Pistons rookies Henry Ellenson and Michael Gbinije have played in nine out of the Grand Rapids Drive's last 11 games, and the good news is the Drive are 7-2 in those games. Altogether this year, the Drive are 11-5 when they have Ellenson and/or Gbinije with them, and 9-14 without them, indicating the rookies have had a huge positive effect on the team as a whole. The bad news is Ellenson and Gbinije have both had trouble making anything from the field during this latest stretch in Grand Rapids.
Ellenson appeared to be making big strides with his efficiency the last time I summarized his D-League play, but his shot just crashed in the last eight games. He went 41-of-112 from the field in those games for 36.6 percent and shot 26.8 percent on 41 attempts from 3-point range. He was able to get to the line some, about five attempts per game at 82.9 percent, but not enough to rescue his overall efficiency numbers.
The Drive were still much better offensively with Ellenson on the floor, since at the D-League level the presence of a big who can shoot and get involved in plays around the perimeter generates a lot of easy looks for others. Drive guards Kevin Murphy and Jordan Crawford were pretty consistently going off in the last 10 games, and a good amount of that was from a steady diet of open shots on plays where Ellenson was in some way involved. Other teams would switch to try and get their guard to defend the threat of an Ellenson drive against their big, and he could find the Drive guard to roast the big on the switch.
NBA bigs will be exponentially more equipped to handle this type of action, as any big capable of defending guards on the perimeter without getting killed on the glass would at the very least command a hefty overseas contract and would not be playing in the D-League. I still think Ellenson can bend NBA defenses, but he's just going to have to play better and hit more of his shots to do so. One thing I also really liked from Ellenson was his ability to create high-level chances for others (Gbinije, a lot of the time) by dribbling or passing the ball down the floor very quickly after a defensive rebound.
It seems like at this stage in his career Ellenson needs his jumper falling to lock into the other stages of his offensive repertoire. He cut out a lot of my pet-peeve play of him backing down a guard 20 feet from the basket and shooting a fadeaway, but he still wasn't really able to capitalize on mismatches. A lot of that is going to come from getting stronger, which will also be needed to be less of a defensive liability. It's pretty evident at this point that Ellenson isn't comfortable with contact yet.
The Drive gave up 272 combined points in their last two games with Ellenson and Gbinije, but they were fine defensively for the other six games where they generally defended at a level above their season norm. Ellenson still has some awful plays where he'll manage to defend poorly both inside and outside in the same possession, but that was never really his calling card and I'm encouraged that his effort is there. If his offensive game gets to where it could be, I think he could be either hid defensively on the perimeter on a non-shooter or learn rotations to the point where just his body could be a decent impediment around the rim to an opposing bench unit.
Gbinije was a little better in terms of his efficiency than Ellenson, shooting 41 percent from the field in his last eight games, but his 3-pointer also wasn't falling as he put up 49 attempts at 28.6 percent. His offensive game was mainly cutting to the basket and shooting corner threes playing off-ball, and finishing in transition.
You can tell Gbinije is the type of player a coach would really like. He's a heady guy, he makes the right passes and rarely takes a bad shot, and his length and anticipation defensively allow him to make plays in the passing lanes and turn them into transition opportunities. You can see why he was a great fit for the vaunted Syracuse zone.
One thing I noticed in Gbinije's recent stint is a lack of explosiveness. He doesn't finish plays above the rim even when they're wide-open, and I haven't seen any evidence he's all that quick, has great top-end speed or is much of a leaper either. He had one great chase-down block in late January, but otherwise sitting courtside at 12 games where Gbinije has played I can't recall any times he made a "wow" play with his athleticism and effort.
He didn't have that profile coming into the draft so it's not like that was to be expected, but Stanley Johnson made four or five of those plays in just one game with the Drive. Gbinije doesn't have much of an offensive skill set, so I would at least expect a wing who got drafted to make more of those plays than someone labeled a non-athlete like Ellenson. Darrun Hilliard has theoretically the same issue with the explosiveness, but he has lit up the D-League every time he's set foot in it and is almost a full year younger. I haven't seen enough from Gbinije to convince me this isn't the level he should be playing at long-term.