Perry Ellis's path to college basketball's biggest stage has been a long and winding one.
John Rieger/John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports
LAWRENCE, Kan. — When Kansas forward Perry Ellis started against Baylor on Valentine’s Day, he knew what benchmark was at his fingertips: 1,000 career points.
It may not sound like such a milestone, but in an era of one-and-done players and early entries for the NBA draft, it has become rarer for a player to reach it at blue-blood programs.
But there he was, just three points away. Midway through the first half, Ellis drove through the lane and pulled up for a contested jumper, making the memorable shot while getting fouled.
"It wasn’t the prettiest shot," Ellis said later in a moment of reflection. "I was thinking about everybody who has played here and only 55 or 56 players have done that. You think about how many years KU has had basketball. It’s just a blessing."
Ellis’s path to college basketball’s biggest stage has been a long and winding one.
Fonda Ellis can’t remember when her son started to play basketball, but it was in the first or second grade that she realized he had sprouted a bit taller than most kids. By middle school, boys basketball coach Josh Schepis saw him walking down the hall and was taken aback.
"He was probably 6-foot-1 or 6-foot-2 as a sixth grader," Schepis said.
In Wichita, Kansas, sixth graders couldn’t play up a grade level, though, so Ellis had to wait another year before stepping on the floor. When he did, he was hardly the only star. Evan Wessel would go on to play at Wichita State, and Jalen Love at Denver. There was even Dreamius Smith, who went on to play football for West Virginia.
"He was tall, skinny and frail," Schepis said, "but he was always very, very good."
Ellis soon made the radar of the high school coach at Wichita Heights. Joe Auer introduced the youngster to Darnell Valentine, a former All-American at Kansas who also played at Heights.
"I was thinking that maybe someday Perry, if he worked hard, would be our next McDonald’s All-American," Auer said, "and have a chance to be a pretty special player."
By the time Ellis had reached eighth grade, word had gotten out. His middle school games were being moved to the high school gym so more people could watch. Sports Illustrated for Kids came in for a photo shoot, and college coaches started to take notice.
"He’s very determined," Auer said. "Nothing has come easy for him."
When most high school kids were hitting the snooze on their alarm clocks, Ellis had been awake for hours, often showing up at the local YMCA to shoot baskets by 5:30 a.m.
"Most people judge from the neck up, so when you watch Perry from the neck up, you think he’s nor passionate or he’s not doing hard. Then you look at the stat sheet and he had a double-double or 14 points and eight rebounds," Auer said.
By the time he reached high school, it was clear that Ellis was going to be dealing with an amount of pressure that few kids will experience. That first day, Auer asked Ellis his goals.
"The first thing he said was he wanted to win four state championships," Auer said. "Then he said he wanted to be a McDonald’s All-American."
Ellis accomplished both — though not without some bumps.
In his first game in high school, with Kansas coach Bill Self watching, Ellis decided to wear a mouth guard for the first time. He had so much trouble breathing that he nearly passed out.
Ellis eventually led Heights to a state title, and then three more. By the time his career was over, he had a city-record 2,231 points and 984 rebounds. He was the state boys’ basketball player of the year all four years and, yes, chosen for the McDonald’s All-American game.
"It was never his goal to score points," Auer said. "From a young age, he understood that he was going to get the most from basketball if his team accomplished the most."
His older sister, Savannah, had played for Memphis in college. She told Ellis to keep focused on his grades, and the youngster listened. Ellis had a 4.0 GPA and was valedictorian.
"He’s one of the kindest souls you’ll ever meet," Auer said. "It’s just so rare to have such a gentleman, such a competitive gentleman, in this day in age."
Ellis ultimately committed to Kansas and began contributing right away. Despite his slight stature, he played in all 37 games as a freshman, helping the Jayhawks win 31 of them. Then last season, he became the leader on a team featuring freshmen Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid.
This season, Ellis has grown into the Jayhawks’ leading scorer.
He poured in 23 points in Saturday night’s victory over TCU, which helped Kansas (22-5, 11-3) keep its one-game lead on Iowa State in the Big 12 race. And when he suits up Monday night against Kansas State, he will do so for the 100th time.
After that is the stretch run to what he hopes is the Jayhawks’ 11th straight conference title, and then the Big 12 tournament and NCAA tournament. And while Ellis has NBA aspirations, there is a good chance he’ll be back next year for his senior season.
Plenty of more chances to add to his first 1,000 points.
"I think I still can get better," Ellis said. "Even ball handling and shooting. I feel like I can improve on that more. I feel like there’s still more to learn. I can still get better."