By: Will Burchfield
No, Stan Van Gundy said with a smile, it’s not as if Henry Ellenson is suddenly going to appear in the NBA dunk contest.
But after seizing another opportunity on Wednesday night in the Pistons’ win over the Timberwolves, Ellenson is staking his claim to a spot on the floor.
He’s earned it, said Van Gundy.
“We’re going to have to put up with some growing pains and there may be some nights where the matchup just doesn’t work, but we have to give him a chance here. He’s earned his chance, he’s earned it for four weeks. He’s been consistent every day in practice, he played well in the preseason. He’s earned his right to go out there and play,” said Van Gundy.
The second-year forward put up 14 points and five rebounds in 21 minutes on Wednesday night. It was his first significant action since the season-opener when he posted 13 points and four rebounds in another Pistons’ win.
“I thought he played really well. Even when he was missing shots I thought he hung in there,” said Van Gundy. “He went in there and battled.”
But forget Wednesday night for a moment. Forget the season-opener, too. As much as Ellenson has stood out for taking advantage of his chances, he’s impressed the coaching staff even more with his work ethic between games.
“We talked about it as a staff, one of the big reasons you have to find a way to play him as a young guy is we have a team that works hard and is a good practice team, a team that will focus in on improvement, but nobody more so than Henry,” Van Gundy said. “Whatever it is you’re working on, that guy is locked in and trying to get better.”
Ellenson, 20, spent much of his rookie season with the Grand Rapids Drive — not exactly the most glamorous spot for a first-round draft pick. Undeterred, he kept his head down and continued plying his trade. When the Pistons came back for training camp this September, Van Gundy noted how much growth Ellenson had made over the summer, how he was positioned to make an impact in his second season.
It was more than talk.
Ellenson has played so well in his two meaningful appearances this year — and worked so diligently between them — that Van Gundy is beginning to bend his own philosophy on playing time.
“I was sort of kicking myself. I’m like a lot of coaches, it’s easy for me to go with the veteran guys because I know what I’m going to get there. But the guy has done literally everything we’ve asked. He deserves a shot at playing,” said Van Gundy.
The highlight of Ellenson’s performance on Wednesday night came midway through the fourth quarter. He caught a skip pass near the top of the key, took two long strides toward the basket and threw down a tomahawk-style jam.
The highlight-reel dunk brought the hometown fans to their feet, although no one celebrated more eagerly than the players on the Pistons’ bench.
“He’s done it at times. I wouldn’t call Henry a high-flyer but he’s almost seven feet tall,” said Van Gundy. “That’s the thing.”
The thing, to be specific, is versatility — and it’s exactly the reason the Pistons were so high on Ellenson when they drafted him last year. Heck, Van Gundy could hardly stop smiling when the Marquette product fell to Detroit at No. 18 overall.
Through last season, this excitement rang hollow. A year later it’s ringing true.
“He doesn’t get talked as much about the other guys because he hasn’t played as much,” said Van Gundy, “but he’s one of this new breed of big guys, 6’11, 7’0 that can shoot the ball and put it on the floor. Henry can do a lot of things offensively.
“I wasn’t surprised by the dunk, no, but Henry isn’t going to be invited to the dunk contest.”
Onto the floor and into the Pistons’ rotation? You bet.