Los Angeles — Henry Ellenson remembers the one-on-one games against his older brother Wally. Henry was in fourth grade and Wally in seventh grade and Henry had to overcome the height disadvantage to have a chance to compete.
So he had to dribble. A lot.
That was the only way he could get past Wally and close to the basket.
As he got older, it became something of a strength for Ellenson, as he played point guard for teams his father coached. That’s when the handles, paired with his size, became an even bigger asset.
Ellenson’s versatility and consistency are helping him carve out a niche and get more playing time in the Pistons’ rotation — at least temporarily — coming off an impressive performance against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday.
It made an impression on coach Stan Van Gundy, who’s willing to overlook some of Ellenson’s shortcomings in order to get him valuable experience. Van Gundy has pointed to defense as an area of improvement, but his offensive game has too much potential to ignore.
“We’re going to give him an opportunity and if he goes in the game and he proves to be overmatched, we’ll make adjustments,” Van Gundy said Friday. “We’re not just going to assume he’s going to be overmatched.”
Ellenson had 14 points in 21 minutes and led the team with a plus-24 rating. It was his first significant action since the opener, when he had 13 points.
It appears Van Gundy is going to give Ellenson every opportunity to succeed, with quality minutes early in games to get acclimated. It’s not a gift, though. Ellenson has worked hard from the summer through training camp and into the season, earning his playing time.
That vote of confidence is a big boost for Ellenson to play with more confidence and know that he doesn’t have to worry about being pulled from the game for every mistake he makes.
“It’s huge, just going on the court and competing, getting better and learning from each opportunity and trying to make the most of it,” Ellenson said. “When it’s my chance to go, I’ll be ready and compete — that’s the biggest thing at this level. Your teammates are going to help you throughout the night, so it’s being ready and learning from each moment I get.”
His teammates have taken notice of how much work Ellenson has done. He’s not just getting minutes based on being a first-round pick or few alternatives being available on the bench. Van Gundy is struggling to trim the rotation to his desired nine or 10 players; Ellenson is jockeying for position with veteran Anthony Tolliver and Jon Leuer.
The versatility at the forward positions will let some of them switch to other positions, opening opportunities for Ellenson after he languished on the bench and in the development league for most of last season.
“Henry has put in the work each and every day for the past two years to be able to be prepared to play when his number is called,” center Andre Drummond said. “He’s a young professional and he’s playing great.”
Although he got off to a slow start on Wednesday, Ellenson starting to hit shots when the Pistons got in transition and spaced the floor better. It’s a work in progress for all the players, but Ellenson can be one of the big beneficiaries because of his dual-threat ability to shoot from outside and get to the rim, with his dribbling ability.
It’s a small sample size, but Ellenson is averaging 9 points and hitting 36 percent (4-of-11) from beyond the arc, but the key is to stay focused and get more comfortable in bigger chunks of playing time. He hasn’t played in two of the five games, but he didn’t get discouraged.
“I felt like that wasn’t the end of it,” Ellenson said. “You have to take the open shots when you get them. I missed my first four (3s) and made the next two. I’m never going to be shy to shoot it.
“You can ask anybody at my high school or college — I’m not afraid to shoot it.”
Pistons at Clippers
Tip-off: 10:30 p.m. Saturday, Staples Center, Los Angeles
TV/radio: FSD/WOMC (104.3)
Outlook: The new-look Clippers are led by Blake Griffin (26.3 points, 9.3 rebounds and 4.5 assists), whose winning 3-pointer helped them get by the Trail Blazers and stay undefeated (4-0).