The numbers for Henry Ellenson in his second NBA season with the Detroit Pistons are pretty pedestrian.
The 6-foot-11 forward is averaging a mere six points and three rebounds and he’s played in only five of the Pistons’ 14 games.
Yet, if you listen to Ish Smith, the Pistons’ veteran backup point guard, one shouldn’t read much into those numbers. To Smith, the 20-year-old Ellenson has a major upside to his game and is on course to becoming a quality NBA player.
Smith said, behind closed doors, in team practices, Ellenson has clearly served notice to his coaches and teammates that his future in the league is extremely bright.
“You should see what he does to us in practice,’’ Smith said of Ellenson, who was the 18th overall selection in the 2016 draft and who recently had the team option of his contract for $1.85 million next season picked up. “We all know how talented Henry is. Henry can play.’’
Before Tuesday night’s Bucks-Pistons game in Milwaukee, Ellenson, who left Marquette University after one exceptional season in which he averaged 17 points and 9.7 rebounds, discussed an array of topics, including his reaction to seeing his idol, Carmelo Anthony, for the first time in person and how taking a pen to paper and writing down his goals has helped him achieve them.
This is your second season in the NBA. It seems you’re much more comfortable and confident than you were as a rookie.
Henry Ellenson: “Yeah, for sure. I feel I have better grasp on things. You know things aren’t going as fast as they were last year. I just have a better understanding on how things work. Things are going good.’’
You can prepare all you want coming into the NBA, but there’s still going to be surprises. What’s the one thing that really caught you off guard las season?
HE: “Going into the NBA, there’s a lot of things you don’t expect because everything is new. Last year, just growing and learning as player, just getting better, knowing what we do as a team offensively and defensively was a learning year and I tried to make the most of every day at getting better.’’
Physically, you look a lot stronger. Obviously, you spent soe serious time in the weight room.
HE: “I do feel a lot stronger. I spent a solid year and a half in the weight room and it’s paying off. My base, my core are stronger. I just got to continue to make strides in the weight room. I’m only 20, so I need to continue get stronger so I can go up against guys who are stronger than me.’’
How much stronger are you compared to last season?
HE: “I can’t tell you the specifics, but the numbers have jumped, for sure. They weren’t bad last year; I’ve always been somewhat strong. But I’m definitely seen gains in areas, and that’s something I’m proud of and something that I want to continue to work with because I know it can help make me a great player.’’
Have you added some weight as well?
HE: “I think I’m around 240, and that’s what I’ve been at for a while now. I feel comfortable at that weight. I think I move well at this weight.’’
What did you do during the offseason?
HE: “I spent my time in between home in Rice Lake and Detroit. I spent a lot of time in the gym working out, getting better, building with the coaches. Summer league was huge for me.’’
In what respects was the Summer League huge for you?
HE: “Just to see the progress I’ve made since last year. It showed that I’m headed in the right direction.’’
Most rookies are starry-eyed and are almost in a state of awe when they are on the court competing against players who they idolized as kids. Was there a moment last season when you saw a particular player and got starry-eyed?
HE: “Yeah there was. Melo (Carmelo Anthony) has always been my favorite. So, when we played against him, I watched his warmups and watched him extra closely. I sat out there longer than usual just to check him out. That was pretty cool.’’
Did you at any point get a chance to chat with Anthony?
HE: “No, I didn’t. But I still want to.’’
So, how long have you been a Carmelo Anthony fans?
HE: “Ever since middle school, high school, especially when he got to the Knicks. They were always on TV. I love his game and way he scores. I’ve always been a big NBA fan and he’s always been one of my favorites.’’
Have you patterned any of your game after Anthony’s?
HE: “I try to learn moves from a lot of guys but, yes, him for sure. I’ve taken bits and pieces from his game.’’
What’s one thing you’ve taken from his game?
HE: “I like his face-up moves, his jab jumpers. That’s one thing I always try to mimic about his game.’’
Was there anyone who kind of took you under his wing last season while you tried to learn the ropes of the NBA as a rookie?
HE: “The coaches were great to me and the guys were huge for me. One guy who really helped was Beno Udrih. He had been in the league for a long time and he took me under his wing and taught me a lot about the game. He taught and showed me some things I’ve never thought about before as a player.’’
Beno always had a great reputation around the league as being a personable guy and great teammate. Was there one thing Beno especially helped you?
HE: “I’ve always felt like I have a high basketball IQ, but Beno’s basketball IQ is off the chain. He’s been doing his so long and seems to see things before they happen. He’d talked to me about a lot of things like playing off the pick-and-rolls, being able to read different screens, showing me different ways to score, all different scenarios. Playing with him and learning from him was huge.’’
One last question about your rookie season: What was your most embarrassing moment?
HE: “I actually had it pretty nice. Nothing bad. I didn’t have to do too many things to embarrass myself. I’d have to say early on when we had a dance, and even this year for a fan night in front of the whole crowd (at Little Caesars Arena). I don’t want to say it was my most embarrassing moment because I think I have some pretty good dance moves. I got good moves. I can dance smooth. But that was one of the funnier moments I had as a rookie.’’
This season you spent most of your time with the Pistons and had a stint with the Pistons’ G League team in Grand Rapids. How has that worked out?
HE: “I played game in the G League this season and I just looked at it as an opportunity to gain minutes to keep me ready. For me, I just wanted to go down there and be aggressive and make the most of it. Here (with the Pistons), there are some nights when I’m in the lineup and some nights I’m not. I just got to stay ready and stay focused. It’s a long season and we’re going to need everyone this season. I just got to be ready when it’s my chance.’’
Has coach Stan Van Gundy talked to you about your role on this team?
HE: “My role is scoring the ball. That’s what I do. I try to do it within the team system, not force anything. I think one thing he (Van Gundy) wants me to do be able to create off the dribble and attack the rack and try to make another play for my teammates. That’s something I can get better at, setting up guys with my drives.’’
You played at Marquette and Van Gundy coached at Wisconsin – two fierce in-state rivals. Do you two have some “friendly’’ conversations about your respective schools?
HE: “Not with coach Stan. But I do like to talk a little bit with Jon Leuer because he’s a Wisconsin guy. He was a Badger.’’
Did you and Jon have any side wagers when Wisconsin plays Marquette?
HE: “We didn’t last year, but I think this year we got to. There’s no way anyone is going to see me in Badger red, but I think we got to figure out some kind of bet like that. But it’s always fun going back and forth with him about Marquette and Wisconsin. And now we have Dwight Buycks, too. So we got two Marquette guys on the roster.’’
Do you set any goals for yourself this season. Are you a goal-oriented person?
HE: “Yeah, I do. I have personal goals.’’
Do you want to share any of them?
HE “Just like getting better every day. Somedays I focus on trying to get stronger. And I do want to get into the rotation. Things like that. I put them (his goals) on paper. I do it from time to time. I could show you a piece of paper of my goals I had when I was a freshman in high school. In high school, my goal was to get to the NBA. So I’ve always had goals my whole career. It helps keep me focused on what I want to be as a person and as a player.’’
The Pistons are off to a terrific start with the second-best record in the Eastern Conference. What’s your take on the team?
HE: “We have been playing really unselfish basketball, so it’s fun because the ball is moving. I think the guys are happy for each other when they have success out there on the court. We’re a team that wants to go to the playoffs and make some noise. But it’s early on in the season and we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. We have had a great start. We have 10 wins, but 10 wins isn’t going to get you into the playoffs. We got a long way to go. We all know that. But there’s a good vibe around this team. I’m excited where we are heading.’’
It seems life is good for Henry Ellenson.
HE: “It is. I can’t complain.’’
Photo: Detroit Pistons/NBA photos