LAWRENCE – Everybody has a theory. They say Perry Ellis is too soft. They say he’s too sweet. They say he must show more aggression, more passion, more emotion.
They say this, because they assume that there must be a reason that Ellis, a 6-foot-8 forward, has seemingly regressed during his junior season, mired in a midseason funk even as No. 9 Kansas has started the Big 12 season 3-0.
They say Ellis is a former Heights valedictorian who over-analyzes the small details, suffering the misses more than he savors the makes. They say he is a player who is still trying to internalize his status as a leader, still trying to speak up more often, and still trying become comfortable in his own skin. And considering we’re talking about a college junior here, maybe none of this should be surprising.
They also say that Ellis is the type of player who has spent the last few weeks trying to whip this mini-slump, staying late after practice for more offensive drills, spending time in his coach’s office, just hoping to hear the message that might unlock his potential.
“He’s conscientious, like you would want your son to be,” Kansas coach Bill Self says. “Where a lot of coaches, (you would) just assume not coach your son.”
Self, though, thinks Ellis is close to becoming what Kansas needs. Ellis, Self says, can still emerge as a go-to big guy and consistent offensive force for a team with designs on an 11th straight Big 12 regular-season title.
“I think that Perry is just a fraction away from doing the things that we had envisioned him to do,” Self says. “I think one thing he has to do, he’s just got to go be a player. He’s got to go be a player that’s aggressive and believe that he’s a player. He needs to believe that he’s the best player on the floor every night.”
For moments, or stretches, or even weeks at a time, Ellis has proved that he is this player. A former McDonald’s All-American, Ellis shows off the offensive touch, the footwork, the natural inclination to be a scorer. At times, he appears fully capable of being an All-Big 12-caliber power forward. But in Kansas’ last seven games, Ellis is averaging 9.4 points and 5.5 rebounds, shooting 37.8 percent.
For the season, Ellis is KU’s second-leading scorer at 12.2 points and leading rebounder with 6.4. So to suggest that Ellis has been feckless or useless this season would be overstating his struggles. But advanced numbers paint the portrait of a player who still struggles to score inside against bigger frontcourts that are motivated to slow him down.
As a sophomore, Ellis shot 55.3 percent inside the three-point line and made 65.1 percent of his shots, according to data at Hoop-Math.com. This season, Ellis is shooting 42.9 percent inside the three-point line and he’s made 53.2 percent of his shots at the rim. More alarming, perhaps, is that Ellis hasn’t just struggled converting inside; he’s also struggled at getting to the rim. Last season, more than half of Ellis’ field-goal attempts came on dunks or layups. This year, that number is less than 40 percent.
What’s happened? Part of Ellis’ struggles could stem from simple basketball reasons. Last season, Ellis lined up alongside Joel Embiid and Tarik Black, among others, two big men who commanded plenty of attention from bigger defenders. This year, those long and burly defenders are shaded toward Ellis.
“I think he’s almost too sweet and too nice a kid at times, when things are not going well,” Self says. “And he rationalizes, ‘Well, we are doing fine, so it’s OK to miss.’”
On certain days, Self looks at Ellis’ body language, and he sees a player who is not 100-percent confident. Ellis says he’s trying to fight through his natural tendencies — to defer, to blend in, to stay mostly silent. But old habits die hard.
“It’s something, I (don’t) let it get to me,” Ellis says. “You just got to come the next day to practice.”
For Kansas, though, one thing is clear as the Jayhawks head to No. 11 Iowa State for a pivotal road matchup at 8 p.m. Saturday. The Jayhawks cannot be their best version of themselves without Ellis finding the best version of himself.
“I think he’s got to be our go-to guy,” Self says, “and I don’t think he’s far off.”
In recent weeks, there have been plenty of reasons to worry about Ellis; plenty of reasons to concoct theories or search for explanations. There was a 1-for-10 shooting performance in a 77-52 loss at Temple. There was a four-point effort in 31 minutes in a road victory at Baylor. There was Tuesday’s victory over Oklahoma State, where Ellis finished with seven points on 1-of-8 shooting.
Ellis’ teammates, though, say that’s just part of the story. The public sees the inconsistent performance on the floor. But you cannot see the Ellis who is staying after practice, working on his finishing, plowing through ballhandling drills, trying to beat this prolonged funk with old-fashioned elbow grease.
“Guys go through ups and downs throughout the season, and he’s working through one right now,” sophomore forward Landen Lucas says. “But the one thing I see that he’s doing — he’s getting in extra work at practice. He’s coming in and talking to coach. He’s trying to figure it out.”
For the moment, Ellis believes he will.
“Just keep shooting,” he says. “You’ll get past it.”
No. 9 Kansas at No. 11 Iowa State
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Hilton Coliseum, Ames, Iowa
Records: KU 14-2, 3-0 Big 12; ISU 12-3, 2-1
Radio: KFH, 1240-AM, 98.7-FM
No. 9 Kansas at No. 11 Iowa State
Kansas (14-2, 3-0): The Jayhawks can improve to 4-0 in the Big 12 for a fourth straight season. They have also won 11 of 13 at Hilton. After scoring 16 points in a victory over Oklahoma State, Mason passed Ellis as leading scorer. Mason also leads the Jayhawks with 68 assists, 23 steals and 22 three-pointers. Freshman forward Cliff Alexander is 10 of 14 from the floor in his last three games and has blocked six shots.… Kansas ranks first in the conference in scoring defense (55.3 points per game) and first in field-goal percentage defense (32.7).
Iowa State (12-3, 2-1): For ISU coach Fred Hoiberg, in his fifth season, the transfer train has rolled on. This year, it’s former UNLV standout Dejean-Jones, helping fill a scoring void left by the departure of seniors DeAndre Kane and Melvin Ejim. The Cyclones also are getting solid contributions from big man Jameel McKay, a former Marquette transfer. The offense, though, begins with Niang and Morris. Niang is fifth in the Big 12 in scoring, while Morris ranks first nationally with a 5.6-to-1 assists-to-turnover ratio. Iowa State has lost two in a row to KU in Ames, but the Cyclones handled the Jayhawks in last year’s Big 12 semifinals at the Sprint Center. Hoiberg is 2-8 against Kansas.
RPIs as of Friday: KU 1, ISU 24.