HOUSTON – When Stan Van Gundy said before Friday’s game that his decision to play Boban Marjanovic and Henry Ellenson over the final four games was driven by his optimism that both “can be real contributors next year,” it was pretty easy to spot Marjanovic’s path to playing time.
Aron Baynes is almost certain to leave as a free agent and the backup center job behind Andre Drummond is Marjanovic’s to lose, though his 27-point, 12-rebound outing in Friday’s win over Houston suggests he has no intention of losing it.
But there’s no clear path for Ellenson to find a foothold in the rotation, not with all three of Van Gundy’s primary forwards – Marcus Morris, Tobias Harris and Jon Leuer – under multiyear contracts.
It’s always possible one is used in trade to address other needs over the off-season, of course, but Van Gundy – without giving away any details – figures it will work itself out.
“I think that there will be ways we can do that,” Van Gundy said. “And a lot of it will just depend on how far (Ellenson) comes.”
Ellenson’s starting debut certainly validated the optimism for his future Van Gundy has espoused since early in training camp when the versatility of his offensive game – and his scoring touch, in particular – stood out even against established veterans. He finished with 15 points and 11 rebounds despite hitting just 1 of 8 from the 3-point line, a number of them rattling around the rim before popping out.
“Those threes are going to fall,” Ellenson said. “I feel it’s just adjustment. The pace of play is a lot different than practice. They were right there. They felt good off my hand, so I’ll have the confidence to shoot the next one.”
It will be a big summer for Ellenson, primarily focused on continuing to improve his 3-point stroke and adding strength in the weight room. He’s already come a long way on both counts since the Pistons drafted him 18th last June. A minor tweak was made in his shooting mechanics that clicked and Ellenson – as to be expected with a 6-foot-11 player who two years ago was playing high school basketball in rural Wisconsin – faced a big adjustment in adapting to the greater NBA 3-point distance.
Van Gundy and Pistons staffers were immediately struck by Ellenson’s work ethic and that’s paid dividends over the course of the season in his dedication to strength coach Jordan Sabourin’s regimen. He looks forward to ratcheting up the intensity of those workouts when the season ends.
“Just to keep improving my all-around game – that’s how I play – be able to hit shots from the perimeter, get more consistent with that. Go in the weight room with Jordan will be huge for me to get stronger. From the beginning of the year to now, that’s probably the biggest difference. I feel a lot quicker on my feet and a lot more athletic.”
Perhaps the element of Ellenson’s multidimensional game that makes him unique among power forwards is his ability to make plays off the dribble. He’s got a knack for executing dribble handoffs in ways that give shooters advantageous outcomes and he made three strong plays off the dribble against Houston, twice scoring on reverse layups and another time dishing to Marjanovic for a point-blank layup.
“He can put it on the floor. He made the one good baseline drive and dish to Boban. He’s got offensive skill,” Van Gundy said. “The guy’s a good player. He’s like a lot of our guys right now. He’s got to shoot the ball more consistently. But he’s a talented offensive guy.”
The Pistons’ other highly talented 20-year-old important to their future, second-year pro Stanley Johnson, wasn’t the least surprised by Ellenson’s sparkling debut as a starter.
“I saw that coming, actually,” he said. “I thought he would get 20 tonight, as a matter of fact. He shoots the ball extremely well. He’s a way better shooter than he showed tonight. The more and more he gets comfortable, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had a 25-, 30-point game in one of these last three because he can really get hot.”