Perry Ellis laughs when the subject comes up, and how could it not be a little funny. Ellis is 6 feet, 8 inches tall. He is a starting power forward on a Kansas team with Final Four aspirations. He is a constant reminder of life’s genetic lottery, tall and lean athletic enough to have been a high school All-American.
By one rough estimate, Ellis has probably dunked a basketball more than 1,000 times, and that might be a conservative estimate. But there remains a large faction of Kansas fans who are genuinely shocked when the stoic Ellis throws down a vicious slam during a game.
Wait, Perry can dunk?
So in the moments after No. 11 Kansas’ 76-60 victory over Rhode Island on Thursday, after Ellis had finished with a team-high 17 points with five rebounds, he was asked about this growing curiosity with his dunking ability.
“It’s funny you say that,” Ellis said. “Because even my siblings, I’ll see it in them. They’ll send me a text like: ‘Wow.’ So it’s kind of funny. But I can do it. You just got to put your mind to it.”
Ellis is striving to be different this year. Really, he is. He knows his reputation as the silent one. He knows Kansas coach Bill Self expects him to be more aggressive and more assertive. He knows that his performance against No. 1 Kentucky at the Champions Classic — just four points and two rebounds — was not up to his usual standard.
“I’m trying to do the best I can,” Ellis said, “just be aggressive.”
So on Thursday afternoon, in the opening round of the Orlando Classic on ESPN’s Wide World of Sports property, Ellis showcased some of that newfound assertiveness. He threw down two dunks, including a one-handed follow slam in transition that stirred up the pro-Kansas crowd inside HP Fieldhouse. He drained one of two three-point attempts. He was also active and productive in the post, despite playing just 24 minutes because of foul trouble.
“He’s looking to score,” Self said. “He’s looking to put the ball down on the floor. He’s so good at putting the ball on the floor for a big guy.”
While Ellis helped the Jayhawks, 3-1, to the tourney’s semifinals — where they will face Tennessee at 11 a.m. Friday — the rest of the KU bench received a lengthy look at life without Ellis. The instant takeaway: Playing without Ellis can be manageable, but it’s probably not recommended.
Ellis dropped in 11 points in the first half while Kansas hit seven three-pointers and raced to an early 20-point lead. But he sat for most of the second. He picked up his third foul just before the 17-minute mark, sat for six minutes, then immediately picked up his fourth foul after returning to the floor. So he watched some more from the bench as KU fought off Rhode Island’s noble efforts to make it a competitive game.
The method wasn’t always pretty. For one two-minute stretch, junior forward Jamari Traylor recorded a turnover, and freshman wing Kelly Oubre produced two turnovers and two fouls while attempting to cover Rhode Island’s leading scorer E.C. Matthews.
The Jayhawks were never quite threatened, though, even as Rhode Island cut the lead to 54-41 amidst the rash of ugly half-court offense.
“We’re not the same team offensively,” Self said. “We need Perry. He can step off the block and shoot it and do some things. But I think the guys hung in there pretty good.”
While Ellis sat, the Jayhawks relied on their backcourt to make plays. Sophomore Frank Mason finished with 12 points, while freshman guard Devonte’ Graham returned after a sprained shoulder kept him out during Monday’s victory over Rider. Graham, who had 10 points off the bench, re-aggravated the injury in the second half, but he returned to the game in the final minutes and should be fine for Friday’s game against Tennessee.
The Jayhawks were also a nuisance on the defensive end, limiting Rhode Island to 36.5 percent shooting. The Rams’ Matthews, shot only six of 18 from the floor.
“Sometimes in games like that, you just kind of have to grind it out,” Self said, “and that’s what we did.”
For Ellis, his evolution as a leading man continues. It was not a flawless performance. After the game, Self joked about Ellis’ welcomed aggressiveness being absent on the boards. But for the moment, Ellis is trying to do something that doesn’t come natural. He’s trying to be louder. He’s trying to stay in attack mode. And when the time comes, he’s trying to dunk as hard as he can.
“I just tried to keep attacking,” Ellis said. “That’s what coach is constantly telling me.”