Hustle, Hurdles, and the Road Less Traveled
Back in early March, prior to his first start in a 76ers’ jersey, James Ennis III described a text message from his younger brother.
“Thank you for everything,” was the gist.
“No problem, bro,” Ennis III replied.
For one of the newest Sixers, family is everything.
“That’s what it’s all about,” said Ennis III. “[My younger family members] not growing up like we did.”
Ennis III’s road to the NBA wasn’t lined with glitz, glamour, camera flashes, and a handshake from commissioner Adam Silver. Instead, his is a story of grit, determination, and a hefty sense of duty to provide for those he loves.
Now, Ennis III is being counted on to serve as a key piece in the Sixers’ postseason rotation.
Tobias Harris, who’s known Ennis III a few years now, says that on the court, the Southern California native earns his keep by “doing all the little things – offensive rebounds, hustle plays and defending.”
For Ennis III, it’s been a decade of hustle plays.
Rewind to 2009, and Ennis III is starting his freshman year of college at College of the Canyons, the first of three junior colleges he would attend in just two years. His talent was clear, but his path was never linear.
With sights set on making an NBA roster, Ennis III began jumping hurdles one by one.
His stint at College of the Canyons was cut short midway through his first year.
Ennis III then moved back to his family home in Ventura, California, about 50 miles away. There, he enrolled at Oxnard College, but was forced to sit out a year due to college basketball transfer rules.
After his freshman season at Oxnard, Ennis III moved on to his third school, Ventura College, just 10 miles away, in order to seek superior academic and basketball opportunities.
It was during Ennis III’s year at Ventura that a coach at Long Beach State came to watch him play.
“We were on the track,” Ennis III said. “I just remember running so fast to show how athletic I was.”
Long Beach State liked what it saw, and invited Ennis III to join its team for the 2011-12 season.
“Just being able to go to DI, that was a checkmark I always wanted to do. So, I felt really good about that,” Ennis said.
At Long Beach State, Ennis III played for Dan Monson, who last month finished his 12th season at the school.
Recently reached by phone, Monson described Ennis III as simply “humble and grateful.” At one point, Monson said, Ennis III wondered if he would ever start for the 49ers.
He quickly became one of the team’s best players.
“He was always a hard worker,” Monson said. “A lot of these kids think they’re better than they are -- and he was just the opposite.”
The 49ers would make the NCAA Tournament in Ennis III’s debut season, a first for Long Beach State in five years.
“I was nervous. It was the biggest stage I’d ever played on. [It was a] very important game—you lose, you go home.”
And though the 49ers ultimately did go home, Ennis III went into the following summer re-committed to his goals in advance of a big season.
“It was my senior year, I was supposed to be the head of the snake,” Ennis said. “I worked tremendously hard that summer, like nonstop, to be the player I was.”
The work paid off – as Ennis III earned Big West Player of the Year honors in 2013, averaging 17.0 points and 6.9 rebounds per game, while shooting 49.1 percent from the field.
“I label James… as an X-factor,” Monson said. “He’s not going to beat you by scoring, he’s not going to beat you by rebounding, he’s not going to beat you with his defense, but when you put all those together, he’s going to beat you.”
Scoring in double figures every game his senior campaign, Ennis III put himself on a path towards making his NBA dreams come true.
“I found out I was going to get drafted, and I was like, ‘Man, if I did, that would be unbelievable,’ because that’s something I wanted since I was little,” Ennis III said.
There were no ‘ifs’ on draft night in 2013. The Atlanta Hawks selected James Ennis III 50th overall.
But navigating the series of events that came next, and would continue to unfold in the years to follow, wasn’t that simple.
The same evening as the draft, Atlanta traded Ennis III to the Miami Heat, which offered him a spot on the roster of their G League affiliate, the Sioux Falls Skyforce.
Hurdle -- Needing to provide for his family, Ennis III was then faced with a financial decision.
“I had to look at myself in the mirror like, ‘Man, you’ve got to take this next step and go overseas, and get a little bit more money for your family.’ So, I did that.”
Weeks after seemingly reaching his lifelong goal of being drafted, Ennis III would leave his family for the first time, traveling halfway around the world. That year, he would play in Australia, and go on to win a championship with the Perth Wildcats.
(Perhaps the 76ers, with their host of connections to the land down under, were part of Ennis III’s destiny all along.)
“Trying different foods, meeting new people… I really enjoyed Australia,” Ennis III said. “I do miss it.”
After a strong showing in Australia, Ennis III rejoined the Heat for the 2014-15 season. He made quite the splash in his NBA debut:
Despite appearing in 62 games that season, Ennis III’s stint in Miami came to an end. The Heat traded him, along with Mario Chalmers, to the Memphis Grizzlies. Ennis III would spend the majority of the 2015-16 season with the Grizzlies’ G League affiliate, the Iowa Energy, before getting waived.
“It was tough for me, you know, because I worked so hard to be in the league,” Ennis III said, referring to breaking into the NBA.
Once again, Ennis III fought. Once again, the motivation was his family.
He says his younger siblings kept him going.
“It’s not about me,” Ennis III said of the thoughts that were driving him back then, “It’s about my family.”
On March 30, 2016, Ennis III received another call up to the NBA stage, signing a 10-day contract with the New Orleans Pelicans. After the deal expired, New Orleans signed him for the remainder of the season. He scored 28 points in the Pelicans’ final game.
That summer, Memphis welcomed Ennis III back on a two-year deal. Finally, he and his family could enjoy the financial stability that came with a full-time NBA contract.
About a season-and-a-half later, in February of 2018, Ennis III was on the move again - traded to Detroit, where he and Harris would unite as teammates for the first time.
A year after that, despite opening the 2018-19 campaign on different teams, Ennis III and Harris found themselves as teammates once more. Ennis III came to the 76ers via a deal with the Houston Rockets, while Harris was obtained through a swap with the LA Clippers.
“I’m happy for him, because he works really hard,” Harris said. “He’s in here every day getting better. It’s good to always see guys who put the work in – good character guys – who come in and play well too.”
Up until recently, Ennis III was sidelined for almost two weeks with a right quad contusion.
Brett Brown was glad to have him back for Game 2 of the Sixers’ Eastern Conference Quarterfinals series against the Brooklyn Nets, a resounding 145-123 victory.
“I think the inclusion of James Ennis helped us maybe more than others might truly understand,” Brown said.
Now, in the thick of a playoff run, Ennis III says that even though he’s accomplished many of his goals, there’s still more to do. His motivation remains exactly the same.
It’s as simple as a text, and as important as anything. For James Ennis III, it’s all about his family.
“They’re happy now,” Ennis III said. “That’s what it’s about, just because, you struggle so long. Everybody’s smiling, everybody’s thankful.”