For the first two seasons of Henry Ellenson’s career, he has been stuck far back on the bench. Out of 164 games through the last two seasons, Ellenson appeared in just 52 of those games, under 32 percent. The reasons for his lack of playing time are multiple.
Detroit has had better options ahead of him, including Blake Griffin, Tobias Harris, Anthony Tolliver, and even Jon Leuer. For this circumstance, Ellenson cannot be blamed for his inability to get on the court. Each player listed has been cemented in the NBA for years, and have been productive and effective players in their careers.
What Ellenson can receive the blame for is the scarcity of improvement he displayed from year one to year two of his career. The knocks to Ellenson’s game have remained the same since he entered the league in 2016. The origin of his weaknesses falls on the defensive side of the floor. While it would be easiest to just say that Ellenson cannot defend, I’ll explain further because who doesn’t like pain.
The first area of focus when discussing his defensive shortcomings must be strength. Ellenson is 6’11” and listed at 245 pounds. That is the same weight that Stanley Johnson came into the league at when he was drafted in 2015. When going up against opposing power forwards or centers, Ellenson does not have the body to bang down low. It is too easy for his opponent to back him down or just move him out of the way. While he has certainly worked to add strength, he has not made enough improvement in that area, and it will continue to hold him back until he makes the necessary adjustments.
The second area to look at is his footwork or lack thereof. While he is not strong enough for back to the basket style big men, he also is not quick enough to defend quicker combo-forwards. Too many times, his opponent is able to blow by him, leaving Ellenson lost in the dust.
These core shortcomings will hold Ellenson back until they are heavily improved upon. Detroit does not have a good enough defense for Ellenson to struggle the way that he has in years past, and for him to play a major role on the roster.
Yet Ellenson still has potential.
What launched Ellenson into the first round of the 2016 NBA Draft was his offensive repertoire. He is a well-versed player on offense, with both an inside and outside game, as well as unique traits for a power forward.
Looking at Summer League from July, where Ellenson played a prominent role, he averaged 15.7 points and 3.5 assists per game. Efficiency wise, he was not good whatsoever, but as the tournament continued he became more comfortable and his play rose.
In the above clip, Ellenson is able to bully his way to the basket and finish a tough shot. While a stronger body would have made this play easier, Ellenson is still able to grind his way to the basket. He can be crafty with the basketball and knows how to score, even if his limitations make it harder for him to do so.
Ellenson has an exciting turn around jumper that he has displayed the ability to knock down, even though Detroit will be looking to take fewer mid-range jumpers as possible this season. His length and shooting touch make what is a very tough shot seem easier for him.
While he has not been in the best position to show what he can do, Ellenson can score and has the capability to spread the floor.
New head coach, Dwane Casey, has spoken very highly of Ellenson since his arrival to Detroit and has backed his faith in Ellenson by starting him in the first two games of the preseason for Detroit, even if it was a merely de-facto situation.
In 29 minutes against the San Antonio Spurs on Friday, Ellenson posted 11 points on 4-9 shooting, while adding six rebounds and three assists.
Casey has done what Stan Van Gundy never did with Ellenson, and that has been trying to instill confidence in the quiet but talented kid. With Jon Leuer’s injury issues Ellenson could very well be in the regular rotation for the Pistons to start the season. The same could be said if Leuer is healthy because Casey has really talked Ellenson up.
For Detroit, a team lacking a copious amount of youth, Ellenson becoming a legitimate player would be huge. He’s entering a critical third year in the league and is just 21 years old.
With four preseason games remaining, Ellenson should be a player to watch heavily. The preseason may determine if he belongs in the rotation or not, and Casey is hoping all the buzz he’s created around Ellenson can hold true.
Featured Image: Darren Abate/Associated Press