Bob Lutz

Bob Lutz: Ellis playing his way toward stardom

Kansas’ Perry Ellis has been one of the team’s most consistent players in his sophomore season.
Kansas’ Perry Ellis has been one of the team’s most consistent players in his sophomore season. The Wichita Eagle

I like Perry Ellis. I like him a lot.

He’s a good kid from a good family. He keeps his head down and plays basketball. He’s just scratching the surface on what he can be at Kansas, and I don’t think the Jayhawks utilize him enough.

But I can’t get Ellis to smile or laugh at one of my comments. I think I got him to grin once, but that’s about it. He’s a serious person and a serious basketball player, at least that’s how he presents himself.

Two seasons at Kansas haven’t changed him, at least not so that I can tell. He’s still quiet. He still doesn’t smile much. And interviewing him can be challenge.

Ellis is so polite, so down to earth, that it feels like I’m digging up earth to get him to say much. I don’t think it’s that Ellis lacks personality or that he’s not engaging. And he’s definitely smarter than the average college basketball player or maybe even structural engineer, as his 4.0 grade-point average at Heights attests.

The 6-foot-8 Ellis is KU’s second-leading scorer (13.6 points) and rebounder (6.5). His KU career started slowly but he found the ignition about two-thirds of the way through the season and his engine has been purring since.

“Oh man, I’ve grown so much,” said Ellis, who led Heights to four Class 6A championships in high school. “I could definitely see myself taking plays off last season. Now I feel like I’m playing hard. And when I need a break, I tell Coach (Bill) Self.”

Self, who never met a television camera or reporter’s notebook he didn’t like, had admitted to having to adapt to Ellis’ reserved demeanor. The key, though, is that Ellis doesn’t play basketball quietly. He causes quite a ruckus, in fact.

With an ability to use either hand and a pair of dazzling, quick feet, Ellis is a load to contain. He can turn either way and often before a defensive player knows he has slipped away.

When Ellis gets fouled, he makes 77 percent of his free throws.

And he has made 8 of 16 three-point attempts, which makes me think he’ll be wandering out to the perimeter more next season.

First, though, there’s this season, which continues Friday in the NCAA Tournament when the Jayhawks take on Eastern Kentucky in St. Louis.

Ellis and his teammates have to find some way to be consistent enough to potentially run through six tournament games. If you’ve seen KU play this season, you know that’s a stretch. Consistency is not this team’s strongest attribute.

In that way, Ellis doesn’t fit. Because he is consistent. While Naadir Tharpe’s hair is on fire and super freshmen Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid and Wayne Selden continue to try to figure out those square pegs and round holes, Wichita’s own Ellis is a rock. You pretty much know what you’re getting.

Even if it doesn’t always look like the Jayhawks know what they have.

Wiggins, whose elite talent is unquestionable, has had too much of a free reign, though lately he’s been tremendous. But I think there are times when KU loses touch with Ellis. Given his hushed personality, it’s probably not hard to do.

“I definitely feel like I’m an important piece here,” Ellis said. “But I’m a real quiet player. I try to let my actions show.”

Which is nice. But there are times when I wish Ellis would go all Keyshawn Johnson with the potential one-and-done guys and scream, “Give me the damn ball.”

“I don’t really pay much attention to what people are saying,” Ellis said. “I do the best I can do to help the team.”

Ellis shoots 55.7 percent. He’s the gift that keeps on giving offensively for Kansas, but the Jayhawks too often refuse to open him.

It’s been a strange mix at KU this season. Wiggins, Embiid and maybe even Selden are potential lottery choices in the NBA Draft this summer. Meanwhile, Ellis is a throwback to the good old days of college basketball when players were players and development of an overall game was paramount.

The Ellis Project is right on schedule. I remember Self telling reporters last year, when Ellis was struggling mightily, that he would eventually get going and become a “1,500-point scorer” for the Jayhawks.

That Self guy is pretty smart.

So is Ellis, who believes the key for a long Kansas run through the tournament is energy.

“Simple plays like boxing guys out, running the floor, not getting lazy on defense,” Ellis said. “Having pride and focus. Playing hard. To be a good team you have to play with energy and play hard every single possession.”

Ellis said it took him a while to figure that out. Playing in high school came easy at times. “Easy” is not the word he would pick to describe playing at the elite level of college basketball.

“The stakes here are higher,” he said. “The stage is bigger. Stuff like that.”

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