Where does Henry Ellenson fit with the Pistons future?

A look at how Henry Ellenson fits with the Detroit Pistons long term.

The Pistons are off to a good if not especially inspiring start to the season. A lot is happening, but one guy that a lot of questions are starting to arise around is second-year youngster Henry Ellenson. Ellenson (predictably) spent all of last season on the bench, playing largely in garbage time and with the Grand Rapids Drive. Heading into this season there was some expectation that he may push for playing time, although he did see some minutes early in the season, he has totally fallen out of the rotation which has to lead some to speculate about his long-term fit with the organization. So what should Pistons fans expect?

The biggest thing

Before getting into Ellenson as a player, I think that it is worth mentioning that some people have set the bar higher for Ellenson than is particularly fair. Ellenson was drafted 18th in the 2016 draft which was (correctly it seems) not really deemed as an especially deep draft. When you look at the guys drafted after him, even if you want to be unfair and include ones that were drafted so much later that there was no way anyone was taking them at 18th (like all the click bait articles lamenting the various teams that didn't draft Giannis or Draymond Green) it isn't exactly a murderers row. Malcolm Brogdon was picked 36th and he is really the only one drafted after Ellenson that has firmly won a spot as a good rotation/starter level player in the league. There are other guys who have carved out various kinds of spots in rotations, Skal Labissiere looks like a real piece for the Kings, Pascal Siakam is a high energy big off the bench for the Raptors, Dejounte Murray is doing the Spurs thing and being eased into playing time, Caris LeVert likely has a spot with the Nets future. Obviously, it would be great to have one of those guys over Ellenson, especially Brogdon or LeVert, but the point is that there isn't anyone who should make Pistons fans especially sick even if Ellenson never becomes anything.

Beyond that, is a simple fact that a guy who is drafted 18th doesn't have to become all that good to be a worthwhile pick. Once you get out of the lottery (and depending on the draft, even in the lottery) what you mostly have to hope for is that you net a rotation player out of a pick, whether that be by the guy you pick becoming a rotation guy, or you trade him for a rotation guy. Essentially, Ellenson still has two years on his rookie contract, and if he becomes even a fairly minor role player off the bench in that time then it is not a bad return on investment for the 18th pick. 

That said, it's not a good thing that he can't win minutes in his second season right?

It isn't good, but it isn't all that bad. There are a couple of things at work here, first off is to remember that Ellenson is stupid young. Somewhat in the same vein as Kennard, people tend to think of white guys as being older and more complete players when they enter the league since the assumption is that they are less athletic even when this is not even remotely the case. Ellenson, however, was a 1 and done at Marquette and is not even 21 yet (he will turn 21 in a few days) which is still stupid young. When you draft such a young player with a later pick it is probably good to assume that it will be somewhat of a project.

The other thing that changes the projection for the season is Anthony Tolliver. Before the season started, and even into the first couple of weeks, the Pistons seemed uncertain about the status of their power forward rotation. I think that SVG legitimately thought he would spend the season playing a combination of Leuer, Ellenson, and Tolly at the 4 and 5 spots depending on matchups over the season. Which even if Ellenson wasn't playing every night, he would still see some real game time. Not totally unlike how Boban has ended up being used where even if it is occasional matchups that they work him in, they do work him in some. But then something happened, it turned out that Anthony Tolliver spent his season in Sacramento getting a lot better and put himself so head and shoulders above the other guys that it is hard to justify not playing Tolly in all the backup 4 minutes.

Tolliver has been so good this year that the fact that Ellenson is riding the bench is less of an indictment on Ellenson as much as it is praise of Tolliver. Tolliver is still a high volume and effective three-point shooter plays defense at a pretty high level (the only one of their 4s who does so) and has added a dash of off the bounce creativity that was not there before. You can make a strong argument for Tolliver being the Pistons best bench player so far this year and he is certainly an integral member of the rotation at this point. Simply put, it isn't Ellenson's fault that the guy who he was slotted to compete with for minutes turned out to be the perfect role player for this team. Also, remember that there is a good chance (especially with Leuer's continued injury) that an injury to Tolliver or Harris would thrust Ellenson into significant minutes.

It still isn't good though right?

Well with Tolliver in mind, the fact that Ellenson has not won minutes at power forward is not such a worry, where perhaps a little more worry is warranted is that he hasn't been able to get any time as a center. It isn't exactly clear if the Pistons have ever really thought of Ellenson as a center, they clearly think he is a better fit as a power forward given where they have played him in the Summer and G-Leauge, as well as his sparing minutes in the NBA. That said, coming out of college he was largely seen as a guy who could give minutes at either front-court spot. Eric Moreland has given at least some stability in Jon Leuer's absence, but you would think that Ellenson may have gotten a chance at the backup center minutes if he was playing really well in practice given how much of a hole that has been at times this season.

Why can't he get minutes? Even beyond Tolliver being good and whatnot?

Ellenson has some real problems and worries. The biggest is, unsurprisingly, his defense. Ellenson has shown a bad combination of not really having the natural tools to be a good defender while simultaneously not having even the slightest grasp of correct technique and scheme to be a good defender. He is not as slow as some people would have you believe, but he is certainly not especially fleet of foot, especially laterally, on the open floor he actually moves pretty well for his size. Once again, this isn't even the problem, the problem is that he is often totally and completely lost on defense. He doesn't get into a good defensive stance, he goes the wrong places and is out of position all the time. This is far from a terrible sin for someone as young and raw as Ellenson, but when you are lacking in elite athleticism to make up for the defensive mistakes that most young guys make it can be hard to keep you on the floor. This has looked especially the case whenever Ellenson is forced into guarding against anyone who is even remotely capable on the perimeter.

The other problem is that in his very limited time on an NBA floor, Ellenson has not even been an effective offensive player. If using per 36 data points, he has scored a solid 15.7 points with 1.9 assists and 9.7 rebounds, but he has done it pretty inefficiently. Those 1.9 assists come with 2.8 turnovers, and his career true shooting percentage in the NBA is just 45.7%, 47.1% this year, which is pretty terrible. When you remember that a lot of his playing time has come against scrubs in garbage time it does not paint a more optimistic picture.

Essentially, if you take it with the caveat of a tiny sample size, Ellenson has been pretty bad on both sides of the floor when he has played for the Pistons. He has been a terrible defender and an inefficient chucker on offense who turns the ball over too often. The only ability he has which has shown to be NBA ready at this point is his rebounding, particularly his defensive rebounding. This should not come as a huge surprise, Ellenson was a good rebounder in college and rebounding is one of the most consistently transferred skills from college to pros, and his current career defensive rebounding percentage of 26.9% would rank 15th in the NBA this year, which is very good for a power forward. 

So he is a bad defensive and offensive player right now. What is the hope for him?

I would like to reiterate just how young he is to start this bit. He is only about to turn 21, and that is the best news, he is more than young enough to expect continued improvement.

The biggest thing to look for the future with Ellenson is his offense and in particular his ability to put the ball on the floor. Ellenson is 6'11 and not skinny, there are simply not a lot of guys that size who are able to handle the ball like he can. Look at this clip from last season. 

Ellenson has the ball on the perimeter, dribbles over as though about to make a dribble handoff, and after a hesitation dribble he turns the corner to the hoop and hits a reverse layup. That is a move that Andre Drummond has started to employ in his arsenal this year, but compare the way they both make that play. Ellenson does it with a comfort and smoothness that is on a different level from Drummond. Ellenson is legitimately capable of being a high volume ball handler, and not many guys his size can say that. Combine that with shooting touch and some passing vision and you have a guy who has a special offensive skill set that could yield great things down the road.

If he has such a great skillset then why have his numbers been so bad?

I think a lot of it is just small sample size, but it is also because his brand of offense is one that takes extra time to transfer to the NBA level. Usually, you see it most clearly with point guards, but the area where the learning curve is steepest is as a ball handler and creating shots for yourself or others. Ellenson has not exactly been a high volume ball handler in his limited minutes with the Pistons, but he has not been a passive spot up shooter either. Especially given that he has shot 40.9% from deep this year, it is somewhat safe to assume that if he played the exact same role as Anthony Tolliver does that his overall efficiency would be better, but when you are asked to create offense for yourself it takes more time to develop. 

Ok well what about his defense, is there any hope?

Yeah, there is actually. First off is that Ellenson has that very handy skill of being a very large human. He is tall and long, and while he still needs to continue to get stronger he is not a super skinny guy by any stretch of the imagination as he is listed at 245 pounds. Regardless of everything else, this gives him an advantage. He has a good grasp of how to properly use verticality, so when he gets into position in time he has proven to be an effective rim protector as you can see here. 

He may not be a fearsome leaper, but simply by virtue of being large he is a real deterrent, and he has shown very good ability to get vertical in those situations where he is in place to do so. His long arms and wide body make it hard for guys to go around him and with his hands straight up he is a tall protector of the hoop.

Beyond that, Ellenson is not totally without Athletic gifts in this area! He does not have great close area quickness, but he does move well in the open floor for a big man. This would suggest that there is some hope for him as he becomes a little bit less doughy to perhaps get an extra step in lateral quickness, and his overall speed can help with defending off the ball. Essentially you can see a blueprint where Ellenson becomes a useful defender, he becomes a bit more lean and strong, gets better at technique, and is a guy who is a legit protector in the paint, has enough foot speed to not get totally killed on the perimeter, and to top it all off is a very good rebounder. Think of something like Kevin Love or an older David West but taller so he has some use as a rim protector. 

What is his long-term fit with the Pistons?

It largely depends on how the roster around him shakes out. He is likely not viewed as a cornerstone piece for the Pistons to build around, and correctly so, but he does have some value as a young player with an intriguing skill-set, whether that skill-set would be best served by staying in Detroit or being traded for something else depends on how other pieces move.

Even if we look optimistically and say that the Pistons will finish the year strong enough to justify keeping the current team more or less together (which is in serious jeopardy with Jackson's injury) Ellenson could be in a good spot to have a rotation spot next year. Anthony Tolliver is only on a one year contract, and if his play keeps up he would be fairly likely to get a real contract from someone and the Pistons are not likely to have much space for that without making a significant move of some sort. If Tolliver leaves and everything else largely remains, then Ellenson is the clear shot for the backup power forward minutes which could end up being a perfect timeline in theory. Ellenson is able to spend two years on the bench developing behind Leuer and Tolliver before getting a real role when he is ready for it, which would (theoretically) give the Pistons two years of rotation player at a cheapo contract which would be more than solid value for the 18th pick.

Where things start to get dicey is if the Pistons decide that a major change needs to happen. Ellenson isn't of huge value but he has enough that he could be a really nice sweetener to help grease the wheels on a larger move, if that move is for a significant upgrade somewhere then it would probably work out just fine. The biggest question here is if the Pistons decide to essentially tear it down and restart.

If they restart after this year they are probably keeping Drummond as a holdover (he has stepped into being a legit franchise player this year and is young enough to keep) let Bradley walk/trade him at the deadline, find somewhere to move Jackson, and trade Harris' expiring for assets, and maybe move some of the other expiring depending on the value you could get back. The question with Ellenson would be whether or not he is worth keeping around as a piece of a new young core and given the very small amount of info we have on him it is very hard to say for sure. 

So what's the verdict?

It is a bit disappointing to see him fall all the way out of the rotation this year, but all things considered, it is not a huge point of concern especially considering that it isn't like the rest of that draft class is especially tearing it up. He hasn't made much good on it yet, but he has enough potential with his offensive skill-set that he was a very worthwhile pick at 18th and worth keeping around to see if he can put it together as long as he isn't needed in some larger deal. The biggest takeaway though is to remember that he was the 18th pick in a weak draft. Either way, he is probably not going to factor hugely into the course of the Pistons as a franchise. Other than the small (but still present) chance that he becomes an offensive star, he is probably going to top out as a rotation player who can score a bit and doesn't hurt you defensively and even if he never ends up being any good at all it isn't going to be a big problem for the Pistons. Ellenson developing into a good player would honestly be a good thing for the organization more as a sign that they can develop young talent just as much as it would have another good player on the roster.

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