MILWAUKEE – From afar, it appeared that freshman wunderkind Henry Ellenson ended up at Marquette against all odds, a projected lottery pick choosing a rebuilding program over bluebloods like Michigan State and Kentucky, North Carolina and UCLA.
But when you get to know the skilled, versatile, near-7-foot 19-year-old who frequently is compared to NBA All-Star Kevin Love, it all makes sense.
He’s from Rice Lake, Wis., 300 miles northwest of Marquette. He’s getting a chance to play college ball with his older brother, redshirt junior Wally Ellenson, who is also an Olympic-caliber high jumper. He has the opportunity to be The Guy for one of his home-state programs, the centerpiece of second-year head coach Steve Wojciechowski’s rebuild for what is now one of the youngest teams in America.
But to paraphrase Uncle Ben from “Spider-Man,” with great power comes great responsibility – and great pressure, too. Being the focal point for his home state team that doesn’t have a senior on the roster has meant Ellenson is focus Nos. 1, 2 and 3 on every opposing coach’s scouting report.
In Saturday’s home loss to Xavier, a team that is considered a legitimate national title contender, Ellenson found himself double- and triple-teamed again and again. Marquette got off to a hot start, mostly because of Ellenson and because his presence took some of the pressure of his frontcourt teammate Luke Fischer, who is also considered an NBA prospect. Ellenson took a pass over the top in transition, went in for a lefty layup and was fouled. He hit a corner three. He rebounded his brother’s miss and took it straight back to the hoop for an and-one. He passed out of double-teams and triple-teams. He ran the floor like a gazelle: playing center with a physical back-to-the-basket style and playing point forward bringing the ball up the court in transition.
He was great. And his team still lost.
“He’s hard to find in college basketball: his size, his skill level,” Xavier head coach Chris Mack raved after Ellenson went for 20 points and seven rebounds. “We didn’t necessarily go mano a mano. We had guys jumping passing lanes. We tried to make him a little uncomfortable in the zone. He has the ability to get 30 and 20 on any given night. When you’re a freshman, that’s really hard to do — especially when you’re the focal point of your team.”
And that’s where the great pressure comes in for Ellenson’s freshman year and presumed only year at Marquette. Sure, there is huge responsibility that comes with playing 20 minutes a game as a freshman for a stacked Kentucky or Duke team. But at places like that, you are one of a half-dozen or so elite underclassmen who are trying to find their sea legs in the college game. There is a different sort of pressure that comes with playing at a school with an impressive basketball tradition like Marquette that’s currently trying to stay afloat in the Big East with a 2-4 conference record.
From the moment the Golden Eagles started recruiting him, there was no mistaking that Ellenson would be the face of this program.
He has such great potential that Ellenson became Wojo’s No. 1 priority the moment Wojo got the Marquette job. Wojo exclusively handled Ellenson’s recruitment, which is a rarity in a college hoops recruiting world where the head coach is more frequently the closer. But what Wojo didn’t know about until Ellenson came to campus this summer was his work ethic – whether he could be a consistent, day-in, day-out worker in practice and in games. For Wojo, that’s been the most pleasant surprise; he compares Ellenson’s maturity, work ethic and preparation to that of Luol Deng, a one-and-done lottery pick when Wojo coached at Duke.
After the home loss to Xavier, Ellenson was standing in the depths of the BMO Harris Bradley Center with an ice pack attached to his bruised shin. I asked him about the decision to attend Marquette and whether the challenges have been bigger than he expected.
“I feel like I have a mismatch every game I’ve played,” he said. “It’s just a matter of picking my spots, picking my plays when I’ve been the most effective. It’s been a learning process.”
“The double-teams and the triple-teams, that’s what you want offensively,” he continued. “Even though it takes away from me, you can find guys open, so it creates a mismatch for our team. You throw it in, then two guys collapse on me and I can kick it out to guys for open shots. That’s when we’re most effective.”
It’s an unselfish, understated demeanor that ought to impress NBA front offices. But it’s not as if Ellenson hasn’t gotten his this year. He ranks 13th among Division I freshmen in scoring (averaging 15.9 points per game), although only five of those averaging more than Ellenson – LSU’s Ben Simmons, Kentucky’s Jamal Murray, Duke’s Brandon Ingram and Florida State’s Dwayne Bacon and Malik Beasley – are considered NBA prospects. He ranks third among fellow freshmen in rebounding (averaging 9.7 rebounds per game), though Simmons is the only one ahead of Ellenson with NBA potential.
Last week when Marquette lost at Villanova, Ellenson had a fairly pedestrian game numbers-wise: 12 points, eight rebounds. After the game, coach Jay Wright was shocked to see those numbers. Because Wright’s team had to be constantly aware of Ellenson, Wright felt Marquette’s entire offense had revolved around him. It was as if Ellenson, even while he scored only 12 points, had put constant pressure on Villanova’s defense.
I asked Wright about what he thought of Ellenson’s potential at the next level. He came up with a comparison that I had yet to hear but really like. He said the 19-year-old’s ceiling could be that of Dallas Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki.
“Every time we doubled him he found the open man,” Wright said. “Defensively, he moves his feet on perimeter. He’s as complete a player as a freshman, in terms of being prepared for the NBA, as I’ve seen. He’s got the size, he’s got the body, he’s got the skills, he’s got the intellect, and he competes.”
The worst part for Marquette? That few expect Ellenson to be around for a sophomore season. And for good reason; Simmons and Ingram ought to be no-brainer one-two picks in the 2016 NBA Draft, but Ellenson could go as high as third. It would be a sign of the apocalypse if Ellenson weren’t picked in the lottery. The advice most one-and-done prospects get is this: If you’re going to be a first-rounder, go. He’ll be a first-rounder.
But this, of course, takes out of the equation the actual person, with unique feelings and desires and pressures, and reduces Ellenson to merely a commodity. The reasons he took the road less traveled and came to Marquette were unique: He wanted to stay close to family; he wanted to play with his older brother; he wanted to be The Guy. Next season, his brother will be a senior. I wouldn’t guess it will happen, but more shocking draft decisions have been made than Ellenson staying a second year for the same reasons that led him to make this unconventional decision in the first place.
After the loss to Xavier, I asked Ellenson whether he had thought about sticking with Marquette for another year as this team, which is younger than all but seven in college basketball, grows up. I didn’t expect him to give me a yes or a no. What he said is that he’s doing his best to keep it out of his mind.
I can’t be looking ahead (to deciding on whether to enter the draft). I’ve had to keep it out of my mind. Otherwise it’s going to eat at me. I just take focus on every day at just getting better, focus on what’s present.
“It’s tough because it’s coming up,” he said. “I can’t be looking ahead. I’ve had to keep it out of my mind. Otherwise it’s going to eat at me. I just take focus on every day at just getting better, focus on what’s present.”
And what’s present now is this: Henry Ellenson is one of the top freshmen in the nation and the most unique freshman this side of Ben Simmons. He’s beloved in his home state. He gets to play with his brother and be near family. He’s the focal point in what Wojciechowski hopes is the beginning of a successful rebuilding process.
And for now – for the next few months, or maybe longer – that’s all Henry Ellenson wants.