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 with an unblemished 3-0 record.
They say Ellis is a former high school 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.
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“He’s conscientious like you would want your son to be,” Kansas coach Bill Self said, “where a lot of coaches, (you would) just as soon not coach your son.”
Self, though, still believes that Ellis is close to becoming what Kansas needs. Ellis, Self says again, 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 from Wichita Heights, 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 then there are other moments. In Kansas’ last seven games, Ellis is averaging just 9.4 points and 5.5 rebounds, shooting 37.8 percent from the floor.
For the season, Ellis is still Kansas’ second-leading scorer at 12.2 points per game and leading rebounder with 6.4 per game. 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 converted on 65.1 percent of his field-goal attempts at the rim, according to data at Hoop-Math.com. This season, Ellis is shooting just 42.9 percent inside the three-point line, and he’s made just 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 simply getting to the rim. Last season, more than half of Ellis’ field-goal attempts came on dunks or layups. This year, that number has declined to less than 40 percent.
What’s happened? Part of Ellis’ struggles could stem from simple basketball reasons. Last season, he 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 sometimes, of course, 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 said, “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 one-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 just seven points on one-of-eight 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.”