Henry Ellenson was among the stars of the 2015 recruiting class that went anywhere other than the bluebloods programs. Like Malik Newman and like Jaylen Brown and like Ben Simmons, Ellenson tried to carve his own path to the NBA, staying home at Marquette, playing with his brother and putting up some impressive numbers without anything close to the same amount of team success.
Will that end up being a wise decision?
Ellenson had a chance to showcase everything that he was able to do well on a basketball court this season, but the lack of a supporting cast that was up to his level made his flaws all the more apparent. A unique talent with a skill-set that blends favorably with the way the NBA is heading, Ellenson also has some red flags that should seriously concern teams that are considering drafting him.
Height: 6′ 11.5″
Wingspan: 7′ 2.25″
2015-16 Stats: 17.0 points, 9.9 boards, 1.5 blocks, 28.8% 3PT
STRENGTHS: Ellenson’s offensive skill-set for someone his size is ridiculous. He’s a shade under 7-feet but capable of snagging a defensive rebound and going coast-to-coast. His handle and mobility in the open floor is not something you see that often from 19-year olds that are that tall.
And that’s not the only place that he’s a weapon offensively. He can score in the low- and mid-post in a variety of ways. He can make jump hooks with both hands. He can back defenders down. He’s got a quick release on his mid-range jumper and can hit it going over either shoulder, and has the potential to be particularly deadly when using inside pivots. He has the handle and the body control to be a nightmare to defend when he ‘pops’ in ball-screen actions or when he attacks close outs. He has three-point range and already can pump-fake and put the ball on the floor.
Efficiency is an issue at this point — we’ll get to that in a second — but the skills and the physical tools are there. Instead of reading about it, just watch. You’ll understand:
WEAKNESSES: There are a couple things about Ellenson’s game that should be concerning, but the biggest issue is, without a doubt, his defense.
He’s just plain bad on that end of the floor. There’s really no other way to put it. He did averaging 1.5 blocks this season, but that had far more to do with his 7-foot-2 wingspan than it did his ability as a rim protector. Because Ellenson is not that. He lacks the vertical explosiveness to challenge at the rim, and more than that, he seemed to simply shy away from it at times. He’s just not a guy with the sense of timing or the desire to be an elite shot blocker.
And that’s not his only issue defensively. Ellenson has ‘heavy feet’, meaning, simply, that he’s slow and he can’t slide side-to-side. He’s a liability in pick-and-roll coverages. He can’t switch onto guards and stay in front of them at the college level. He even struggled with getting out quick enough to hedge pick-and-rolls hard and keep opposing guards from turning the corner. If he can’t do it at that level, what is he going to do against NBA-caliber competition?
There was an element of non-competitiveness to him defensively last season, and it is fair to wonder if the load that he had to carry offensively tired him out and/or made him actively avoid foul trouble. I don’t think it’s an issue of toughness, because Ellenson is a terrific rebounder who can throw his weight around and puts on a clinic for how to box out.
The other major issue for Ellenson right now is that he’s not yet a dangerous perimeter shooter. He hit just 28.2 percent from beyond the arc at the college level, which is a number that needs to improve significantly. He doesn’t have a very quick first step, which means that for him to be able to effectively use his ability to beat defenders off the bounce in half court settings, he’s going to have to do it against close outs. A 28.2 percent three-point shooter will not force NBA bigs to close out hard or long. He doesn’t have any ‘gravity’ yet.
One thing that should behoove Ellenson in the NBA is that he will not have as long of a leash offensively. He’s going to be playing a role. At Marquette, he could more or less do whatever and shoot whenever he wanted to, and that hurt his efficiency and shooting percentages. His shot is a bit flat, but he made 75 percent of his free throws and showed a stroke that looks pretty good. The potential is there.
NBA COMPARISON: This is as tough as a comparison is going to get in this year’s draft, as Ellenson’s combination of skill-set and flaws makes him as unique of a player as you’ll find. How many 7-footers have the ability to grab a rebound and go the length of the floor leading the break? How many of them then can also attack close-outs and score in the low- and mid-post the way Ellenson can?
To me, there isn’t any specific player he can be compared to, mainly because who he ends up being will depend largely on where he ends up and how they decide to utilize that blends of skills and flaws. But if we’re talking about a best-case scenario, I think Kevin Love — not the guy he was pre-Cleveland but better than the guy he’s been in Cleveland — is a fair comparison. Ellenson is a post scorer and, assuming he puts in the work, a big man that can not only spread the floor with his ability to shoot but a guy that can beat a close-out with the bounce. Love doesn’t do that right now.
And, like Love, Ellenson is a terrific rebounder that is never going to be a rim protector, will likely be a below-average defender in the league and can be a downright liability when he’s forced to defend ball-screens or switch onto smaller defenders.
OUTLOOK: Continuing with the Kevin Love theme, I think that Ellenson’s fluidity and perimeter skill-set is going to make him a weapon in the NBA, but so much of that is going to depend on how good he gets shooting the ball from beyond the arc. Love is a career 36.3 percent three-point shooter, making more than two-per game the last three years. Ellenson shot 28.2 percent from three as a freshman.
That matters because he’s never going to be a good defensive player, which means that he’s going to have to be good enough offensively and on the glass to make up for that. Say what you will about Love, but he’s a good enough shooter that he has ‘gravity’; he forces defenses to pay attention to him. He creates space simply by standing at the three-point line.
The other side of this is that becoming a three-point threat will open up the rest of Ellenson’s game. He’s not quick enough to beat people off the dribble when he’s just squaring them up. But when opposing fours and fives are closing out long on him? Then he becomes a real problem to deal with.
And the only way that he remains a major piece on an NBA roster for a long time is if he is a “real problem to deal with” offensively.