AUBURN HILLS – In a world where the NBA doesn’t exist and whatever basketball league fills the vacuum pays $15 an hour, Henry Ellenson would be playing there. And be pinching himself at his good fortune that somebody’s paying him to do what he loves more than anything else.
That’s a quality Stan Van Gundy noted early on as a rookie. He needed multiple layers of muscle and to maybe grow enough of a beard to invest in a Bic disposable razor, but the incongruous nimbleness and scoring touch in a 6-foot-11 frame was always there, right alongside the passion for the game.
Van Gundy figured the rest would come. Before Ellenson’s first preseason was over, Van Gundy said the day was coming – whether during his rookie season or sometime in year two – that Ellenson would force his hand and command playing time.
That time appears to be now.
As big a believer as Van Gundy is in the work ethic and skill level of Ellenson, he didn’t sign Anthony Tolliver to be his mentor. The personnel decision from Wednesday’s 102-90 season-opening win over Charlotte that surprised me most: Ellenson over Tolliver.
Van Gundy divulged more about the thought process after Thursday’s practice and he admits it was basically a coin flip. But he rolled with Ellenson’s unknown to see exactly what the Pistons had.
“It took forever to make the decision. That’s a really tough call,” he said. “A.T.’s a veteran guy, a great competitor and can really shoot the ball. But Henry has played really, really well and I guess right now – if things are even – I’m going to give the young guy a chance to show us what he can do. I pretty much know what A.T. can do and what you’re going to get out of him. He’s a tremendous pro. But I don’t know with Henry.”
They got a glimpse. Thirteen points in 16 minutes is high-end production for a 20-year-old playing “the most meaningful NBA game” he’s ever played in, as Van Gundy said.
My hunch – until Wednesday morning, when Tolliver was spotted putting in extra work, a sign a player knows he’s not going to get much burn that night – was Van Gundy would lean toward Tolliver. Why? Because of his 3-point shooting and his defense, two areas Van Gundy prioritized for improvement over the off-season, two areas where Tolliver was established, two areas where Ellenson struggled as a rookie.
And Van Gundy himself admitted after the game, “I tend to err on the side of veterans.”
This is where we pause to say it’s one game and we surely haven’t heard the last of Tolliver. Van Gundy is committed to mining every inch of a deep roster for the contributions it makes possible. The inactive list, he said, could well become a game-to-game thing based on matchups, the schedule and everything else that informs a coach’s thousand game-day decisions.
It really came down to a hunch and a desire to find out how Ellenson might respond to opportunity. Ellenson had no idea he’d get in the game, he said, until Van Gundy turned to him late in the first quarter and hollered, “Henry!”
“To put in the work this summer and get to this point and be ready when my name was called, it felt good,” he said. “Guys found me in the right places, made good passes, Coach called a couple of plays for me, so it was a good night.”
A really good night, a really good launching point for a career Van Gundy expects to go places – very good places. During the preseason, he talked about the work Ellenson logged over the off-season and how he doesn’t think anything really matters to him except family and basketball.
It’s not the lifestyle that attracted Ellenson to the NBA; it’s the game, the one he honed in the gym in the northwest corner of Wisconsin in an idyllic sounding place called Rice Lake.
“Henry, he’s really worked at it,” Van Gundy said. “As much or more than anybody in here. He really wants to be a player. He’s put in a lot of time and he had a good preseason. It was certainly very, very close. There was almost nothing separating them. So I decided to give Henry a shot.”
It was a shot he earned and a decision he validated. Kids. They grow up so fast.