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Prospect breakdown: Henry Ellenson

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He possesses the poise and shooting touch of a veteran, but this one-and-done from Marquette is still very much unproven

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

For the Orlando Magic, a floor-spacing rotational big man could add another dimension to the offense. Picking at 11, few players with elite-level upside remain – one of which is the unproven Henry Ellenson of Marquette.

Ellenson is a 6’11.5" smooth-shooting power forward/center that more than lived up to his top-five status as a high school recruit. During his lone season in Milwaukee, he posted averages of 17 points and 9.7 boards on his way to a first team All-Big East selection. He quickly took the spotlight, sopping up 33.5 minutes per game on a young Golden Eagles team that used him as a first option.

The Wisconsin native has a jump shooting, defense-extending game that makes him a prototypical stretch four in a league where traditional big men are going extinct. He buoys this offensive skill with tenacious rebounding, meaning that he should have no problem holding his own against centers when he slides to the five.

Ellenson’s issues can be both mental and physical. He has yet to test himself against high level competition, and his one year of D1 ball has to be put under a microscope to project rest of his career. At just 19 years old, he is prone to deer-in-headlights moments, especially on defense. It’s hard to tell if his clumsy footwork and poor reads come from a lack of ability or simply a lack of experience.

Though the tape is limited, let’s see what it tells us about the young sharpshooter.

Strengths:

Shooting - For a player his size, the center/forward has a unique shooting stroke – converting 42.7% of his two-point jumpers last season. His release is unorthodox, but both quick and deadly. He naturally possesses the pick and pop skills of a guy like Jason Smith, with the extended range that makes the defense respect him from beyond the arc. For someone of his age and size, his confidence is impressive – pulling up with little hesitation at the smallest opening.

Shooting is a clear weakness for this Magic team, with only Evan Fournier, Nikola Vucevic, and occasionally Jason Smith being anything close to reliable jump shooters. With Smith’s contract coming up this summer, and a plethora of teams in need of his services, the Magic could replace him with Ellenson – a cheaper player with twice the upside.

Offensive Polish - This guy glides. In two steps, the silky smooth power forward can take a hesitant defender from the top of the arc to the baseline. His offensive game is multidimensional – as a shooter, a driver, a post scorer, and a putback artist. When he’s on, he can switch from move to move to keep the defense guessing.

A growth spurt left the former point guard standing at 6’9" before his sophomore year of high school, which explains his unique skill set. Ellenson’s amount of control and finesse with the basketball are rare, and they make him a tantalizing prospect. If he can do this at 19, what tricks will he pick up by age 27?

Rebounding - Ellenson was an incredible rebounder last season, to the point where he led the Big East in RPG. Though size helps, rebounding is equally about instinct, and Ellenson has that in spades. Just as impressive, his style of play often drew him away from the rim, forcing him to work even harder for boards. With some coaching to fine tune his technique, the projected first-rounder will have yet another tool to add to his arsenal.

Though the Magic are chock full of rebounding talent, including two above average guards in Victor Oladipo and Elfrid Payton, they were still out-rebounded by a total of 80 last season. This would be manageable if the team’s offense was efficient, but Orlando finished a middle-of-the-pack 18th in points per game. A player like Ellenson could, in time, alleviate both of these issues by adding another big that is capable of both scoring and rebounding on the second unit.

Transition - Though he lacks athleticism, Ellenson is surprisingly committed to scoring in transition. He chugs his 242 pound frame down the court in a way that most defenders don’t expect, and fewer can comfortably defend. Combine that with his tendency to pull up from three, and he often draws his rim-protecting defender out of position in transition. He is used to logging heavy minutes, and at his position effort can often make up for tangible speed.

Scoring in transition will be key if Ellenson hopes to be a part of the Magic’s gadget lineups next season. The only way to overcome his defensive limitations immediately will be with hustle, rebounding, and scoring in transition. If Ellenson can prove that he has the will to outwork other big men on the break, it should go a long way to earn playing time.

Weaknesses:

Age/Inexperience - Ellenson was born in 1997. 1997. He probably watched the Lion King on DVD. The big man has stayed in the state of Wisconsin for all of his playing career, and the largest stage he’s played on is a second round loss to Xavier in the Big East tournament. All of these factors create a perfect storm for a prospect to be dazed by the speed and bight lights of the NBA game. It is far from a guarantee that Ellenson will be able to contribute right away, and it could be years before he is reliable.

After years of developing young players, it seems that a new era of Magic basketball is on the horizon. Fans and management alike are done with long-term projects and ready to focus on the present, rather than the future. This means that whoever is the Magic draft at 11 will be thrown directly into the fire – expected to put up or shut up.

Athleticism - For the sake of his draft stock, its probably good that Henry Ellenson did not participate in the combine measurements. He does his best with what he has, but the heavy big man is far from an athletic marvel. The plodding near-seven footer is still growing into his body, and is prone to spurts of uncoordination. Combine that with shaky defense, and you have a guy destined for some highlight reel dunks at the next level.

The scary part of Ellenson’s measurements would be his 11 percent body fat. That doesn’t mean he’s fat, far from it, it means that he’s about average for an NBA big man. This also means that his slowness is here to stay. He can’t simply run it off, it is part of his profile.

Defense - College big men have the luxury of affecting shots by simply sticking their arms up and hoping the opposing player misses. This method was almost exclusively used by Ellenson, and he struggled to defend big men with any kind of scoring touch. He bit on pump fakes, fouled unnecessarily, lost his man, and tripped over his own feet at a rate that would make it hard to imagine him as an elite defender at any age. In the post, his defense is as lacking as his offense is impressive. Despite his size, he doesn’t seem to possess very much toughness, and is often bullied on the block. The blocked shots he did register were often on smaller players.

Perhaps this assessment is a little harsh, as we were all a bit goofy at age 19, but the excuses go out of the window as soon as he walks across the stage as a first round pick. It would be easy to see Ellenson as a shooter coming off the bench, but it will be hard for him to stay on the floor once the opposing team figures out his defensive limitations. His true utility comes as a center in a shooting lineup, but with that comes the expectation of at least some rim protection. Putting Ellenson and Nikola Vucevic together would be a party at the rim for opponents.

Selfishness With Ball - I saw some of the same bad habits with Ellenson as in my other profile of Denzel Valentine – minus Valentine’s passing ability. When Ellenson got the ball last season, teams often double, triple, or even quadruple teamed him, and he refused to pass out of it. His 26.7 percent usage rate was identical to Valentine’s, but his assist percentage was a mere 11 percent. This basically means that once the ball gets in his hands, strap yourself in, we’re going for a ride.

This style of play will undoubtedly be altered at the NBA level, as selfish rookies often get on the bad side of coaches and teammates. It’s fair to say that his workload will be much lower in the league, and he will feel less pressure to make a big play. Ellenson will need to develop his court vision and passing acumen if he hopes to be more than the ball-stopping scorer he was in college.

Prone to Inconsistency/Bad Basketball - Watching all of his pre-draft workouts, you would think that Ellenson is an automatic three-point shooter. In actuality, he converted only 28% of his 104 attempts last season. This speaks not to his ability, but to the quality of shot he was content with taking. As with many highly-touted prospects, he may believe in himself a little too much and resort to taking bad shots when the good ones aren’t falling. His trigger is a bit too quick, and he often looks to shoot at the first look rather than the best one.

As is typical with a multi-tooled player, his good looks beautiful and his bad looks pretty ugly. Again its hard to tell if this will improve with age, but he would be wise to pick one or two skills to consistently rely on once he enters the league.

Basketball is an interesting sport because it allows fans to watch players grow up before their eyes. Like any young prodigy, Ellenson has known nothing but success as he has cruised through the rungs of talent scouting. When the rubber meets the road, and his mettle is truly tested, how will he fare?

One thing is for sure, Ellenson has earned all of the praise that he has received. His performance at Marquette was far from pedestrian, and his potential is clear. Many smart men are lining up to risk their franchise’s future and their own job security on the smooth shooting big man. A bit of a prodigy himself, Magic GM Rob Hennigan has been an excellent talent scout thus far. Will he take a gamble on the potential offensive superstar?