EDITOR’S NOTE: A version of this story originally appeared in the December issue of Buckshot The Magazine, available now for free on newsstands throughout the Chippewa Valley.
MINNEAPOLIS — A tease, a taste, a sneak peak. Call it whatever. For six games, Henry Ellenson got it.
It was a spot in the rotation. He got it. Then he lost it.
It whet his appetite. It boosted his confidence. It motivated him.
Now he’s waiting for another chance at it. Coiled. Patient but ready to seize it.
The pride of Rice Lake has been a Detroit Piston for a year and a half. The next step is to be a Detroit Pistons regular.
His brief stint in that role is all the fuel he needs to get back there.
“I was able to prove myself that I was able to do things out there on the court,” Ellenson said. “It just pushes me to continue to work hard and stay focused on how I can help the team. Just be ready for any moment. Be able to be locked in on any night for when my name is called.”
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The closest Ellenson gets to an NBA homecoming is the Pistons’ once-a-season trip to Minneapolis to face the Timberwolves at the Target Center. This season’s trip came Nov. 19. Had it been a month earlier, he might have been in the thick of the action.
The second-year forward, now listed at 6-foot-11 and 245 pounds, opened the season as one of Detroit’s top bench options at power forward. He appeared in four of the first six games and five of the first eight. That included a promising 16-minute run in the opener. He scored 13 points, grabbed four rebounds and went 2-for-4 from 3-point range as the Pistons beat the Hornets 102-90.
Four games later, against the Timberwolves no less, Ellenson had one of his best games as a pro with 14 points and five rebounds in 21 minutes. He provided one of the night’s highlights with an emphatic dunk over Nemanja Bjelica. The only time he’s been more productive was a 15-point, 11-rebound showing against the Rockets on April 7. That was one of the two starts he made late in his rookie season. He played 26 minutes in a 114-109 win.
“When he has an opportunity, he makes the best of it,” Pistons rookie guard Luke Kennard said. “He makes an impact any chance that he gets.”
But rotations, much like scores and rosters, can change in a hurry in the NBA. By the time the rematch with the Timberwolves rolled around, Ellenson was a spectator. By then, the more experienced Anthony Tolliver had taken over the backup minutes at the four.
Ellenson’s pseudo-homecoming marked the eighth consecutive game his name had the dreaded acronym next to it in the box score.
DNP, as in “did not play.” Coach’s decision.
That Sunday afternoon at Target Center, Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy, who’s not known to be disingenuous, seemed almost guilty when Ellenson’s name was brought up.
“That’s been the toughest thing with our team so far, because Henry has played a lot better,” Van Gundy said. “When he got opportunities early in the year, he played really well.”
And sooner or later, Ellenson will get his chance. A lot can happen over the 82-game grind that is an NBA season. An injury here. A suspension there. One flurry of two or three 3-pointers in four minutes and he could find himself right back in the rotation.
“He comes to work every single day,” said Pistons forward Tobias Harris, whose locker is right next to Ellenson’s. “He works his butt off. When the opportunity does come for him, I know he’ll be ready.”
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Harris and Kennard can relate to Ellenson.
Harris was just 18 when the Bucks made him the 19th pick of the 2011 draft. He was all of 19 when he made his NBA debut. Ellenson was 19 when the Pistons picked him 18th overall in 2016. He’s still only 20. He won’t turn 21 until Jan. 13.
Like Ellenson, Harris spent just one year in college, Harris at Tennessee and Ellenson at Marquette.
Like Ellenson, Harris is a multi-faceted, versatile forward.
And like Ellenson, Harris had to bide his time.
Harris played in only 42 games as a rookie with the Bucks. A year-two trade to Orlando led to an increased role before he was dealt again to Detroit. Now, in his seventh season, he’s blossoming. He’s the Pistons top scorer, averaging a career-best 18.8 points per game.
Granted, he’s been a major-minutes player from his second year on. But Harris knows what his locker room neighbor is going through.
“It’s tough. As a player, you’re competitive,” Harris said. “So you don’t really want to be patient. There’s a fine line between being patient and being hungry at the same time and understanding that you want to work to get on the floor, which he’s doing. He has his head on straight. He knows the foundation, the base that needs to happen for him to evolve into that type of player.”
Kennard, a sweet-shooting guard from Duke, was this year’s first-round pick. Depite being a rookie, he’s older than Ellenson. He turned 21 back on June 24. But they’ve got a lot in common. They were teammates in the Orlando Summer League. They’ve both made trips to Grand Rapids, Mich., to get minutes with the Drive, the Pistons’ G-League affiliate.
And both of them have spent time on the fringes of the Pistons rotation. Kennard only played in four of the first nine games this season. Eventually his perimeter shooting — he’s hitting 38.7 percent of his 3s — got him on the court regularly. As of Dec. 20, he’d played in 22 consecutive games.
“You have to take the opportunities that you have,” Kennard said. “If you’re not playing, you have to learn, find ways to get better. That’s what we’ve been doing. That’s what we’re continuing to do. That’s just our mentality, and it’s been good for us.”
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So until Van Gundy calls his name again on a regular basis, Ellenson will continue to hone his craft. He’s already made major strides, from both physical and skill standpoints.
Ellenson may never look like the oldest guy in the Pistons’ locker room. But he’s noticeably bigger and more defined. He’s looking a little less like the baby-faced kid who dominated the Big Rivers Conference. He’s stronger and more confident, a product of a productive offseason split between Rice Lake and Detroit.
He hit the weight room hard and continued to work on his finishing and perimeter skills. Improving his ball-handling has been a drive that’s consumed him since his sophomore year of high school. That’s the development that altered his course from “really good big man who will have an impactful college career” to “future one-and-done NBA prospect.” He’s still not satisfied in that regard.
Ellenson’s shot has been more consistent. He hit 29.4 percent of his 3s last season. This year, he’s up to 38.1. That number should only rise.
“He’s taken some really big strides in his game,” Harris said. “He’s going to be a good player in this league.”
He’s still learning, no doubt about it. But Ellenson looks and feels more comfortable in an NBA setting. There’s no way to fully prepare for life in the NBA. The season is a long haul. There is constant travel. The game is played at a lightning-fast pace. With a year under his belt, the quiet kid from Rice Lake seems a lot more at home.
“I feel a lot more comfortable,” Ellenson said. “I feel like I’m still learning something new every day. That’s part of the process. I feel like as a second-year guy, the game, I’m not having to think as much. What play I’ve got to do. Where I go screen. I feel I’m more comfortable out there on the court. I know where I’m supposed to be offensively, defensively. I feel a lot better in that standpoint. My rookie year was a lot of learning when it came to those kind of things.”
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While he’d love to be seeing more minutes, Ellenson is ahead of his rookie-season pace. Last year he appeared in only 19 of 82 games, averaging 3.2 points and 2.2 rebounds. This year he’s played in 12 of the first 31. His averages are at 4.1 points and 2.2 rebounds.
It’s also hard to argue with the results of the current rotation. Tolliver has provided a stable, veteran presence off the bench. The well-traveled 32-year-old forward is a more rugged defensive option than Ellenson at this stage of his career. And Tolliver’s shooting 41.2 percent from 3.
More importantly, the Pistons started 12-6 before some recent struggles and are jockeying for Eastern Conference playoff position. If the playoffs began today, they’d be in. It’s been a nice bounce-back from last season’s disappointing 37-45 campaign.
“This year’s going good,” Ellenson said. “I just hope to continue winning.”
And continue improving.
Van Gundy, who in addition to coach is the Pistons’ president of basketball operations, remains steadfast in his praise of Ellenson. He sees him as an important building block for the franchise’s future. Big men with Ellenson’s shooting touch and ball-handling skills are a valuable commodity. He’ll continue to work on his defense, an area he’s already made strides in. He’ll keep getting better offensively.
His time hasn’t quite come yet. But when it does, he’ll be waiting for it.
“I think the long-term outlook for him is very, very good,” Van Gundy said. “But unfortunately, right now, he’s just not getting a great opportunity – though our team has already showed that as games go, things can change. All 14 guys on our roster have gotten opportunities in meaningful time already this year. Henry will get his chance again.”