CHICAGO – So where did Henry Ellenson, always the tallest player in his class growing up in Rice Lake, Wis., learn that handle? Where did he get that shot? How is it that a 6-10, 240-pounder with a wingspan more than 7 feet become the versatile darling of the 2016 NBA draft combine?
Because he wasn’t always the tallest Ellenson in the family.
“When I would play against my older brothers, I had to figure out a way to score, somehow,” Ellenson said. “And that was on the perimeter, hitting shots.’’
Ellenson was sitting at a small table, surrounded by cameras and recorders, Friday at the pre-draft combine. As that draft approaches, it appears the stretch-four coming off a strong freshman season at Marquette is rising on some draft boards. Many have moved him into the top 10, which has put him on the radar of a lot of teams, including the Timberwolves; they were one of 13 teams that interviewed him here in Chicago. He could be an option should the Wolves fail to improve their position in next week’s draft lottery.
And there is a reason for that.
Ellenson is a big man with a smaller man’s skill set. He averaged 17.0 points, 9.7 rebounds and 1.5 blocks at Marquette last season, shooting 44.6 percent overall, 28.8 percent on three-pointers. He can hit from the outside, from midrange. And he can go down on the block, if needed.
And he owes much of that ability to his bloodlines, particularly his older brothers. Ellwood Ellenson is a 6-8 forward at Valley City State in North Dakota. Oldest brother Wally — who played two seasons with the Gophers under former coach Tubby Smith before leaving the team and transferring to Marquette — is 6-6; he and Henry got to play the past season together. Indeed, Marquette scheduled a season-opening exhibition game with Valley City last fall so the three brothers could all play together.
It was their near-daily battles that helped develop Henry’s game.
That and his parents. John Ellenson was a 6-7 forward who played for both Marquette and the University of Wisconsin. Mother Holly was a 5-9 guard at Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Both parents coached the game. Today John is a school guidance counselor and Holly is a physical education teacher.
Holly had keys to the Rice Lake High School gym. At night the family — including 6-1 sister Ella — would play three-on-three games.
“My parents have a passion for the game,” Henry Ellenson said. “They both played it, both coached it. And having my older brothers play, and my sister play, it’s something we all share together. But growing up with my brothers, that’s how I learned to play skilled, on the perimeter. … I do have those outside skills. I can knock down shots. I can put the ball on the floor. But I can go into the post, too. That helps me a lot.’’
Ellenson grew up a Milwaukee Bucks fan but admitted a lot of people in Rice Lake are hoping he ends up with the Wolves, a mere two-hour drive away.
“I could see a fit with that young group,” Ellenson said.
For all his skill, there is work that needs to be done. Ellenson knows he has to get stronger. He has to work on his lateral quickness to play defense in the NBA.
He has spent the past month in Los Angeles trying to do both. Once next week’s lottery is finished and workouts are scheduled, teams will begin finding out how much he has improved; Ellenson didn’t do any workouts at the combine.
But he did a lot of interviews, including with the Wolves. And new president of basketball operations and coach Tom Thibodeau left an impression.
“Thibodeau is all about toughness,” Ellenson said. “That’s the way his teams play. A lot of defense. So he was asking me about that. … They’ve had a lot of scouts at our games throughout the year. So they already know a lot about me.”