Former Kansas star Perry Ellis eyes unconventional route from Australia to NBA

If only for one game, Perry Ellis was where he expected to be Oct. 2: in an NBA arena, lining up for tipoff in Salt Lake City against the Utah Jazz. He scored 14 points, hauled in five rebounds and recorded three steals. The preseason contest was an introduction to game action with his new team after a busy summer. It was clear Ellis was going to be a key addition to the Kings.

No, not the Sacramento Kings — the Sydney Kings.

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Instead of a routine preseason matchup, the 108-84 loss to the Jazz was, for the Kings and Australia’s NBL, a huge deal. It was the first time an NBA team played a game against an Australian opponent and signified a big step in the Australian league’s standing. Appropriately, the Kings faced two Australian products in the Jazz’s Dante Exum and Joe Ingles.

For Ellis, the chance to play against the Jazz was a taste of the NBA dream that he fought over the summer to try to make a reality. Then he flew with his Kings teammates 8,014 miles back to Sydney and started the NBL season four days later. Over the following year, Ellis will be — geographically — as far away from that dream as he possibly could be.

“It’s about as far as you can get, man,” Ellis told Sporting News in a phone interview.

In any other way, however, Ellis doesn’t feel like it’s quite as far away.

“My goal is to play in NBA, but it’s something that you can’t really choose if you’re in there or not,” Ellis said. “And I understand that and I learned that the last two years. Undrafted, went to the D-League, it’s been a grind. The thing is, I’m enjoying the process. I’m getting a lot better, I’m getting better and better.”

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Homesickness, Ellis said, isn’t yet a concern. The toughest adjustment so far is driving on the other side of the road, which he described as “kinda funky.”

The comfort Ellis takes in starting his next season on the other side of the globe might come as a surprise. Ellis was a high school phenom from Wichita, Kan., who stayed close to home and played college basketball at Kansas.

After four years in a Jayhawks uniform, in which he earned an All-American second team honor in his senior year, Ellis joined the Charlotte Hornets as an undrafted free agent in 2016 and was sent to the D-League (renamed the G League ahead of the current season) affiliate Greensboro Swarm. After multiple workouts with NBA teams and competition in Summer League with the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2017, Ellis was unsuccessful in signing a standard NBA contract or two-way deal.

Ellis fell back on a one-year deal with the Sydney Kings he signed before working out with NBA teams and Summer League. He’s upbeat about the future, and talks about his journey through basketball with understanding and not a hint of discouragement.

“You hear so many different stories of people getting into the NBA, you just never know. So you just got to keep your head up and keep moving forward and try to do what’s right in front of you,” Ellis said.

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Kings assistant coach Lanard Copeland said that the team knew exactly what it was getting on the floor when they added Ellis as an “import,” the NBL moniker labeling a foreign signing that is usually a high-impact star player.

The challenge for the Kings, Copeland acknowledged, is to balance Ellis’ NBA aspirations with the Kings’ prerogative to keep key contributors.

“He’s talented on the floor but just a genuinely nice person off the floor and something that we find very attractive for us because we needed it,” Copeland said. “And we’re hoping that he’s the type of guy that will come out here and we hope that will want to stay out here.

“But, you know, because most of our imports in this league have had a stint in the NBA, or have eyes for the NBA, then there’s always a recognition by the NBA or a recognition by the teams to try to get them opportunity to get back to the NBA if that’s what they’re looking for. Rarely do you find a guy with his talent hanging around overseas — someone in the NBA will give him a shot.”

Scouting reports on Ellis are ambiguous about his future, the biggest negative being his status as a “tweener” at 218 pounds — too big to play as a small forward and too small for a power forward role. Ellis leads his team in scoring with 19.2 points per game and in rebounds with 5.5 rebounds per game. He scored 33 points in an Oct. 15 loss to the Illawara Hawks.

“At the end of the day, he’s good enough for an NBA squad,” Copeland said. “We’d be lucky to hold onto him for another year, because I know he’s going to be good for us this year.”

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Ellis’ former KU teammate Russell Robinson enjoyed a long career overseas. In June, Robinson told the Kansas City Star he expected Ellis may find long-term footing in the NBL.

“I told Perry to get prepared. He might not come back. Everybody I know who has played in Australia, they love it and don’t come back,” Robinson told the Star.

Copeland is one who didn’t come back. The Atlanta native moved to Australia after short stints in the NBA to play for the Melbourne Tigers (now Melbourne United), and it led to a 15-year NBL career. He’s known as an NBL legend, and coaches the Kings with fellow Tigers legend and current Kings head coach Andrew Gaze.

It was, however, “easier for me to hang around,” Copeland said, having started family during his playing career in the NBL. Ellis is 24 (although a meme from Ellis’ senior year at Kansas isn’t so sure) and doesn’t seem far away from providing something an NBA team needs, at least not to Copeland.

“You’d hope that he would want to hang around (with the Kings), but you want the best for him as well,” Copeland said. “If he wants to make that NBA squad, you create opportunities so he could have a look and then let the chips fall where they may.”

If Ellis is to command a roster spot in the NBA, however, he’d be blazing a fairly new path for American players. There are only a handful of Americans on full NBA contracts who have played in the NBL. Thunder guard Terrance Ferguson, a five-star recruit who spurned college basketball for a season with the Adelaide 36ers last year, is the most notable. Another is James Ennis, who is an unexpected contributor for the Memphis Grizzlies this season. Ennis kickstarted his professional career with a stint in 2013-14 with the Perth Wildcats after being drafted 50th overall by the Atlanta Hawks out of Long Beach State.

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For now, Ellis has his eyes on what’s in front of him. The Kings are off to a bad start in the league, with a 2-6 record. Their lineup is attracting criticism, with 19-year-old Isaac Humphries showing inexperience down low and the team lacking a true playmaker. The unrest spelled the release of former Georgia guard Travis Leslie to make room for additions of two more Americans: reigning NBL MVP Jerome Randle and Jeremy Tyler.

Leslie, who in the beginning looked like Ellis’ sidekick as an offensive leader on the Kings, is on his own journey. Drafted 47th overall by the Clippers, Leslie spent a short amount of time in the NBA before playing in Germany, France and Lithuania. His sudden release after playing starting minutes for the Kings shows how thin the margin for error can be and how wayward a career path can become.

For an American overseas, the goal to play at the highest level also comes with the prospect of playing closer to home.

“It just kind of pushes you even more to work even harder, being overseas,” Leslie said. “It’s not the NBA, but I think it just pushes us even more to do better and kill it in whatever league we are in and maybe somebody will see us.”

Individually, this year’s NBL season offers Ellis a chance to prove whether he did slip through the NBA cracks.

“He has a lot of time, he has the talent, and I really think he will get that opportunity soon,” Leslie said.

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