Henry Ellenson is a prospect who looks much better on the court than on the box score.
By the numbers, Ellenson had a miserable rookie year. He was a scoring big man who couldn’t score. He hoisted a lot of shots, nearly 16 per 36 minutes, but shot just 36 percent from the field and 29 percent from three.
That type of inefficiency left Ellenson with a win shares per 48 minutes of -.071, the sixth worst in his draft class.
But Ellenson’s season wasn’t as cut and dry as that. Despite his struggles, he flashed some definite signs of being a legitimate NBA prospect. It just takes going to the tape.
One of the things Ellenson did a great job of in his rookie season was moving without the ball to find open space on the perimeter. 53 percent of his shot attempts came from behind the arc, but it wasn’t a matter of him just floating and chucking. Whether serving as the roll man in the pick and pop or creating space for the screener in the pick and roll, Ellenson was able to set himself up for some wide open looks.
That’s a skill that was mostly missing in the team’s offense this year. The power forwards playing ahead of Ellenson, Tobias Harris and Jon Leuer, were both subpar three point shooters this season and made their mark getting looks inside the arc. That allowed opposing defenses to cheat in defending the pick and roll, giving up the three point look instead.
One other bright spot with Ellenson was that wasn’t just a stationary three point shooter along the Anthony Tolliver mold. He was able to effectively put the ball on the floor to attack the closeout.
Those offensive abilities project extremely well to today’s offenses. But the key is whether he can evolve as an effective three point shooter.
Ellenson has the style of a stretch four, but he hasn’t had the three point shot of one. At the college level, D-League, or NBA, he’s not been a good three point shooter at any of them. He shot just 33 percent over 116 attempts in the D-League and 29 percent in 104 attempts in college.
While those figures are certainly dour, it’s not time to write off Ellenson as a shooter just yet. Some suggest that free throw percentage is actually a better indicator of a player’s potential from three, and Ellenson was an excellent free throw shooter in college and the D-League, 75 percent and 80 percent respectively. In another eye test versus numbers face-off, his shot certainly looks good. He seems to have solid mechanics and a form that’s very repeatable.
And consider this: if Ellenson had made just three extra three point shots during his time in the NBA, his three point percentage would have been 38 percent. If that happens, most fans are probably calling for him to be in the rotation for the start of next season.
But “ifs” don’t really matter. The key thing is that Ellenson needs to knock down his three point shots if he’s going to earn his role in the NBA. Or else he’ll need to dramatically change his style.
But hey, there’s other parts of the game too. It’s important to note that Ellenson is showing the ability to be an excellent rebounder for a player of his stretch big man profile. He pulled down 9 rebounds per game in the D-League to go along with his 18 points per game. Those are some productive numbers, and along the lines of his collegiate figures of 17 points and 10 rebounds per game. Promising stuff for a 20 year old.
Ellenson’s 15.6 percent rebound percentage during his minutes on the Pistons dwarfed his power forward competition of Leuer at 11 percent and Harris at 9 percent.
He also wasn’t the trainwreck on defense that he was promised to be. He certainly had his moments of looking lost, but seemed to play hard and was able to use his plus size to his advantage. Ellenson allowed a defensive field goal percentage of 47 percent during his time with the Pistons - not great, but not abysmal. His defensive rating of 108 with the Grand Rapids Drive was about the middle of the pack for the team.
Ellenson will almost certainly never be an impact defensive player, but there’s reason to believe he can at least hold his own.
What will determine his future with his NBA career will be his offensive game - of which so much hinges on that three point shot of his. Ellenson’s summer school needs to be catch, shoot, and repeat. His numbers need to catch up to his eye test potential.
If he can be a weapon off the bench who demonstrates he can offer 40 percent shooting, he can earn a job in the rotation. He’ll have the chance to show that through the Summer League, preseason, and perhaps limited early NBA season or D-League minutes. But if he continues to convert at the low 30 percent range, he’ll remain a prospect in the developmental phase of someday.