win over Charlotte, 14 points in 21 minutes in a thumping of Minnesota.

But Tolliver bailed out the Pistons twice over the span of a week, kick starting a rally from 21 down at Madison Square Garden to beat the Knicks and in the thick of a comeback from 13 down to beat the Clippers on the road. Tolliver also played a role in another impressive win – and another remarkable comeback, this one from 14 down to win at Golden State.

So – for now, and permanent in the NBA lasts as long as the next game – Tolliver is Van Gundy’s backup power forward, a role that’s taken on an increased profile with Leuer having missed the past five games with a sprained ankle.

And here’s where the stuff about Tolliver’s character – leadership, fiber, presence, whatever you want to call it – comes into play.

Because while Ellenson is dealing with the disappointment of losing his grip on a rotation spot, Tolliver is offering him all of the counsel of a 10-year pro who went undrafted and had to fight his way through the D-League and endless trial runs before establishing his place as a bona fide NBA player has to offer.

That’s what Tolliver does for all of his teammates, of course. By his own admission, he’s the most vocal player the Pistons have. But doing it with a guy in direct competition for minutes? Does that surprise anyone?

“Not at all,” Van Gundy said. “A.T. is, number one, a pro; number two, a great teammate. When you’re talking great teammates, you talk about guys who are sincerely concerned about the welfare of others. There’s a lot of guys who are great teammats when they’re getting 36 minutes a night and not so good when they’re not.”

Tolliver learned a lesson from the 2013-14 seaon when native Detroiter Chris Douglas-Roberts joined Charlotte on a 10-day deal. Tolliver was on a roll and Douglas-Roberts, he said, “was my biggest fan and just being an awesome guy. And then roles got reversed. I didn’t shoot it as well, so Coach put him in. The first couple of games, I was kind of mad. And then I realized, what kind of person am I? If I’m not going to be his biggest fan, I’m a hypocrite.”

So Tolliver hasn’t hesitated to help steer Ellenson through his early-career travails.

“Hey, the kid is amazing,” Tolliver said. “He’s going to be a great player in this league for a long time. Right now, things are going well with me in the rotation, but if things were going well with him in the rotation I would be his biggest fan. He’s a great young player. He’s going to have a long, awesome career and he’s going to help us this year. I know there are going to be moments when he comes in and helps us win games. As long as he continues to stay ready, I think he’s going to do a great job for us.”

Ellenson admits to disappointment but has been vigilant about preventing it from turning to discouragement. He is, after all, still the youngest player on the roster, a few months from his 21st birthday. At a similar age, Tolliver was in his junior year at Creighton. If Ellenson needs a reminder of the virtues of patience and continuing to grind, he only has to look a few lockers down to find it.

That’s something I’m learning more – just being patient and understanding things and how they work,” Ellenson said. “A.T., he’s a testament to all of that. He’s talented and does really good things for us and you see it every night. It’s definitely something to learn from him, for sure.”

Van Gundy keeps his finger on the pulse of things like that – the way players interact, the way young players deal with adversity. He’s lauded Ellenson’s work ethic and thirst for learning since early in his rookie season and did so again when he declared Ellenson to be in the rotation last month. He’s not seen any wavering even in the face of a demotion.

“It is tough. He was playing and playing well,” he said. “It’s just that A.T. had some really strong performances and moved ahead of him in the rotation. But it was no fault of Henry’s and Henry’s work and focus in practice have still been good. I have every confidence that when we call on him – and we will – that he’ll be ready to go.”

The experience is easier for Ellenson to endure because of the strong start to the Pistons season. They’ll carry a 10-3 record to Milwaukee, which starts a stretch of nine of the next 13 games away from Little Caesars Arena.

“I’ve just got to focus on what I can control,” Ellenson said. “My teammates tell me the same thing. I just focus on getting better every day and to improve and be ready when my chance is. I don’t think it’s the end of my chances on the court. I think I’ll get some more coming up. I’ve just got to be ready. Obviously, a little disappointing, but the team is winning. You’ve got to be happy for the guys. That’s what it’s all about – getting wins, just being a part of the team.”

It’s a mindset that Tolliver exemplifies – and exemplified as recently as a few weeks ago. While Ellenson was contributing to that season-opening win, Tolliver spent the game in street clothes, inactive. How he handled it didn’t go unnoticed – by Van Gundy, by his teammates, by Ellenson.

“A.T.’s a great dude,” Ellenson said. “The way he talks to the team, I feel like his voice is huge for us. Yeah, I am in direct competition with him, but I don’t view it as that. I feel like he’s someone I can learn from. He’s been doing this for a while. I want to be doing that, so just learning from him is huge.”

That’s why – a big part of why, at least – Van Gundy brought Tolliver back in free agency one year after he left to sign with Sacramento.

“A.T. was the same early in the year when we didn’t have him in the rotation,” he said. “A.T. is truly a great teammate. He can step back and look at what other people are going through. Part of being a great teammate is just being a damn good person. He honestly cares about what other people are going through. He’s trying to do what’s best for those guys and for the team. He’s a joy to have around.”