AUBURN HILLS – Stan Van Gundy saw a little bit better version of Henry Ellenson every time he came back from the D-League last season. Rex Walters saw it from the other side as coach of the Grand Rapids Drive.
“Henry was a great example of a guy who got better,” Walters said this week after a workout involving Ellenson and a handful of his Pistons teammates. “Just watching him in the D-League, you could see. And then going into Summer League this year I saw a marked difference in his game.”
Van Gundy never anticipated Ellenson, drafted as a 19-year-old after one season at Marquette, would be ready to help the Pistons as a rookie. But he saw the same year-over-year progress in Ellenson, coming out of Summer League declaring Ellenson ready to play.
That’s different than saying he will play. And the moves the Pistons made over the summer ensure they can field a rotation without Ellenson. They’re stocked with options in players who’ve held significant roles at power forward. In Tobias Harris, Jon Leuer and Anthony Tolliver, Van Gundy has many ways he can go at the position. Stanley Johnson is likely to get some minutes there, as well, when teams downsize and put more traditional small forwards at that spot or when Van Gundy simply wants Johnson’s defense in certain matchups.
But Ellenson will be hard to keep off the floor if he keeps showing the things he flashed in Summer League and so far in those four- and six-man workouts at the team’s practice facility. In a recent scrimmage, there was a buzz in the gym as Ellenson twice drove from the deep right wing across the lane and finished with running left-handed layups high off the glass to avoid a blocked shot.
“I’ve always had a touch with the left,” Ellenson said. “When you’ve got Dre coming over from across the lane, you’ve got to get that up or that’s getting swatted into the sideline. Being able to finish with either hand, getting toward the rack, getting finishes, that’s a good way to either get a bucket or get fouled.”
His ballhandling ability is perhaps the single most unique thing about Ellenson at 6-foot-11. Fully exploiting that ability, Ellenson has come to realize, requires him to add strength and develop a consistent 3-point shot so defenders are reluctant to back off of him and aren’t able to knock him off his path with nudges less than fouls.
And those things sum up the focus of Ellenson’s summer work.
“First off, in the weight room, just getting my legs and core stronger, continue to add weights, keep pushing myself in there,” Ellenson said. “Then on the court, one thing is my shot – just keep getting my guide hand off cleaner, being an even better shooter. Been working on that a little bit, then being able to get to the rack and have different moves. I’ve always been able to dribble the ball, but have different moves.”
Ellenson averaged 17.4 points over five Summer League games despite a clunker in the finale when the Pistons lost to Dallas for the Orlando title. He was tested defensively by players four or five years older with vastly more experience in guys like Okaro White and Johnny O’Bryant and came out of it both knowing he still had work to do and strength to gain but further convinced he was on track to help the Pistons when called upon.
“It was a good Summer League. I played well expect that last one, but I forgot about that one already. I was challenged, had guys going at me in Summer League, experienced guys who are skilled with the ball, and took that challenge and also went at them offensively. I was able to learn a lot from Summer League and we took that to the practice court now for the rest of the summer.”
Van Gundy gave Ellenson much the same message he told reporters after Summer League concluded.
“He was happy with it. Everyone’s seen how much stronger I’ve gotten,” Ellenson said. “Just even being able to play lower offensively and being able to sit down in a stance and continue on that because going into the season I’ve got to show the coaches that I can guard and I can be relied on defensively. He kind of stressed continuing to work on that, getting in the weight room and hit shots. That’s a big thing for this team and I like to score, so continue with that.”