Versatile five-star F Henry Ellenson drawing Nowitzki comparisons

By Matt Norlander | Staff Writer

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- For more than a decade, the Peach Jam has been, really, the sole attraction in this area every summer for youth basketball. But a new and nearby smaller tournament, feauturing a five-star prospect from Rice Lake, Wisc., named Henry Ellenson, has altered the viewing schedule of many a high-major coach this week in Georgia.

I can't even believe it took this long, but basically: Nike's Elite Youth Basketball League has its summer crescendo at the Peach Jam with 24 teams playing toward winning an AAU title. All the games take place at the multipurpose Riverview Park Activities Center in North Augusta, S.C., just over the border and across the Savannah River that splits Georgia and South Carolina.

But of course there are so many other Nike-sponsored teams, some of them good and a few even boasting four- and five-star prospects, that fail to make the final week of EYBL play at the Peach Jam. So Nike opted to hold a second-tier tournament for the clubs that weren't quite good enough to make the cut. Obvious and at the same time brilliant. Invite-only, it's called the Elite Youth Invitational.

And that's why a horde of coaches occupied the stands at T.W. Josey High School in Augusta, Ga. Ellenson wasn't the only good prospect on the court, but he far and away was the best. One coach not-so-jokingly referred to him as "the next great white hope."

Ellenson's extremely fun to watch. As in: I'm not a recruitnik by nature, so when observing all these AAU games, so many have outcomes and players blend together. But when one player is doing things that clearly stand out ... he really stands out. The way LSU commit Ben Simmons is standing out at the Peach Jam. Ellenson's of that variety. Standing 6-feet, 10.5 inches and weighing 230 pounds, Ellenson can handle the ball exceedingly well. I don't know if there's a player of his style in college basketball right now who comes to mind.

And Ellenson said the same thing when asked Thursday about which player most resembles his game. There simply aren't players that tall who can roam the floor and guide an offense like him. It's fun to watch.

The unfair comparision? A pro. Future Hall-of-Famer, in fact. Dirk Nowitzki. Yes, completely unfair and all too common a habit for those looking to line up prospects with those who've long proven their greatness. You can see some of Dirk's game in Ellenson, sure, but it was perhaps a case of groupthink that a handful of coaches -- even Ellenson's -- made the parallel.

"Like Dirk Nowitzki, a distinct big man,” Playground Elite coach Duane Wilson said. "Because of that, everyone around the country is recruiting him.”

But while he can shoot it plenty, what stood out was how Ellenson was essentially playing point forward on Thursday. This is notable because the kid's dropped 30 pounds over the course of a year and has now changed the way he plays and the way coaches see him play.

And Kentucky just hopped on an offered him a scholarship.

“It was good, it was exciting to hear from Coach Cal,” Ellenson said, adding Cal told him he liked his versatility and how well he can pick-and-pop. “He said, especially with the way the game's changing, that they could use a big guy who can shoot, for sure."

Kentucky's late to his recruitment, but Ellenson said “for sure” he'd give UK a chance and took mention of how many players Kentucky has sent to the NBA. UK joins the likes of Michigan State, Marquette, North Carolina, Duke Michigan, Wisconsin and about 30 other schools that have tracked him over the past year. Marquette stands out because Ellenson's brother, Wally, just transfered there from Minnesota. He'll sit the upcoming year and be eligible for 2015-16 -- when Henry would be a freshman.

It's been a big bump for Henry from when Georgetown offered him in the spring of his freshman year.

Wilson, who founded Playground Elite nearly nine years ago, has only been coaching Ellenson since April.

"He has made progress, no question, and been a five-star kid,” Wilson said. "You can't find too many big men in the country who can handle it, shoot it, post up, rebound on both ends. He's got the whole package."

It appears that way, and what's best? Ellenson's cheery and willing to chat to reporters at every turn. He handles himself well and controls the message. He smiled throughout the entire interview. Made eye contact. Joked a little bit with reporters. You don't often get that with five-star guys who are either naturally shy or just a bit worn down by the Q-and-A process of talking schools and potential visits and trimming lists so often.

Although he's described as a fairly quiet kid, Ellenson's publicly embracing this like few elite prospects do. There is an aw-shucks to him when interviewing, too.

“I've built a lot of confidence in my game, especially handling the ball,” Ellenson said. “The confidence with that has increased a lot this season.”

And while he for so long was seen as a 4, he's not really a power forward. He refers to himself purely as a forward, and said with the way he's tweaked his game, it's changed the way coaches have pitched recruiting to him.

"I want to see how a school will use me," he said. "I don't want to be stuck in the corner, stuck in the post.”

He expects to announce a “top six, top five” within the next month, and certainly by the end of August at the latest. He's going to put a list out so he can take his official visits soon thereafter. And Ellenson did say he already knows some schools are going to be on the list and there are others, though courting him heavily now, he knows he's not going to attend.

"I will not give up my poker face to you guys," he told a small group of reporters on Thursday.

Plenty of coaches are still relatively in the dark on where they stand. Ellenson isn't one to text too much. He joked coaches get mad at him for not texting them so much as some of his AAU teammates communicate.

“I try to not put so much pressure on myself with recruiting,” he said, adding that playing style and coaching staff are the two most important factors that will lead to his decision.

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