There was a time Perry Ellis was a keenly aggressive basketball player. This was fourth grade, maybe fifth. It’s all a bit fuzzy now to Kansas’ self-possessed junior. He never considered himself a troublemaker, but back then, if he took a foul he considered to be a bit excessive, Ellis recalls retaliating with a purposeful swing of his elbow. If that or any other ill-tempered action got him ejected, which happened at least often enough that he remembers it, he might have knocked over a sideline chair on his way out of the game.
This is all now very amusing, because Perry Ellis in 2014 basically cannot believe that Perry Ellis existed around a decade ago.
“It’s funny to think about how I used to be like that,” Ellis says. “I don’t know why [I was].”
That’s it. This is as provocative as it gets with Ellis. There is no outsize personality nor pupil-dilating array of talents here. The 6-foot-8 forward from Wichita is good enough to have been the best offensive player, by at least one measure, on last year’s Kansas team that included two top-five NBA draft picks. His game and his demeanor are also restrained enough that very few people noticed. Which is why a little age regression might suit both Ellis and the fifth-ranked Jayhawks, beginning with their titillating Champions Classic showdown in Indianaplois against No. 1 Kentucky on Tuesday night.
Kansas needs Ellis to be its leading scorer and an All-Big 12 caliber performer this season, and it certainly wouldn’t complain if he surged into All-America contention. All that, head coach Bill Self laid plain to Ellis before the season began. Two years of growth are in the past. The bloom must come. To accomplish that, Ellis must channel his more aggressive younger self, just without the rearranged sideline furniture.
“You know what, I think he’s had enough breakthroughs,” Self says in a phone interview. “Seriously, he just needs to be a guy that you pencil in every night who’s going to get you 16 to 20 points. That’s what we need. I want him to be a guy who you just pencil it in.”
It was in the Champions Classic a year ago, against another top-five foe in Duke, that Ellis had one of those percussive moments: 24 points, on 9-of-13 shooting, and nine rebounds in a Jayhawks win. He finished the year averaging 13.6 points and 6.7 rebounds per game. His offensive rating of 127.8 eclipsed that of both Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, the two one-and-done luminaries who were taken first and third, respectively, in last June’s NBA draft. Ellis also tied Wiggins for the team high with 4.9 win shares, a measure of how many victories were attributable to his production.
Those are very good numbers. To insinuate that Ellis hasn’t done enough seems a bit cold-blooded, but Self and others can justify being more demanding because they've seen what Ellis is capable of. He scored 20 points or more on eight occasions last season. He also scored fewer than 10 points in 12 games. As even-keeled as Ellis may seem, his production has been far from metronomic. Consistency and reliability are what he’s after.
“It’s all a mental thing,” Ellis says. “Say you might be missing a couple shots. Then you definitely have to make sure you’re still rebounding. And then maybe easy buckets will come from that. It’s just a mental thing, just playing with energy, really. If you do that, you’re going to produce something.”
There is no exaggerated workout routine worthy of legend to explain Ellis' path to improvement. In the offseason, he worked on ball-handling. He worked on extending his range. He did all this in maybe 45 minutes to an hour extra at the gym every night, on top of the standard, mandated individual work earlier in the day.
“I don’t feel like you have to be in (the gym) to just be in there,” Ellis says. “Just go in there and do what you have to do.” Likewise, Ellis participated in the LeBron James Skills Academy in July, and he said he absorbed lessons about how tough it is to get to the next level, how important the fine details are and how high his fellow college players’ motors ran from play to play.
That sounds less than revelatory because it is less than revelatory. “Seeing that just pushes me to want to do the same,” Ellis says.
His assertiveness must become almost reflexive. Self says he expected to play Ellis on the perimeter three-quarters of the time, taking advantage of him as a stretch four and a potential mismatch. “But of the 25 percent that you’re inside, you have to post to score or seal to score all 25 percent of the time,” Self recalls telling Ellis.
“We would be sacrificing too much scoring if he did not do that,” says the coach. “That’s what I have to get his mindset to be. And I certainly think that he will. I think he’s going to be fine, but he’s got to get a little more aggressive.”
Whether Ellis ascends into one of the nation’s elite performers depends less on the raw material than the consistency, at least in Self’s view.
“He’s got terrific footwork, he can run like a deer, he’s very, very quick,” Self says. “He’s fast and he’s smart. Hey -- he’s got it. He’s got everything that I think would allow him for his size to be a terrific player.”
So here comes Kentucky and its three or four dozen 7-footers. What Self is curious to learn about his team on Tuesday is also what he wants to learn about Ellis. The Jayhawks coach wants to see how his team competes, how it moves on to the next play, how it reacts to in-game situations and how it pursues the ball in the air against a program built on creaming people on the glass. (The Wildcats led the country with 573 offensive rebounds last season and have outrebounded their first two opponents this year by 50.)
Self also wants to see his team effectively drive against size and play to its quickness. All of that sounds very relevant to the expectations placed on Ellis every night. It’s too early to be a defining game for him, but it can be a statement game, even if his own statement about it -- "We're both two teams trying to get better" -- is doesn't exactly match the excitement surrounding its buildup.
But then, the Perry Ellis of 2014 doesn’t have to be the Perry Ellis of a decade ago, full of fire and quick-trigger emotions. He just has to be good, all the time, to get Kansas where it wants to go Tuesday and beyond.
“I just want him to be himself,” Self says. “If he’s himself, he’ll be one of the better players on the floor.”