ORLANDO – The way Henry Ellenson sees it, he’s been given the password to an exclusive club.
“I think it’s a rite of passage,” Ellenson said of the face mask he’ll wear for Summer League to protect a broken nose. “Being a Detroit Piston, you’ve got to wear the mask. That’s what the trainer’s been telling me.”
From Bill Laimbeer to Rip Hamilton to last season’s rash of broken beaks – Aron Baynes, Tobias Harris, Michael Gbinije, Darrun Hilliard – the clear composite plastic face mask has become a virtual alternative logo for the Pistons.
Ellenson incurred the injury playing a pickup game back home with his brothers and friends in Rice Lake, Wis., a few weeks ago, but he’s a full participant in two-a-day Summer League practices and expects to gobble up major minutes over the five-game schedule that opens Saturday.
And over his 10 days in central Florida, he’ll try to learn another password that will gain him admission to an even more exclusive club: Stan Van Gundy’s rotation for the 2017-18 Pistons season.
He’s guessing that the password starts with a D.
“We talked and the biggest thing he stressed was defense,” Ellenson said of Van Gundy’s expectations for his second Summer League since the Pistons drafted him 18th after his freshman season at Marquette last June.
“He just wants my trust on the defensive end and I’ve got a chance to prove that here in these next 10 (days). Being able to play in Summer League, you don’t get this kind of action for the rest of the summer, so I’ve got to make the most of this time and really focus on sitting down, getting my calls right, being in the right position and just making the right defensive play.”
Just as Ellenson has grasped Van Gundy’s exhortations that defense is his key to playing time, he acknowledges that adding strength is at the core of becoming a more capable defender. He’s amended his diet, he said, while working with strength coach Jordan Sabourin.
“Me and Jordan have been hitting it hard. I’ve been eating healthier, so that’s why I’ve been dropping fat but also trying to put on muscle. My core and my hips are huge defensively, being able to sit down and get in a stance and overall just getting stronger. I just feel a lot lighter. I feel like I sit in a stance better. To be able to get up and down today was good. There’s nothing like going against this kind of competition. It was a good first day. I’m excited about the rest of this week of practices.”
Ellenson soldiered through his rookie season with a receptive attitude, earning admiration on both sides of the equation for the way he embraced the Detroit to Grand Rapids D-League shuttle. His reward came in the season’s dying days with the Pistons all but officially eliminated from the playoff chase when Van Gundy gave him significant playing time. Ellenson averaged 9.8 points and 7.3 rebounds while flashing the offensive versatility that’s his calling card.
“That was huge, just being able to get those minutes toward the end of the year,” he said. “I know as a team it wasn’t where we wanted to be, but for me personally I think that was huge. Being able to get that in-game experience, actually get a taste for what it’s like and give me something to work for in the off-season, get a little motivation, that was a good way to end the year. I felt like I was ready for that, going through the whole year, putting the work in, and to play well. There’s obviously a long way to go with that, but going into the summer I think that helped a lot.”
He hopes those minutes come in more meaningful circumstances in his second season. The rite of passage to make that a reality is a process he understands begins in the Orange County Parks & Recreation gym the Pistons call home for a week every summer.