LAWRENCE – Before Perry Ellis left the LeBron James Skills Academy last week in Las Vegas, he took a moment to pose with the camp’s host, a certain Ohio native who made a few headlines last week.
Three years ago, Ellis might have been nervous. He had come to this same camp during his high school days at Wichita Heights, when even the thought of stepping on the floor with some of the best prep players in the country was cause for consternation. He was different then, he says, not as mature, not as confident.
This time, he was standing next to the best basketball player in the world, embracing him in a quick bro-hug and coolly posing for a photo. Maybe it was a good angle for Ellis, who is listed at 6-foot-8. Perhaps it was his shoes. Whatever the case, it was still mildly jarring to the eye.
In the photo, Perry Ellis is standing taller than LeBron James.
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“It was the angle,” Ellis said this week, after arriving back in Lawrence. “… I know we’re pretty close, though.”
Ellis’ trip to James’ prestigious camp in Las Vegas is the latest indication of what he could mean for Bill Self and Kansas during his junior season. Only 30 college players scored invites to the event, which also included high school players. Ellis joined KU freshman Kelly Oubre Jr., as well as K-State sophomore Marcus Foster and Wichita State junior Ron Baker at the camp.
“It’s definitely a confidence-booster going to these camps,” Ellis said, “competing with all those guys. It really just helps you out mentally.”
Entering his third season at Kansas, Ellis will be counted on to lead Self’s latest reloading project. Self believes Ellis can compete for first-team All-Big 12 honors, and the trip to Las Vegas offered Ellis an extended look at some of the top players from around the country.
He roomed with Wisconsin forward Sam Dekker, another player with All-American aspirations. But the abundance of guards and wings at the event forced Ellis to work on his perimeter defending.
“I had to get out there and guard those guys a lot, which will help me,” Ellis said. “I got to learn to do that.”
During his sophomore season, Ellis introduced himself as one of the more consistent and efficient scorers in the Big 12. He averaged 13.5 points while shooting 55 percent from the floor. His offensive rating (123.6) was the best in the Big 12, according to advanced metrics from KenPom.com. But Ellis often struggled on the defensive end, where he had a tendency to be exposed against skilled power forwards.
Part of this may be due to physical limitations, of course. During his week at the LeBron camp, Ellis measured in at 6-8 with a wingspan of 6-10, a relatively small wingspan for a college power forward. Ellis, though, believes he can become a more dependable defender — whether on the perimeter or inside the paint.
“It’s just going to help the team,” Ellis said, “and even (to get to) the next level, that’s just what I’ll have to do. I just want to become a better defensive player all the time.”
Ellis will now prepare for a similar experience at the Adidas Nations camps in early August, when he’ll get another opportunity to face off against some of the best players in the country. He still has NBA aspirations, he says, but that will come with time. For now, he’s focused on getting better and listening to Self.
Still, his performance at the LeBron camp drew plaudits from many in attendance, including former NBA coach John Lucas. For a week, Ellis showed off his offensive skillset — and, of course, the court-time with James was nice, too. During one particular scrimmage, James pushed the ball and found Ellis with a behind-the-back pass. Ellis calmly knocked down the jumper.
“One of the greatest players in the world,” Ellis said. “So getting to meet him and hear from him, it was great.”