LAWRENCE — It was early this fall, and Kansas coach Bill Self was telling a story about Perry Ellis, maybe the quietest athlete on campus. During his first season at Kansas, Ellis would come to practice or stop by the basketball office, and the result was usually the same: A few words, maybe a head nod, but mostly silence.
“You could be in a room with Perry and neither person spoke for 24 hours,” Self says.
One year later, as Ellis prepared to begin his sophomore season at Kansas, Self wanted to tell you about the new Ellis, the 6-foot-8 power forward who had the potential to be the Jayhawks’ leading scorer. Ellis was starting to feel more comfortable on campus, starting to emerge from his shell, starting to ease into a leadership role on a team dominated by freshmen. He was even starting to talk a little bit … nah, who are we kidding?
“Perry is much more comfortable with me,” Self would say, a sly smile forming on his face. “He will come into the office and we will have a 30- to 40-second conversation.”
Hey, that’s still progress.
For most of his two seasons at Kansas — and during his sterling four-year career at Wichita Heights — a pretty universal and oft-repeated narrative has crystallized around Perry Ellis. He is quiet and unassuming — even on the floor — and this causes his overall talent and production to be overlooked.
He is an in-state product on a blue-blood program, the first McDonald’s All-American from the state of Kansas in more than a decade, but he plays in the shadows of KU freshman Andrew Wiggins. Ellis averages 13.8 points and 6.9 rebounds, one of the most efficient scorers in the Big 12, but freshman center Joel Embiid is the projected lottery pick in the middle.
Ellis is quiet. That is usually the story. Except that is not this story. On Saturday afternoon, Ellis will take the floor for No. 18 Kansas against No. 25 Kansas State at Allen Fieldhouse in the latest Sunflower Showdown.
And this is the story about everything else Ellis can be for Kansas.
Ellis can be a bellwether.
Six days ago, Ellis finished with four points while shooting one of eight from the field in a 61-57 loss to San Diego State. It was tied for his lowest scoring output of the season, and it’s probably no coincidence that his other four-point night came in a loss at Florida. In 14 games, Ellis has averaged 7.3 points in Kansas’ four losses and 16.4 points in the Jayhawks’ 10 victories.
For two months, KU basketball theory has been pretty simple: If Ellis plays well, the Jayhawks win. If Ellis struggles, they’re in a for a fight.
Self says Ellis was battling an illness during the San Diego State game, and it was certainly easier to feel better after scoring 22 points in KU’s 90-83 victory over Oklahoma on Wednesday. But Ellis has learned an important takeaway from the struggles of the nonconference schedule: This young team needs him at optimum capacity.
“It starts with practice, like always,” Ellis says. “I just went into practice and was attacking and just playing as hard as I can. (I was) just trying to do things at 100 percent.”
Ellis could become the best in-state KU player since Wayne Simien.
On the day he signed, Self offered up the Simien comparison, referencing the Leavenworth native who earned All-America honors during his four years in Lawrence. Both Simien and Ellis won high school state titles (Ellis won four), and both were McDonald’s All-Americans.
“You have to get your local guys,” Self would say, “and certainly he has a chance to be in that same mold of a Wayne Simien-type guy.”
Self likes having Kansas kids on the roster, believing the local flavor adds something — especially on those days that K-State comes to town. For years, Self has mined the local talent, finding valuable pieces in players such as Tyrel Reed, Brady Morningstar and Travis Releford, who played high school basketball in Kansas. In a state of 2.9 million people, it was a quality return.
“And we’ve actually missed on some kids, too,” Self said. “We’ve made some recruiting mistakes, gone in a different direction where kids have panned out to be really good players.”
In Ellis, he saw something more than a piece. He saw a building block, somebody that could carry the Kansas torch for three or four seasons, the same as Simien.
“In games like K-State…” Self said. “It’s nice to have some local kids that grow up understanding the rivalry.”
It took Ellis nearly four months to adjust to the college game during his freshman season. The game was fast, and he was worried about making mistakes. Self called Ellis a “pleaser” — somebody who was too worried about doing everything right.
But time passed, and Ellis finally settled in.
One year later, another transition was needed. Kansas lost all five starters, and the Jayhawks needed the stability of veteran leadership. For now, Self believes Ellis is just starting to grow into his leading-man status. Ellis can also smooth out some rough edges on the defensive end. And he will also continue to get stronger.
And maybe — just maybe — his conversations with his head coach will continue to get longer. You know, one or two minutes next year.
“His personality is very quiet and (he gives off) the appearance of being laid back,” Self said. “But he is also a guy that was the (Kansas) state player of the year four times in a row and won four state championships, so the fire burns, there is no question.”