Bill Self clutched a microphone in his palm and stood before a gymnasium full of basketball campers on a steamy day in early June. It was the final day of Self’s camp, and inside the Horesji Family Athletics Center, the Kansas men’s basketball team had gathered to scrimmage for the young faces in attendance.
But first, in adherence of tradition, the Jayhawks lined up near midcourt while Self went through introductions. One by one, Self cycled through his players, stopping to add some encouraging words about their college careers or their hometown. But then Self made it to senior forward Perry Ellis. He stopped for a second, then said something that caught the ear of everybody in the gym.
“He’s gonna be the player of the year in the Big 12 next year,” Self said, as a few hundred campers responded with screams and cheers.
Here, of course, it’s worth pointing out that Self is always overwhelmingly positive during these public introductions. It’s the summer, after all, a time for hope and optimism. What coach wouldn’t hype up their best player in a gym full of young KU fans?
A few days later, however, Self stood outside the KU practice gym as the Jayhawks prepared for their upcoming trip to the World University Games in Gwangju, South Korea. Surrounded by a handful of reporters, Self was asked about Ellis again. He backed up his earlier comments.
“He’s been our best player so far (this summer),” Self said. “I think he’s ready to have a breakout-type year — a player-of-the-year-type year.”
As a junior, the 6-foot-8 Ellis averaged a career-high 13.8 points and 6.9 rebounds, leading the Jayhawks to an 11th straight Big 12 title. He won first-team All-Big 12 honors and staked his own claim as the Big 12’s best player — though his case took a hit when a knee injury sidelined him for the Big 12 finale at Oklahoma. (The player-of-the-year award went to Oklahoma junior guard Buddy Hield.)
The knee injury — a sprained MCL — slowed Ellis for the rest of the season, including in a season-ending loss to Wichita State in the NCAA Tournament. Three months later, Ellis says he’s fully healed and ready for his final college season.
“I’m back 100 percent,” Ellis said.
It’s a senior season that will begin a few months early, with an appearance at the World University Games. Before heading to South Korea, Ellis and his teammates also will take the floor against Team Canada in two exhibitions at the Sprint Center, the first one at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
In recent weeks, Ellis says, he’s pondered his role as a senior leader. It seems like yesterday, he says, that he was packing up a car in Wichita and arriving on campus for his freshman season. Now he is a veteran, entering his final college season — a season he wasn’t sure would come. In the weeks after his junior year, Ellis requested information on his draft stock from the NBA Undergraduate Advisory Committee. He considered putting his name in the draft, weighed the pros and cons, and ultimately decided that he wanted the experience of being a senior. It was too much to pass up.
“I’m just thinking, this is it,” Ellis said. “This is it for college, and I’m excited about it, though. I’m really excited.”
In recent months, Self has often discussed (quite loudly) what Ellis can accomplish during his senior season. After Ellis passed the 1,000-point mark as a junior, Self believes Ellis can push into the top 10 on Kansas’ career scoring list. He will be a favorite for Big 12 player of the year. He likely will be on a short list for All-American candidates. He also will be a standout senior — something Kansas hasn’t had since center Jeff Withey finished his career in 2012-13.
Former Kansas standout Ben McLemore, who has spent the last two years with the Sacramento Kings, was a redshirt freshman that season. He watched Ellis find his way as a freshman reserve. And three years later, McLemore believes Ellis can be an NBA player.
“No question,” McLemore said. “Definitely. I think he has a tremendous skill-set to get to the next level and play on the next level. His time is coming.”
In the short term, though, Ellis says he focusing on his ball-handling and overall skill set. If Ellis wants a long career in the NBA, it likely will come as a hybrid forward who can stretch the floor and log minutes on the perimeter. As a junior, Ellis shot 39 percent (18 of 46) from three-point range, displaying his versatile offensive game. As a senior, he’ll likely spend the majority of his minutes at power forward.
At the college level, it is the role that fits him best. Still, Ellis is hopeful his game can continue to expand.
“He’s the same player he was last year,” junior guard Wayne Selden said. “He was a great player last year, and he’s going to be an even better player this year.”
Selden, though, has seen subtle changes in Ellis’ game. He’s more confident now, for instance. He’s more comfortable in his role as a leading man. He’s more aggressive on offense.
“He doesn’t get deterred as much any more,” Selden said. “Our first year together, he would get down on himself. But now he can miss a shot, and you know he’s going to put up the same shot, because he knows he’s going to make it the next time.”
Ellis concedes this point. He is more confident now. He is no longer the quiet freshman who rationed his words with his teammates and coaches. Well, he is still quiet, of course. That hasn’t changed too much. But he’s a senior now, too, which means the words are starting to come a little easier.
“The thing is, it’s my last time, and I just want to make it my best,” Ellis said. “So I’m going to go out there and do my best and work as hard as I can.”