Detroit’s Henry Ellenson Has A Chance To Play

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Henry Ellenson is not your average 6-foot-11 player trying to make a name for himself in the NBA. As a rookie last summer attending Orlando Summer League for the first time, his most eye-catching skill was his ability to handle the ball in the open court.

“I think that’s something I do way better than other 6-foot-11 guys is being able to bring up [and] push the ball,” said Ellenson to media in Orlando earlier this month during his second trip to Summer League.

Despite coming into the league with an obvious perimeter skill, Ellenson didn’t enter the NBA as a knock-down three-point shooter. As unreliable a predictor of future performance as NBA Summer League is, it has to be encouraging to the Pistons that Ellenson shot nearly 40 percent from three in Orlando after shooting below 29 percent in his rookie season. After Ellenson scored 29 to lead the Pistons’ Summer League entry to a win over the Hornets, Detroit head coach and president of basketball operations Stan Van Gundy cautioned against pigeonholing Ellenson as a perimeter-oriented big man.

“The thing we’ve got to be careful of with him is, he has the ability to hit the three but we don’t want him to turn into just a spot-up three point shooter,” said Van Gundy. “He’s a guy that’s capable of putting the ball on the floor and going to the basket. He can get those off the wing sort of post-up iso things and score. We want to make sure that he’s continuing to play with that kind of versatility and not just becoming a spot up guy.”

While Van Gundy hopes Ellenson can become more than the traditional stretch four, it’s important to note that internal improvement is one of the few opportunities to make Detroit’s roster better. With over $114 million in guaranteed salaries for 2017-18, the Pistons are over the cap, hard capped and approaching luxury tax territory. Options for adding personnel are extremely limited, so an unexpected leap from a player like Ellenson — who looked far more polished in his second appearance at Summer League — would be a huge boon for the Pistons.

For Detroit, the value of improved shooting shouldn’t be undersold. The Pistons are built around Andre Drummond, a traditional post player in a league where such players have largely become relics of the past. The more shooting Van Gundy can put around Drummond, the less double coverage he will see around the basket. Plus, if Ellenson’s improvement as a shooter proves sustainable, he’s already shown he can attack closeouts off the dribble and function as a “playmaking four,” one of the league’s newer trends where stretch big men are being asked to do more than stand in the corner and wait for kick-outs.

Despite Ellenson’s strong showing in Orlando, Van Gundy was still grudging in his praise.

“His rebounding’s been a little up and down but all in all I think he’s done a lot better,” added Van Gundy. “The guys who have worked with him have done a good job. He’s put in a lot of time and his defense has been better. It hasn’t been where we’d like it to be, but it’s been better.”

For Ellenson, the single most important piece of feedback from Van Gundy is that he will have a chance to compete for minutes in his upcoming second season.

“I told him that I would walk out of these two weeks either saying he has a chance — certainly no guarantees — but he has a chance to play next year or I’m going to be saying, alright he needs a year,” said Van Gundy. “He has a chance. He has a chance to play. I’ve seen enough to know that.”

For a player like Ellenson who appeared in only 19 games as a rookie and averaged fewer than eight minutes, a chance is all you can ask for.

“It’s just a different experience with year two having a year under my belt and the game slowing down,” said Ellenson. “[I’m] not worrying about figuring out where I’m supposed to be in plays and just able to go out there and attack.”