New York — Stanley Johnson dribbled across midcourt and lofted a soft pass for Henry Ellenson, who was streaking down the middle of the court. The big man hauled in the pass, still in stride and powered down a two-handed dunk in the first quarter of Thursday’s win over the Washington Wizards.
It was a tantalizing glimpse into the multi-faceted skill set that Ellenson possesses. In his second year, that talent seems to be untapped potential energy, languishing on the bench behind Blake Griffin and Anthony Tolliver.
Griffin’s bone bruise in his right ankle has opened the door to playing time just a sliver for Ellenson, who is taking advantage of the opportunity. He posted nine points and five rebounds against the Wizards and followed up with nine points, four rebounds and three assists Saturday night in the win over the New York Knicks.
Ellenson is likely to play Sunday night against the Brooklyn Nets, making it seven straight Pistons games appearances, the longest stretch of his career. He’s played more than 16 minutes in the last two games, his most since late November.
“Henry really played well again. He made some great passes and rebounded the ball; I was really happy with him,” coach Stan Van Gundy said Saturday night. “What he’s doing is not easy, to sit that long in the year. We always compliment guys who are really professional and keep themselves ready, but usually that’s veteran guys.
“For a 21-year-old kid to do that and not get discouraged and keep working and stay in shape and keep himself ready to play the way he has, it’s outstanding.”
That Ellenson is able to stay prepared is a testament to his dedication and preparation, which includes extra shots and work with assistant coach Otis Smith after almost every practice day.
Throughout most of the season, Ellenson has been relegated to the bench, but with Griffin until at least the end of the week — and possibly the last four games as well — the opportunity is there for Ellenson to make an impression.
“I haven’t been in the rotation for a while. I get chances at the end of fourth quarters but for me, I’ve been staying ready, staying focused and locked in and in the long term, just getting better,” Ellenson said Thursday. “Now that I got a chance to play, I felt really good out there. I have a lot of coaches and people in my corner to keep me with it.”
There’s no question among his teammates about Ellenson’s work ethic, but getting the chance to show it on the court is a thrill for all of them.
“It’s just a testament to him,” guard Reggie Jackson said. “He comes in — he’s one of the earlier ones in — and he’s always studying film. He’s keeping his confidence up and I’m happy for him.”
Staying in the gym and having mental and physical preparedness make the transition easier when he’s called in suddenly, as was the case Thursday, when Griffin was a late scratch.
“It keeps me ready and keeps me sane, to have the ball in my hand and keep working, keeps me focused on what I can control,” Ellenson said. “That’s the lab work that’s huge for me. It’s been my favorite part of the season, getting in there with (Otis Smith) and keep getting better.”
The end is near
The Pistons got on a hot streak with six wins in seven games, but the playoff chase is almost done. The Heat and Bucks, who are jockeying for seventh and eighth place and the final playoff spot, would need a monumental collapse in the final six games to give the Pistons an opportunity to slide into the final spot.
Playing the what-if game, Pistons fans can wonder aloud about what could have been if Jackson hadn’t been injured and missed 37 games, a stretch where the Pistons went 12-25.
“It’s two years in a row and it’s tough. It’s part of the league and no one’s going to pity us,” Jackson said. “I’m just proud of the resiliency this team has had, even though our record didn’t reflect that.”
Entering Sunday’s games the Pistons were 4.5 games out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.