Wayne Ellington Showing Why Los Angeles Lakers Should Bring Him Back Next Season

David Murphy@@davem234Featured ColumnistFebruary 20, 2015

Los Angeles Lakers guard Wayne Ellington, right, scrambles for the ball with Chicago Bulls forward Taj Gibson during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Thursday, Jan. 29, 2015, in Los Angeles. The Lakers won 123-118. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Wayne Ellington was a star in college, but he’s never been more than a bit player in the NBA

But since being picked up by the Los Angeles Lakers as a training camp invite, the 27-year-old journeyman may have finally found a more permanent home.

Averaging 9.3 points per game and shooting 45 percent from the floor, the former NCAA champion from North Carolina has the lowest usage rate of anyone on the roster. He has also started 19 of 44 games so far this season, averaging 13.2 points in that role in place of Kobe Bryant

It wasn’t what anyone anticipated when the 6’4” role player was signed to a partially guaranteed contract, but then again, nobody could have predicted such an oddball injury-laden season.

Ellington was a minor footnote in a six-player swap between the Dallas Mavericks and the New York Knicks last June. The Knicks then sent him to the Sacramento Kings, and the Kings subsequently waived him.

This is a guy who was going nowhere fast. His career was at a crossroads. 

But there has never been any doubt about Ellington’s ability to knock down shots. He’s a consistent long-range shooter, averaging 39 percent from beyond the arc for his career and matching that rate this season.

The shooting guard has made the most of his opportunities in Los Angeles, whether coming off the bench or filling in as a starter when Bryant was not in the lineup. Since Kobe went out for the season with a torn rotator cuff, Ellington has averaged 15.7 points in 34.2 minutes per game.

Included in those starts was a career-high 28 points against the Washington Wizards Jan. 27. And though Washington prevailed 98-92, the guard’s strong all-around effort, including three rebounds, three assists and three steals, showed a continued resiliency during a losing season that currently stands at 13-40.

And that game was not an anomaly. He put up 23 points and five boards in a win against the Chicago Bulls two nights later, and he has scored in double figures in nine of his last 10 games.

Ellington was selected as the 28th overall pick in the 2009 draft by the Minnesota Timberwolves. He spent three years in the Land of 10,000 Lakes before heading off on a circuitous journey that included 38 games with the Cleveland Cavaliers during Byron Scott’s tenure there.

Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News noted the backcourt player’s highest productivity has been with Scott—both in Cleveland and Los Angeles:

“Ellington believes he has found a home with the Lakers. Outside of his career-high 10.4 points per game average with Cleveland incidentally under Scott, Ellington believes he has received the most opportunities here.”

“It builds confidence man,” Ellington said. “I know what I can do. I work hard. It pays off in getting the opportunity to show what your hard work does.”

Scott seems on the same page with the player he’s coached twice, saying: “He plays hard. He’s not going to do anything to hurt you. He’s going to go out there and compete every single night.”

The “not hurting” part is evidenced by Ellington’s extremely low turnover rate of 0.6 per game—lower than any of his teammates save utility center Robert Sacre, who is not exactly known for having the ball in his hands.

And for those who think the former Tar Heel’s only skill set is lofting jumpers from way downtown, it’s worth pointing out he’s having a career year in both points and rebounds, and 60 percent of his shot attempts are two-pointers.

Mark Duncan/Associated Press

His game is a bit more rounded than some might think.

During a TWCSportsNet segment, Coach Dave Miller spoke about Ellington's surprising versatility: “Everybody’s thought he’s just a floor-spacer, but what he’s done a great job [at], is moving without the ball, and then when he receives the ball, he’s able to read and react.”

The NBA trade deadline passed on Thursday, and the Lakers stood pat—playing a conservative game as they head into the unofficial second half of the season. They’re developing young players, preserving cap space and looking toward the draft and free agency as their best means to improve the roster.

But management will still need experienced role players to add balance to a team characterized largely by the aging Bryant at one end of the spectrum, a youth movement at the other end, and question marks in the middle when it comes to everything else.

This team needs a lot, but it can't forget about its glue-guys in the process.

And that's where Ellington comes in—unheralded but dependable. He helps hold things together.

The unrestricted free agent is earning just $1,063,384 this season, proving infinitely affordable. Other teams will seek out the much-traveled player, but it’s doubtful any will offer exceptional contracts.

The apex of Ellington’s hoop career may have come when he was named the NCAA Final Four Most Valuable Player in 2009. But that doesn’t mean he’s been an NBA bust—he’s filled in the gaps on five teams in six seasons, doing what he’s been asked to do.

The Lakers’ front office needs to address its top priorities when the offseason rolls along, and that means feeding the free-agency big fish first.

But Wayne Ellington should ultimately be brought back—he’s earned that opportunity the old-fashioned way.

He’s worked for it, and the Lakers need guys willing to put in the work to restore this franchise back to where it belongs. 

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