Perry Ellis is stuck in the margins — and if he gets unstuck, the Jayhawks could take off

Denny Medley/Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

LAWRENCE, Kan. — The problem is that Perry Ellis, in his heart of hearts, is a 3.5. And he’s a 3.5 on a roster that really doesn’t have a major 5 to speak of, so they need him to be more of a true, old-school 4.

When he’s right, Kansas’ junior forward is, well … not that. Not that he can’t be that — he was last winter, more or less — but his default comfort zone is more nuanced. Ellis is a "Power 3" or a "Stretch 4," a forward who can drain spot-up jumpers from 15 to 18 feet out comfortably while also being strong enough and agile enough as a finisher to post up smaller defenders.

Also, at times, he’s getting the living crap doubled out of him.

"I mean, it’s different, (because we’ve) been not having JoJo (Embiid around)," Ellis said Saturday night after dropping 15 points — 12 in the second half — on woeful Texas Tech during an 86-54 cakewalk at Allen Fieldhouse.

"When I was on the wing down there, that took a lot of spotlight off of me. It’s definitely different."

Last January, Embiid, a true center, a gifted, 7-foot man-child with dancer’s feet and Charmin hands, would draw defenders to him in the paint like a giant magnet. That often left the 6-foot-8, 225-pound Ellis open on the other side of the lane, or Ellis open to clear up whatever junk was floating around the rim.

That, and JoJo scared the hell out of people.

Ellis is many things — smart, thoughtful, tough, resilient — but a natural rim protector, he ain’t. Big 34 is a finesse guy being asked to take on more of an enforcer’s role, whether by design or by default. And it just doesn’t fit, doesn’t feel right. Kid’s pressing. The strain shows.

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The Wichita native went into the weekend connecting on just 55.9 percent of his shots at the rim, according to Hoop-Math.com. Point guard Frank Mason was rolling at a 57.8 percent clip; wing guard Svi Mykhailiuk, 58.3.

So, yeah. Pressing. A bit.

"Yeah, sometimes. Sometimes, I do," Ellis said after a first half for No. 12 KU (13-2, 2-0 Big 12) in which he missed two of three bunnies and one of two tries from the charity stripe. "I mean, that’s something that I’m always trying to get better at: Just let the game come to you. And I’m still trying to work on that. Just go out there and have fun, man."

The second half? See, now, that was fun.

With the Jayhawks up a billion and The Phog rocking, Ellis stepped out and let it fly to start the second period. A three from the top left corner with 17:40 to go in the game, stretching the margin to 48-25, KU. Then another, two possessions later, with 16:35 left, to make it 53-25. And another, with 6:50 to go, pushing the cushion to 72-37.

Suddenly, it was a party, and Tubby Smith wasn’t invited. Which led a reporter to ponder: Did someone say something in the locker room?

"I mean, not much," Ellis replied. "(Bill Self) just said (that) I’ve got to be more involved, I’ve got to be more involved in the offense. And it happened."

And it happened in a big way: Twelve points in the final 20 minutes, four for four from the floor and three for three from beyond the arc.


"I love the fact that he made threes," Self said. "I love the fact that he shot them. But the reality is, he’s got to get inside and get some easy baskets and some things inside, which he’s labored to do. At least he saw the lid come off the basket (Saturday), which is a big (thing) for us."

Having point guard Devonte’ Graham, back for the first time in a month after suffering a nasty case of turf toe, got the juices flowing, too. As steady as Mason has been, things are better with Graham (two points, six rebounds, six assists) around as a running mate, or a complement, allowing No. 0 to play off the ball, search out sweet spots and, for more than two-minute stretches, actually rest.

"You can tell, regardless (of whether) he’s scoring or not," Self said, "that we’re a totally different team from being able to slide our feet and do some things that we don’t do near as well if he isn’t available to us."

Saturday was a teaching kind of contest, a learning kind of contest, a chance to get fresh legs on the floor and learn some things about the bodies already on-hand. One of the other lessons that sunk in quickly is that freshman Cliff Alexander (6-8, 240), a Darryl Dawkins clone in the making, might be the best post defender Self can trust at the moment, given a pace that seems too fast for Hunter Mickelson (three fouls in 10 minutes) and too physical, at times, for Landen Lucas (three fouls in six).

Big 34, meanwhile, connected on two of four inside the arc, which wasn’t ideal, but still tops his season 2-point percentage of 44.4 (56 for 126). Self needs something closer to the sophomore version, of course, a plugger who converted 55.3 percent inside the arc as a sophomore — 65.1 percent at the rim.

"I don’t think he’s played very well of late," Self said. "And Perry’s a scorer, and sometimes a scorer needs to score the ball in order to play well. But he hasn’t been aggressive. Even (Saturday), I don’t think he was as aggressive as he needs to be."

Or as aggressive as they’ll probably need him to be down the road. Smith’s Red Raiders (10-6, 0-3) — Ratings Percentage Index rank of 165 and a KenPom.com rank of 152 as of early Saturday afternoon — got down 15 with nine minutes left in the first half, and sort of went into the turtle shell, more or less, after that. We’ll get better gauge what full strength on the S.S. Self looks like Tuesday against plucky Oklahoma State (12-3, 2-1), and then during a bear of a trip to No. 17 Iowa State next weekend.

We’ll know more about Ellis, too. For better or worse.

You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter at @SeanKeeler or email him at seanmkeeler@gmail.com.