AUSTIN — Perry Ellis was on the fast track, a local boy, state champion, valedictorian, jet-propelled to become the next great home-state Kansas star.
Until his freshman season got in the way.
When Kansas takes the floor at the Erwin Center at 1 p.m. on Saturday afternoon, an early-season Big 12 grudge match against an uncharacteristically mediocre Texas team, Ellis, a 6-foot-8 power forward, will start the game on the bench. Just as he has for the last 14 games.
After starting and scoring 15 points in his college debut against Southeast Missouri State on Nov. 9, Ellis, a Wichita native, has fought a two-and-a-half month battle with the Freshman Adjustment Period. He’s averaging 5.3 points. Playing 14.5 minutes per night. And learning what it’s like to play against some grown men — or at least, more grown than they were back in the City League.
But there are signs — little peeks and glimpses — that Ellis is finally starting to settle in. Signs that he’s starting to understand what he needs to do to become successful — and how to implement those lessons. Even after making just 3 of 18 shots in his last four games, Ellis says he’s found something close to a comfort zone. And it all came together in a six-point, seven-rebound performance against Baylor on Monday.
“I would say the last four games is when I really started to notice I’ve been more aggressive,” Ellis said, “and good things are coming out of it. It’s just a process.”
Kansas coach Bill Self sees Ellis’ slow start as less of a national crisis and more of a statement on the natural order of things in college hoops. Sometimes it takes freshmen time. And Self has plenty of anecdotes to feed the theory. He talks about Sherron Collins looking lost before Christmas of his freshmen year (“I didn’t know if he was coming back,” Self said), Mario Chalmers being a turnover machine, and Cole Aldrich spending most of his freshman season on the bench.
“If I’m not mistaken,” Self said, “we’ve had some really good players come through here that were freshman that didn’t start, or it took awhile to get adjusted and that kind of stuff.”
In other ways, Self believes Ellis is the victim of his own high school success. If he came in with the same credentials — but was named Terry Ellis from Arizona — maybe there wouldn’t be so much concern about a few weeks of adjustments.
“Perry’s not gonna be a good player,” Self says, “he’s gonna be a terrific player. But he’s just going through the process.
“There’s some things as a coach that you want to put on fast-forward and you want to accelerate, but there is a natural maturation process that everybody’s gotta go through.”
If Ellis is learning to strike the balance between comfort and aggressiveness, it could be coming at the right time. During most of January, opposing defenses have collapsed on senior center Jeff Withey in the paint, leaving forward Kevin Young all alone on the high post. And Ellis may be the best-equipped power forward to knock down 15-foot jumpers — and keep defenses honest.
“I think he’s the best we have at that,” Self said. “The way that people have played us, even Perry the other day, they dared him to shoot. When he gets confidence in everything, he’ll make two out of those three, and that will be so important to open up things for Jeff.”
Last Monday, after Kansas had put away Baylor in a 61-44 victory, senior guard Elijah Johnson said Ellis had been demanding the ball all night. For Johnson, it came as a sign that Ellis is ready to take the next step in his freshman season. And it left him repeating three hopeful words.
“I like it, I like it , I like it,” Johnson said.
Now, there might have been some discrepancies in what it means for the soft-spoken Ellis to “demand” the ball on offense. As Self says, that probably meant he stuck his hands in the air and calmly said “Ball”. But Johnson has seen other signs as well.
“(He’s) finishing coach’s sentences,” Johnson said, “and knowing when he’s messing up. He’s starting to get it. I think he’s more comfortable with making mistakes now.”
Ellis found a way to take nine shots against Baylor. He made just three, with more than a few bunnies just rimming out. But even after some missed shots, Ellis appears confident that the Adjustment Period may be fading.
“I’m not gonna worry about that,” Ellis said. “I’m just gonna continue to keep the aggressive mindset, and I think I’ll be all right. They’ll start to drop after a while.”