Before Henry Ellenson could grow into a McDonald’s All-American, the Big East Freshman of the Year and the towering pride of a small town tucked into Northwest Wisconsin, he had to learn how it feels to lose.
Ellenson’s first major distinction in life wasn’t as a five-star recruit or future lottery pick, it was as a little brother. Ellwood and Wally Ellenson had Henry by a few years and were star athletes in their own right. In the pickup games waged in and around the family’s Rice Lake, Wisconsin home, they would never let him forget it.
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“Growing up playing with my older brothers, I wasn’t always taller than them,” Ellenson said at the NBA draft combine in Chicago. “When I was in fourth grade they were in sixth and seventh, so I had to figure out ways to score somehow. That was on the perimeter hitting shots. “
Henry is the tallest brother now, standing at 6’11.5 with a wingspan of 7’2.5, but the impact of those early childhood battles could still be felt every time he took the floor for Marquette. Players with Ellenson’s size have no right to be so comfortable on the perimeter, especially at 19 years old. To hear him tell it, the devastating offensive skill set he’s worked a lifetime to perfect all circles back to his upbringing.
The Ellensons are a basketball family, and the talent bred competition. Henry’s father John played two years at Marquette, and his mother Holly played four years at UW-Eau Claire. Ellwood played at the NAIA level, while Wally starred in track and played basketball at Minnesota before transferring to join Henry at Marquette. Wally is dominant in the high jump, where his best of 7’5 has positioned him as an NCAA All-American and Olympic hopeful. There’s also Ella, the youngest sister, who is starting to collect D1 offers herself as a 6’2 basketball player.
Together in Rice Lake, the Ellensons found everything they needed to foster a future NBA talent.
“My mom being a PE teacher and Rice Lake not having like a YMCA or a rec center, it worked out perfect,” Ellenson said. “She always had the keys to the gym.”
It’s impossible to separate Ellenson from his family’s genetic gifts or the serene small town backdrop that sparked his rise. Henry Ellenson has basketball in his blood, and it’s taken him all the way to the 2016 NBA Draft.
Rice Lake is a town of 8,000 that sits about 300 miles north of Milwaukee and 100 miles east of Minneapolis. It may seem like the last place for an NBA origin story to start, but it provided the perfect setting for Ellenson’s unique game to blossom.
He spent most of his life as a point guard, but began working on his post moves as a high school sophomore when his coach astutely pointed out he had grown to 6’9. USA Basketball soon took notice. In August 2014, Ellenson flew to Dubai to help the United States win gold on a U17 team loaded with the top players in the class of 2015 and 2016.
When he came back, Ellenson found himself as a consensus top-10 national recruit. Steve Wojciechowski made him his top priority from the moment he accepted the Marquette job, and the chance to stay in-state and play with Wally was too much to pass up. Ellenson picked Marquette over Duke, Kentucky, Michigan State and North Carolina, giving the Golden Eagles their first McDonald’s All-American since 1982.
As the program’s most high-profile recruit in decades, expectations for Ellenson and Marquette were sky-high. The Golden Eagles got off to a 10-2 start that included a one-point win over Ben Simmons and LSU, but wheels quickly came off in conference play, where Marquette started 2-5 and never really recovered.
Ellenson led Marquette in scoring (17 points per game), rebounding (9.7) and blocks (1.5), but the team missed the NCAA Tournament at 20-13. He proved to be great shooting from midrange (42.7 percent on two-point jumpers, per Hoop-Math) and a crafty finisher at the rim (62. 8 percent). He also knocked down 30 threes on the season, but only made 28.8 percent clip. Still, scouts are confident his jumper will project to the next level.
When it was over, Ellenson became the first freshman to be named First Team All-Big East since Carmelo Anthony in 2003. The honor carried extra weight for a player who had long studied Anthony’s ability to score from every level.
“My favorite player to watch has always been Carmelo Anthony,” Ellenson said. “That’s just a guy I always admired watching. I love his mid-post game. I think it’s unguardable.”
While Ellenson was proving himself in the gym against his older brothers and idolizing Anthony, the NBA was undergoing a revolution. Power forward became the position most affected by the game’s modern tenets. Suddenly, Ellenson’s offensive arsenal looks like everything the league demands out of its contemporary power forwards.
It begs one major question: for all of the skill Ellenson brings, how is he going to defend the oversized wings that now largely constitute NBA fours?
Ellenson acknowledged concerns about his defensive ability, but pointed to his high basketball IQ and understanding of team defense concepts as the reason he believes he’ll be just fine on the other end of the court. His wingspan doesn’t hurt, and neither does the experience he got guarding smaller players during his one year of college.
After spending his entire life in Wisconsin playing with and against his brothers, Ellenson is finally to embrace a new challenge. He may come from an atypical place with a game that doesn’t fit into a box, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find something Ellenson has in common with all of his soon-to-be peers in the NBA: he was born to do this.
This article was written by Ricky O’Donnell from SB Nation and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.