KU sophomore Perry Ellis attempts a shot in an exhibition game against Pittsburg State.
LAWRENCE, KAN. — It was an early morning in mid-October, and 10,000 or so folks had made their way to Allen Fieldhouse to get a sneak peek at Andrew Wiggins.
But anyone with an appreciation for fundamentals and the finer details of basketball left the Fieldhouse that day most impressed by Perry Ellis.
Ellis, a sophomore who labored through a good part of his freshman season, played with a sense of calm confidence, providing a distraction to Wiggins Mania midway through the scrimmage.
He began this preseason clinic by catching the ball on the right block with his back to the basket and turning over his left shoulder to begin an up-and-under move. When his defender anticipated what he was doing, Ellis adjusted and finished with a lefty hook.
The next possession, Ellis missed in close—something he struggled with a year ago—but teammate Wayne Selden tipped him back the ball and he finished with his left hand under the basket. Several possessions later, Ellis had the ball in close, missed again, quickly rose to get his rebound and finished his third straight bucket with his left hand.
It's stretches like this that explain how Bill Self could say repeatedly heading into this season what seems unfathomable with Wiggins in Lawrence: Perry Ellis could be KU's leading scorer.
Ellis is the guy who would have received most the preseason headlines for Kansas this fall if Wiggins had not decided to become a Jayhawk in mid-May.
This is typically how things have worked in Self's program. The stars wait their turn. Sherron Collins, Cole Aldrich, Thomas Robinson and Jeff Withey all started their careers coming off the bench. Even Ben McLemore had to wait a year before he could play, although that wasn't by choice.
The Jayhawks lost all five starters off last year's Sweet 16 team, and Ellis was the designated star-in-waiting. He broke out in March, averaging 10.7 points per game (26.5 per 40 minutes) over KU's final seven games.
"At the end of the year, I think he showed the country what kind of player he can be at the college level," Ellis' coach at Wichita Heights, Joe Auer, said. "He's always taking incremental steps."
One of those incremental steps since he arrived at Kansas has been turning himself into an athlete who can dominate at this level.
Ellis has added six inches to his standing vertical since last November and recently hang-cleaned nearly 100 pounds more than his max in high school, according to strength coach Andrea Hudy.
Hudy says that the hang clean and standing vertical are two ways she measures explosion and quickness, and that's what looks different about Ellis this year as opposed to last year.
"I'm jumping so much better than I have been," Ellis says. "I feel so much more explosive and am finishing a lot easier."
That's more than just preseason lip service. Those words matter to the success of the Jayhawks this year as much as how well Wiggins adjusts to the college level.
Self has made adjustments to his offense to highlight Wiggins' skill set—look for a faster tempo, lots of lobs and trying to get Wiggins the ball in the post. But Self's offense has always been at its best when he has a reliable scorer in the post to highlight in his high-low offense.
Ellis' numbers suggest he can be that guy. In his limited minutes last year, he took a higher percentage of shots than any Jayhawk other than Ben McLemore. He also had an impressive offensive rating of 114.1, according to KenPom.com (subscription needed).
That offensive rating was better than other highly-ranked big men in his class: Nerlens Noel (109.0), Steven Adams (109.8), Kaleb Tarczewski (102.2), Brandon Ashley (105.8), Mitch McGary (113.0), Isaiah Austin (103.2) and Anthony Bennett (114.0), the No. 1 pick in the 2013 NBA draft.
But there was a reason Ellis was not a starter as a freshman. He struggled to finish around the basket, making only 45.8 percent of his attempts at the rim through KU's first 30 games, according to Hoop-Math.com's data.
That's what changed in March. Ellis shot 72.7 percent at the rim over KU's final seven games, including making all four of his attempts in the Sweet 16 against Michigan.
"He's a natural scorer," Self said. "(He needs) confidence and having the confidence to make plays like he did toward the end of the season last year. I think last year he was trying to fit in and be one of many. I think this year he has got to have more of a hungry attitude, which I do think he has."
No one in college basketball has ever experienced the pressure that Wiggins is under right now, but if anyone on KU's roster can sympathize, it's Ellis.
Ellis had Wigginsian hype in the Wichita area heading into high school. He had not graced the cover of Sports Illustrated, but he appeared in Sports Illustrated for Kids as an eighth grader and in Dime Magazine and Slam Magazine the next year as a freshman.
Ellis lived up to the hype. He became the first player ever in Kansas to win four straight state titles at the highest classification, and he was named a McDonald's All-American.
He was the highest-profile player the state had produced since Wayne Simien, who wound up Big 12 Player of the Year and a first-team All-American as a senior at Kansas.
Those lofty expectations awaited Ellis at Kansas, along with a spot in the starting lineup last year. After Thomas Robinson left for the NBA following KU's 2012 run to the national championship game, the expectation was that Ellis would start right away, and he did.
He started the first two games for the Jayhawks and led the team in scoring in an exhibition opener with 15 points. He scored 10 in KU's second exhibition game and scored 15 in his regular-season debut against Southeast Missouri State.
The narrative of the home-grown star was taking shape nicely.
Then, the Jayhawks traveled to Atlanta for a Champions Classic game against Michigan State.
Ellis was wide-eyed and scored four points on 2-of-6 shooting in 17 minutes. He would only start one more game (at TCU) the rest of the season.
"He was going against guys much bigger and stronger, and I think it got in his head a little bit," Auer said.
Saying Ellis lost his job is not exactly fair—former Kansas forward Kevin Young started the year injured and ended up as a better fit next to Withey—but Ellis' confidence wavered. That's an explanation for his struggles around the rim.
But something obviously clicked at the end of the year, and how it may have happened explains why Self sees such great potential for Ellis.
Up until last season, one of the few times Ellis ever dealt with failure in his life was during his freshman year at Wichita Heights in a game against Hutchinson.
Ellis got matched up against Geneo Grissom, who is now a defensive lineman at Oklahoma. Hutchinson was not a great basketball team that season, but the school had won a football state championship and played a physical brand of basketball.
It worked, as Hutchinson gave Wichita Heights its only loss of the season.
"They just beat the tar out of Perry," Auer said. "Physically battered and bruised him the whole game."
The next year at a tournament in Dodge City, Wichita Heights played Hutchinson again, and Ellis got a rematch against Grissom.
The game started with Heights winning the tip and running a lob play for Ellis on the first possession. Grissom tried to break it up and Ellis dunked it hard and then stood over the big man.
"He got T'ed up," Auer said. "Here's a kid that never has a cross word to say to anybody, and the first time he acts in a cocky fashion, he gets a technical."
Ellis is extremely reserved. Self jokes that he's made progress this year, and "he will come into the office and we'll sit down and have a 30 or 45-second conversation."
"He’s just guarded in terms of his communication," Auer said. "He doesn't say things for the sake of saying things. Most of his words have a purpose, and he's pretty thoughtful in what he says. He likes to think before he talks."
Auer said that Ellis' peers have always tried to get him to adopt a superstar personality, a sort of tough-guy-look-at-me persona.
But that's just not Perry. He's more of a thinking man. He was valedictorian of his class.
So when Ellis struggled last year, KU's coaches took Ellis to the classroom.
He had the worst stretch of games of his life over six games in February. He went scoreless three times, made just one of seven shots at the rim and averaged 1.8 points. The Jayhawks began that stretch losing three straight games.
Around that time, Kansas coaches started showing Ellis tape of former Kansas power forward Marcus Morris, who averaged 17.2 points and was Big 12 Player of the Year as a junior in the 2010-11 season.
Ellis and Morris have some similarities to their games. Both can shoot from the perimeter and score facing up or with their back to the basket. Ellis started to study how Morris scored in Self's offense and picked up a move that Morris regularly used.
"I started facing up and sweeping through, and it really helped out," Ellis said.
Ellis also figured out that he was worrying too much. Self had been on him hard all year.
"He's going to get after you," Ellis said. "He wants to teach you as fast as possible."
Auer had taken a different approach. When Ellis was a freshman at Wichita Heights, Auer wanted to find a way to connect with Ellis, so he taught him how to play chess.
Auer and Ellis would play every lunch hour. It was Auer's way to get his quiet freshman to open up. But it also helped Ellis' game. He looked at the court as a chess board.
"Just trying to think the game out," Ellis said. "Don't just play."
But thinking can be a freshman's biggest flaw, and Ellis had a lot going through his head. He just wanted to fit in and didn't want to step on any of the seniors' toes.
"I think he put too much pressure on himself trying to stick to the team concept too much," teammate Andrew White III said. "Our style of play is not really strict on what he can do, so he's just being aggressive and thinking less about the game. I think that's going to take him a long way this year, being comfortable, relaxing and playing."
That's what teammates see now because Ellis has looked so smooth on the court. Everything seems to be instinctual. That may be the case in some capacity, but Ellis says the game has slowed down enough that he's finally able to get his head and body to work cohesively.
"I feel in rhythm," he said. "I feel like I can definitely think the game and just outsmart people now."
That has been evident in KU's early games. Every time Ellis catches the ball it appears he's already made his first step.
He's challenging Wiggins, as Self predicted, for KU's leading scorer. He had 17 points in that October preseason scrimmage, second only to Wiggins' 21 that day. He led KU in scoring in two exhibition games, averaging 14.5 points in 21.5 minutes per game. Ellis was second to Wiggins in KU's opener on Friday, scoring 12 points to Wiggins' 16. And as for his work at the rim, he's perfect so far, making all nine of his attempts in the two exhibition games and regular-season opener.
On Tuesday night in the Champions Classic in Chicago, Ellis, not Wiggins, will likely be matched up against Duke freshman star Jabari Parker.
All eyes will be on Wiggins and Parker.
But watch out for Ellis. He's faster, stronger and he's no longer a starry-eyed freshman. He's the old veteran now, finally playing a thinking man's game.