There hasn’t been a television broadcaster yet who, when calling a Kansas basketball game, hasn’t mentioned that 6-foot-8 freshman Perry Ellis “needs to get tougher.” Or “has to play more physical.” Or, the best, “must find a mean streak.”
OK, we get it. Ellis has some work to do in the ferocity department. The case can be made that he hasn’t been as good as many expected him to be after becoming a McDonald’s All-American at Heights, where he led the Falcons to four consecutive Class 6A championships and was a four-time All-State player.
Such accomplishments lead to great expectations at the next level and Ellis, who lost his job in the starting lineup early to senior Kevin Young, has too often strolled through the park when KU coach Bill Self wants him to leap over the trees.
But just because Ellis is soft-spoken doesn’t mean he’s soft. Slowly but surely, he is finding a comfort zone. He looked more involved and engaged during KU’s easy win over Richmond on Tuesday night at Allen Fieldhouse and he’ll get another chance when Kansas plays at Ohio State on Saturday.
“Every day I’m feeling more comfortable,’’ Ellis said. “The more this season goes on, the more comfortable I’m feeling.’’
Ellis admittedly has taken some time to get a lay of the land in Lawrence. He arrived with tremendous fanfare by a fan base that thought he would need to produce at a high level for the Jayhawks to be successful.
Instead, Ellis has averaged a modest 6.2 points and 3.1 rebounds while averaging just under 16 minutes. Even so, Kansas is playing at a high level thanks to redshirt freshman Ben McLemore and a veteran group that includes center Jeff Withey, forward Travis Releford and guard Elijah Johnson.
The wild card, though, has been Young, a senior who has evolved into the kind of tough, scrappy player Self cherishes. There’s always dirty work to be done on a basketball floor and Young loves playing in the mud.
The more Ellis watches the man who took his starting job, the more he is inspired by him.
“We’ve gotten close,’’ Ellis said. “Kevin and I talk a lot. He really helps me out by motivating me throughout practices and telling me to go and get that ball. I notice how much better he’s gotten as a player since last season. He’s just gained so much confidence.’’
Confidence has a way of striking when a player least expects it. Ellis is waiting for that strike.
At Heights, confidence was never an issue. Ellis became one of the best high school players in the state’s history by showing up every day, for every practice and every game. He was almost always the best player on the floor whenever he was on the floor.
Not so at Kansas, where the learning curve has been of the 12-to-6 variety. Becoming a college player, and a college student, hasn’t come easily for Ellis. He, like most freshmen, has needed time to adapt. The pace is quicker, the players are bigger and stronger. And at times it doesn’t even seem like the rims are 10 feet high anymore.
That’s normal life for a college basketball freshmen, except for that select few who find their niche early on and never look back.
Of the 24 McDonald’s All-America players from 2012, all of whom are playing at big-time schools this season, Ellis ranks 20th in minutes. He’s not had the impact of UNLV’s Anthony Bennett, Kentucky’s Alex Poythress, Duke’s Rasheed Sulaimon, UCLA’s Shabazz Muhammad, Baylor’s Isaiah Austin or Kentucky’s Archie Goodwin.
But those who believe Ellis to be a disappointment simply aren’t grasping reality. Kansas is loaded with veterans. And because of Young’s production, the Jayhawks haven’t needed Ellis to be a double-digit scorer and top-flight rebounder. His minutes have fallen off, but lately his contributions have risen.
“Yes, I need to be more aggressive,’’ Ellis said, echoing what so many commentators have said. “It’s just doing every single thing as hard as you can do it, whether that’s setting a screen or anything else. To become a better player you sometimes have to get out of your comfort zone and try different things.’’
It’s a special freshman that never encounters a pothole.
“I think my confidence level is improving,’’ he said. “It’s pretty high. I’m just trying to figure things out. But I’m going to get there. I know I will.’’