Last season, Detroit Pistons power forward Henry Ellenson started his rookie campaign as a teenager on a team determined to compete for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. This meant that despite Ellenson’s talent and upside, the No. 18 pick in last year’s draft spent much of the season sitting on the Pistons’ bench or suiting up for Detroit’s D-League affiliate, the Grand Rapids Drive.
Ellenson played in just 19 NBA games and averaged just 3.2 points and 2.2 rebounds in 7.7 minutes per contest. In the D-League, he was much more productive and showed glimpses of the player he could become in the NBA – averaging 17.9 points, 8.9 rebounds, 1.3 assists and .9 blocks.
Entering his sophomore campaign, Ellenson is hoping to receive more playing time and help the Pistons as the try to crack the East’s Top 8. HoopsHype recently caught up with the 20-year-old to discuss his rookie season, adjustment to the NBA, offseason training, impressive Summer League performance, goals for the 2017-18 season and much more.
As a rookie, you only played in 19 games, but there are still plenty of opportunities to learn and grow throughout that first year in the NBA. How much did you learn over the course of the season and what surprised you the most about the transition from college to the pros?
Henry Ellenson: The biggest adjustment for me was figuring out the defensive side of things and knowing other teams’ personnel, so I was watching a lot of film and things like that. In those 19 games, I had limited opportunities, but I just tried to make the most of it every time I was on the court. I tried to do whatever I could to help the team, shooting, making plays without the ball in my hands and things like that. It was a good chance for me to learn from other guys – whether it was going at other players in practice and learning from them or trying to pick up things during games – and I think it helped me throughout the season. I obviously had limited action, but I did stay ready and got a chance to play [more] in the last four games and I was able to do some good things. I feel like going into this season, I’m taking all those things that I learned and I’ll be a better for it.
Has the coaching staff talked to you about expanding your role this season? Do you expect to play in more games and receive more playing time?
HE: Yeah, I want to step up and my biggest goal going into training camp is cracking the rotation. Coach [Stan] Van Gundy said there’s no set starting lineup going into training camp this year. That just means I have to compete and show what I can do because there are minutes up for grabs. The most important thing for us is winning, and I want to be a guy who can be relied on every night to make plays, score the ball and help this team win. I’m just going into the season with the mindset of, “Go earn it.” That’s the biggest thing I’m thinking right now.
As a rookie, you’re adjusting to a lot of changes on and off the court. From the beginning of your rookie season to the end of the year, how much more comfortable did you feel?
HE: On the court, you’re learning a lot of new things and plays. Off the court, I was living on my own [for the first time]. There are a lot of components that go into being a rookie and adjusting to the NBA. I just tried to take things day by day – trying to learn and get better each day. I was all ears. I definitely felt more comfortable as the year went on because you kind of get into a groove. I felt like I was able to get better. Game-days weren’t necessarily the biggest [way for me to improve] last year; it was really practices. I love going against those guys, learning new things and coming in early to get shots up. You just get more comfortable as the year goes on. Then, this year in Summer League, I was able to show how much I’ve grown from last year to now. But this offseason, I’ve been continuing to work hard and expand my game. I’m constantly trying to improve.
What are some specific aspects of your game that you’re trying to improve this summer and what’s a typical day of training like for you?
HE: This offseason, I’ve been in Detroit a lot. Every morning, I go lift for an hour so I can get my legs and core stronger. I’m the youngest guy on the team, but that’s no excuse; I need to be stronger, I need to be able to compete and I need to hold my own. I’ve been doing a lot of squats and work on my lower body. I’ve really been working hard in the weight room. Then, for my on-court workout, I’m making sure I’m as versatile as possible. I’m not a one-dimensional player – I want to be able to do as many things as possible – so I’m always trying to expand my skill set. Shooting is another area I’m focused on because last year, as a team, that’s something we didn’t do as well as we should have. I know being able to knock down shots when I’m open is important and I think my shooting could be a way for me to get some minutes. I felt like during Summer League, I was able to show that my shot has improved. These last few weeks, I’ve been working on getting my guide hand off a little sooner so that the ball comes off of my right hand a little bit cleaner. I’ve made some minor tweaks like that, but they make a big difference.
Coach Van Gundy is a terrific coach who knows the game so well. How much has he helped you and what has it been like learning from him?
HE: Playing for Coach Van Gundy is great. With him, to be on the court, you have to be trusted. Defensively, I’m trying to gain his trust. He’s a great teacher on that end though – all of our coaches are and they’ve all helped me a lot. I’ve learned a lot of different things, from improving my stance, getting better at long closeouts and making sure my footwork is right. Coach Van Gundy has been great. There are times when he likes to get on guys, but he’s not one to yell at you for no reason. If you’re taking good shots and defending well, he’s going to let you play your game. He expects a lot out of you, but once he has complete trust in you and you’re on the court, you can just play.
Who are some of the veterans who helped you – on and off the court – as you adjusted to the NBA?
HE: Last year, my vet was Beno Udrih and he was a lot of fun. He was the oldest guy on the team and I was the youngest guy on the team. When we were on the road, he’d take me out to restaurants and stuff like that. He really took me under his wing. He’d help me during practice and was always teaching me different things. He taught me some of the things that Dirk [Nowitzki] does and passed on different things he picked up from other good players he’s played with or seen a lot of. He taught me a lot of little things about the game too, like being in the right spots, how to be most effective in the pick-and-pop. After every play, he’d pull me to the side and tell me different things to help me improve. I’d always listen because he’s been in the league for 13 years and he’s had success. He was a guy who really helped me out a lot last year.
Andre Drummond is one of the best centers in the NBA. How much did it help you being able to go against him in practice and what do you think of his potential? He just turned 24 years old!
HE: Man, Andre Drummond… I’ve never seen a player like him. Everyone talks about his size, but they don’t realize how skilled he is, how well he moves and how nimble he can be. I think the sky is the limit for him. Being able to go up against a guy like that during practice is only going to make me better. We had four-on-four and three-on-three games going on in the gym yesterday and I was going up against him. I went up for layup and he swatted that to the sidelines. The next time, I was able to go high off the glass and get a bucket, but experiencing stuff like that and going against a player like Andre only makes you better.
I have to ask about rookie hazing. Were the vets tough on you or did you have it easy?
HE: You know what, I didn’t have it too bad. I probably shouldn’t say that though, because the guys have been saying that you’re still a rookie until that first game of your second season (laughs). But no, the guys were great to me. There were times where I’d have to pick up food for the plane ride or pick up clothes for a guy at a store, but I didn’t have it too bad. It was just little things. I think it helped that I was just trying to be a good rookie and blend in and not create any waves. The guys were good to me. And I don’t buy that you’re still a rookie until your first game as a sophomore. They’re still telling me to do stuff, but that’s when I say, “Call Luke Kennard!” Once there’s a new rookie, I’m [off the hook].
Avery Bradley was a huge addition for you guys this summer. He’s known for being an excellent perimeter defender and locker-room presence. What are your thoughts on the move?
HE: I was really excited when I first heard that we got Avery Bradley. I’ve only heard great things about him across the league. Everyone says he’s one of the top defenders, if not the top defender. I’m excited about everything he brings to the table. He seems like a guy who’s always competing and who’s really hungry to win. I think that’s huge for us. I haven’t met him yet, but I’ve texted with him a few times and I can’t wait to play with him. Being on the court with a guy like that can only make you better.
What have you seen from Luke Kennard during your offseason workouts and pickup games, and what kind of impact could he have as a rookie?
HE: I’ve known Luke for a long time. We’ve been playing with each other or against each for years, going all the way back to high school when we were in the same camps and tournaments and stuff. He’s a familiar face in the locker room, so when he got drafted, I texted him right away and told him I was excited. It was awesome playing with him in Summer League and I felt like we already had a good connection going. We were finding each other and playing well together. He’s not just a great shooter, he’s a great overall player. He can do a lot of different things with the ball, not just score it. I think he’s going to be a great help to our team.
You mentioned your Summer League play. You averaged 17.4 points and 7.2 rebounds, and you looked really comfortable out there. How much did that help your confidence and how can you build off of that success entering the season?
HE: Having a good Summer League just shows that you’ve improved over the course of your first year, that you’ve been working hard and that you’ve been doing all of the right things. It’s a huge confidence booster going into the season and it makes me want to just keep playing well, keep showing what I can do and keep getting better. I’m excited about these upcoming weeks; things are about to get rolling really soon. We have some team workouts scheduled for September and I can’t wait.
We’ve seen several stars like Paul George, Jimmy Butler and Paul Millsap move from the East to the West, and their former teams might fall out of the playoff mix. It seems like the final few seeds in the East are up for grabs and the conference is a bit wide open aside from the top few teams. Is this an opportunity for you guys to step up and potentially make some noise in the East?
HE: It’s exciting to see how open the East is now. I feel like it’s ours for the taking. But the thing is, everyone is saying that now. Everyone is saying that the East is weaker now so you have a number of teams saying, “Oh, we can go make the playoffs now.” I think it’s going to be competitive no matter what. But I feel confident in our team and I think it’s ours for the taking. We have the talent – there’s no doubt about it – with guys like Reggie [Jackson], Tobias [Harris], Dre [Drummond], Avery [Bradley] and the list goes on. We have the talent to go do this and I’m excited about this season. But like I said, everyone in the East thinks that they can make the playoffs now, so it’s going to be that much more competitive.
What are your individual goals for the upcoming season?
HE: My biggest goal entering the season is just to be part of the rotation and then, from there, just be able to contribute by scoring the ball and making plays for others. But yeah, the biggest goal is just getting into that rotation.
There are a number of Marquette guys who have had a lot of success in the NBA, from Dwyane Wade to Jimmy Butler to Wesley Matthews to Jae Crowder. Do you have a relationship with any of those guys and do they ever give you advice?
HE: Yeah, I have gotten advice from a number of the Marquette players. When I was working out in Los Angeles during the pre-draft process, Jimmy Butler helped me a lot. He was giving me on-court and off-court advice. Wesley Matthews has always been really cool too. When I was playing at Marquette, he actually came to my dorm room and talked to me about the NBA because he knew I was entering the draft. We were sitting on my couch, talking for a while. It’s funny because my roommate and I actually had a huge poster of him in the room and after we were done talking, we had him sign it. He was like, “I don’t know why I’m signing another NBA player’s poster!”
That’s awesome! How long did he hang out at your dorm?
HE: He stayed for an hour and he was just great to talk to because he knew what I was about to go through with the pre-draft process and my rookie season, so he was just giving me advice and passing on things that he learned. And of course, we had to have him sign the poster after! It was perfect.