The Long and Short of Pro Potential

During the 2015-16 season, Marquette Courtside might as well have been named Henry Ellenson Courtside instead. It felt like we were writing about the Rice Lake, Wis. native just about every week. All we ever heard about Ellenson after he committed to Marquette was that he was likely a one-and-done. Marquette wanted him bad enough to give his brother, Wally, a scholarship, too. Badger fans bemoaned how Henry “betrayed” them to go to “that city school.” The whole season, Ellenson was the only guy anyone wanted to talk about. Part of the theory, admittedly never confirmed, why Marquette didn’t pursue any postseason tournament after it failed to make both the NCAA and NIT fields was because Ellenson was probably going to sit out any such games.

What did it all turn into? Ellenson was released last week by the team that drafted him, the directionless Detroit Pistons. Admittedly, Ellenson’s numbers in the G League were solid, and his NBA prospects were hampered by being behind such names as Blake Griffin, Stanley Johnson, former Badger Jon Leuer, Anthony Tolliver, Zaza Pachulia and Thon Maker at various times on the Pistons’ roster. That’s a decent list of experienced NBA big men. But it’s also one where, other than Griffin, each either is, or seems like he will end up being, a role player.

A blogger covering the Phoenix Suns has made a half-hearted case for that team to sign Ellenson to a 10-day contract. His assessment of Ellenson’s strengths and weaknesses is mostly in line with what we saw out of him at Marquette. For a big man, he’s a good distributor and has a nose for rebounds. But he’s physically limited, has never gotten his three-point shot to a great point (despite taking, and missing, plenty of shots at Marquette) and seems unable to block shots at the NBA level for some reason. Plus, as nice as his post game is, he seems to prefer being a stretch four, which he hasn’t proven he truly is.

Ellenson didn’t lead Marquette anywhere. As mentioned, the team didn’t make any form of postseason play and was 8-10 in a good BIG EAST. Luke Fischer almost seemed as, if not more, key to that team’s successes and failures as Ellenson was. At times that year, I even began to wonder if the harder-working and more-dedicated Ellenson brother was Wally, whose scholarship was pulled after Henry left in a move that left some casting an askew eye toward Marquette’s handling of the Ellensons collectively.

Ellenson may have been the BIG EAST’s Freshman Player of the Year, but he wasn’t really a star that season, nor has he shown he can be a star in the NBA. I’m not saying Ellenson is necessarily done showing what he can prove, but to go back to a phrase cited in one of those 2015-16 blogs, Ellenson never quite passed the eye test, either as a highly sought-after, one-and-done recruit, or as an NBA player. There’s more to being a star than length and doing some things other big men can’t do. Ellenson never quite figured that out, and never seemed to develop the skills people thought he would have.

This is where we pivot from the past to the present for Marquette — and to Markus Howard.

Unlike Ellenson, who didn’t live up to expectations collegiately, Howard exceeds them such that we now expect him to do so in a spectacular way every so often. He’s re-writing the scoring portion of a Marquette record book that includes NBA stars like Wade, Thompson, Butler, Lucas, Rivers and Crowder. We could expand that list out significantly if we consider Howard has also set or threatened BIG EAST marks. When he’s on, absolutely nothing seems to throw him off his shot. You can defend him just about any way you want. He’s still going to make the ball go in the hoop. It’s almost drawn there by a magnet when he shoots. It’s ridiculously entertaining to watch and you usually ask yourself at least two or three times a game, “How did he hit that?”

And yet, unlike Ellenson, whose fate as a first-round NBA draft pick was almost predetermined, we hear a lot of hemming and hawing when Howard’s pro prospects are discussed. He’s too small. He doesn’t defend well enough. He has work to do to be a better distributor. He’s had back issues. Blah, blah, blah.

I have a strong, visceral reaction to that sentiment: It’s BS.

Howard occasionally draws comparisons to Dana Barros, who played in the NBA until he was 36 and was an all-star. Admittedly, that was a wholly different era of basketball, but Howard is every bit as good as Barros was at Boston College and is even younger.

The size thing? Did Muggsy Bogues, Spud Webb and, more recently, Earl Boykins fail in the NBA? Not to mention that those guys played in a league that was a lot more physical and had a lot more defense, and none was the scorer Howard was in college.

In the current age of analytics and spacing ruling the day and teams relying on the three, we’re discounting a kid who’s probably the best pure shooter in the country? How much does defense really matter in the NBA until you get to the playoffs, anyway? You’re telling me there isn’t at least a spot on the bench for a guy you can put in the game and is sure to give you points?

But Ellenson was big and Howard isn’t, so Ellenson almost automatically gets a pass into the first round to do next to nothing for the Pistons, while Howard is only on the fringe of being thought of as a pro. Sorry, I don’t buy it, by which I mean I would literally rather pay money to watch Howard’s magic trick of pulling buckets out of you-know-where than see Elllenson keep missing threes into his mid-20s.

I never quite believed in Ellenson. I believe in Howard. Yes, Howard has a lot of better pieces around him, too, which helps the impression. I mentioned Fischer; Theo John is a distinct improvement, as is Sacar Anim over the snakebitten Haanif Cheatham. But Howard’s doing something Ellenson didn’t: He’s showing he can live up to the hype. He’s also leading his team to be in BIG EAST contention and threatening to put a number as low as two next to Marquette’s line in the NCAA bracket.

I mentioned analytics. As much as we want to think at high levels about this stuff, sometimes, it should just break down to this: Are they getting it done? Ellenson didn’t. Howard is. Whether it be after this year, which no one seems to be discussing, perhaps because they think he can improve his defense or physicality with one more college year, or after next year: Make this kid a pro. I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t want to keep watching this kid.


ONE SMALL CONCERN: I am a tad nervous about something as the season starts to wind down. Might this being a down year for the BIG EAST hurt Marquette? After MU and Villanova, no other team is above .500 in conference play right now. I occasionally fear this may lull MU into a sense of complacency going into the tournament if they have an easy time with the Butlers, Providences and Georgetowns of the world. Hoping I’m just paranoid, but stranger things have happened.

SPEAKING OF WHICH: Marquette plays Butler at 8 p.m. Wednesday night downtown.

Photo: Getty Images

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