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Detroit Pistons preview: Despite emerging offense, defense will limit Henry Ellenson’s minutes

Where does the talented 20-year-old fit into a crowded Pistons frontcourt?

Christopher Daniels

2016-17 Review

One would be hard pressed to describe Henry Ellenson’s rookie season in too glowing of terms. He barely saw the floor for the Pistons and when he did he wasn’t shy about launching his shots. Only problem was that very few went in.

Ellenson spent the majority of his season in Grand Rapids, getting some experience with the D-League. He posted some fine traditional numbers. Who’s going to argue with a rookie putting up 18 and 9?

Well, except those numbers came with a shooting line of 41 percent from the field and 33 percent from three. Not nearly good enough for a guy who, well, the most generous phrase you could use for his defense is “a work in progress.”

But Ellenson showed enough to remain an interesting prospect. I think that’s the bottom line for his season. As an offense-first player, he’s going to need to get his shot to start falling. But if that happens, he definitely could have a promising future in Detroit.

2017-18 Projection

Ellenson has had the type of summer that will make it tough for Stan Van Gundy to keep him on the bench. That one key for Ellenson, making his shots, he’s done it.

He averaged 17 points on 44 percent shooting and 7 rebounds in the Summer League and built on that promising performance with an even better preseason.

Without looking, who is leading the Pistons in scoring this preseason? Well, it’s Ish Smith. Can’t make it that easy. But Ellenson is second. In 20 minutes per game, Ellenson has averaged 11.5 points on a shooting line of 56 percent from the field and 46 from three, along with 4 rebounds per game.

But even better is how he’s gotten there. Ellenson has done a nice job of setting up on the pick and pop while also taking advantage of catch and shoot opportunities. His willingness to launch combined with his effectiveness has done a nice job of stretching the floor for the Pistons.

HE Pick Pop

And check out the read here by Ellenson. He sees that his man is hedging hard on Ish toward the top of the key. By slipping the screen and breaking to the corner, his defender will have to also go through Ish’s man to recover. It’s a great use of spacing by Ellenson that he finishes off with a smooth shot.

Ellenson fast break

On the fast break, Ellenson’s man gets lost so he does a nice job finding the open spot, making himself available to Ish, and knocking down the shot. That’s the type of shooting this team has needed.

His threat from three has opened things up for his teammates too. If that’s Harris or Leuer at the top of the key, T.J. Leaf could have been the one giving some help to stop Reggie Jackson rather than Al Jefferson. With Jefferson left to stop the ball Boban is left wide open. Luke Kennard and Ellenson’s defenders are sticking with them tight, with only Stanley Johnson’s defender willing to leave far enough to rotate.


The Pistons are rather loaded at power forward. Tobias Harris is the presumptive starter at the spot, with Jon Leuer, Anthony Tolliver, and Ellenson all competing for the backup minutes. And some media has speculated that getting Stanley Johnson minutes at the four as well.

If you read the preview of Eric Moreland from earlier today, Ellenson is essentially facing the opposite problem. Where there may be situations this season where Moreland is the only logical choice, SVG will have plenty of reasons to leave Ellenson on the bench.

Tobias Harris is the team’s most talented scorer. Jon Leuer was a great glue guy last season until he fell apart after the All Star Break. And he makes $10 million per year. Anthony Tolliver is a proven threat from distance and sneaky solid defender.

But going out on a limb, Ellenson may be the best of the bunch for the starting lineup.

He offers better floor spacing on the pick and roll, whether he’s the screener or threatening the catch and shoot, than either Harris or Leuer. And he’s 12 years younger than Tolliver.

Tobias Harris also thrived coming off the bench last season, getting his chance to be the alpha scorer while also getting all the minutes he would as a starter. The catch is just what to do about Leuer. And Tolliver. And experimenting with Johnson at the four.

Those are a lot of catches.

And Ellenson’s defense is a legitimate issue. While he has been sufficient rotating in help defense and doing enough when isolated on his man, his pick and roll coverage has been pretty atrocious.

Ellenson PnR

Yo, Dre or about a little help?

It was lousy coverage by Ellenson, but one of the biggest issues with his defense will be gaining experience. So for plays like that, Ellenson will need his veteran teammates to be able to help out. With the personnel on the Pistons, that’s help he’s unlikely to get. Drummond just spectates, letting Dwight Howard serve as a stretch big man. And Harris is already giving his man a 15 foot cushion to serve no real purpose on the court.

Being such a question mark on defense will make it easy for Stan Van Gundy to lean on his more experienced players at power forward. So the likely bet will be Ellenson starting off the season again at Grand Rapids in the G League. But if Ellenson can prove his reliable three point shooting is here to stay, SVG will need to find a way to invest some minutes in his promising sophomore.


15 games for Grand Rapids averaging 22 points per game on 46 percent from field and 39 percent from three, 10 rebounds

50 games for Pistons averaging 10 minutes per game, 5 points per game on 58 percent true shooting percentage, 2 rebounds