Last week, GBB’s Mac Trammell talked about James Ennis’s promising year with the Pelicans last season, and what fans could reasonably expect out of his new Grizzlies tenure. Memphis desperately needs a breakout performance from one of its bench wings, especially given the injury history of its current perimeter rotation pieces (Tony Allen, Chandler Parsons, Vinsanity, and even late-season addition PJ Hairston all missed significant time last season). There are some key things about James Ennis in particular that make him a great candidate for a leap in 2016-17. Today, I’d like to peel the Ennis onion back another layer.
Just two years ago, James Ennis finished as the second runner-up for his league’s MVP award. And indeed he should have, as he posted stellar averages of 21.2 points (good for the third-highest average in the league), 7.2 boards (fourth, even though he’s a wing), 2.1 assists, and 1.4 steals (second) per game. He also shot 35.5% from the (shorter, international) three-point line on 5.64 attempts a night, 46.6% from the field, and 77% from the charity stripe. Ennis posted these terrific numbers while leading his team to a 75% winning percentage, the league’s best record, and a championship.
Am I talking about Euroleague hoops, perhaps?
Well, no. It was Australia’s National Basketball League, where Ennis’s ferocious athleticism led the Perth Wildcats to a 21-7 regular season record en route the 2014 NBL title, Perth’s sixth, defeating the Adelaide 36ers 2-1. After a nomadic college career that saw him hopping from Oxnard College to Ventura College to Long Beach State, Ennis was drafted by the Atlanta Hawks with the 50th pick in 2013, and immediately flipped to the Heat. Because the Heat would have relegated Ennis to a year of D-League seasoning and its $25K salary, Ennis signed with the Perth Wildcats for a reported six-figure salary. He told the Herald Sun that the financial incentive clinched his decision to migrate, as Ennis was nobly compelled to support his five siblings, his father, and his disabled mother. The brevity of the Australian season was surely a factor, too, because afterwards Ennis was able to swing a full season (albeit a 12-game one) playing for the Puerto Rican squad Piratas de Quebradillas.
Check out this highlight reel for Ennis via the Wildcats’ official YouTube page. What immediately stands out is his quick first step and leaping ability on a relentless roll call of ferocious jams. He’s so much faster than any of his defenders in these clips that many of them just surrender instead of trying to catch up and contest him when he invariably blows by them in transition. In fact, Ennis has enough time during many of these fast breaks to enact his very own in-game version of Dunk Contest slams (a 360, put-backs by bouncing the ball from the paint onto the boards, two-handed hammers, baseline cuts, high-flying alley-oops). His spider arms also pose a big problem for opponents. At one point, Ennis gets waylaid by a pick, but is still able to extend his hand beyond the screener and induce a turnover from his initial cover, who would have been the roll man.
We don’t even get to see Ennis’s shooting touch until a whole minute of the three-and-a-half-minute proceedings has passed. But the triple he connects with is deep — definitely an NBA three, not an international/college three. Even though he’s sort of slumming in a league beneath his level, it’s quite clear that Ennis was putting in the work to one day stick on an NBA squad. And now he has a guaranteed two-year, $6 million contract with Memphis to show for his efforts. His family should be living quite comfortably for the immediate future, at least. Ennis has noted that his game and body took serious steps forward in Perth. Wildcats assistant Adam Tatalovich abetted Ennis in building muscle without losing speed, one of his biggest assets that should be a welcome change of pace from Memphis’s preferred plodding. He was able to develop his shooting stroke in Australia, and that paid big dividends during Ennis’s time playing for the Pelicans.
During his lone season in the NBL, “Ennis the Menace” also finished third in MVP voting (though that decision may have been politically motivated, as only coaches vote for the league’s MVP and there was believed to be a bias against foreign products), and was awarded First-Team All-NBL honors. The Wildcats’ attendance reflected the blockbuster impact of their import phenom, who became a major draw: they averaged 11,512 fans per game, almost 6,000 people clear of the nearest attendance figure, Adelaide’s 5,603 per. Ennis’s huge success down under may very well have paved the way for many copycat NBA prospects heading to Australia the succeeding season. Five NBA hopefuls inked contracts with NBL clubs in 2014-15, including current Cavs hopeful Jordan McRae. It’s fast becoming a viable alternative to the Euroleague or the Chinese Basketball Association, the two biggest hot spots for NBA hopefuls looking to make some real cash instead of languishing in the underpaying D-League.
James Ennis, meanwhile, was able to parlay his experiences abroad into a solid 2014 Summer League showing, where he averaged 16 points, 6 rebounds, 1.6 steals, and 1.4 assists. He shot 53.5% from the field, 61.2% (!) from three (on 4.4 attempts a night), and 80.7% from the free-throw line. It took a season for him to really show his stuff in the NBA, but he finally showed flashes of what he’s capable of producing while in New Orleans last spring. There’s no doubt that’s a credit to his blockbuster year in Australia. Let’s see what he can bring Memphis as a key bench cog. He projects as an athletic 3-and-D rotation piece at the NBA level; though not much of a passer, he’s got strength and length for days, and his human highlight reel moments on the Wildcats are indicative of his clutch dunking skills, which will be fun to watch at least. Let’s see what he can do in a full NBA season, logging real minutes on a playoff squad from the get-go.
Stats provided by NBA.com and Real GM.