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Hustle & Flow 

He can defend and fly with the best of them. But can the rookie straight out of high school stick in the NBA?

Wednesday, Mar 8 2006
Seven seconds remain in the second quarter of a game against Portland when Golden State guard Derek Fisher clanks a three-pointer. A Trail Blazers forward snags the rebound and passes to teammate Juan Dixon, who dribbles downcourt toward the Warriors basket, his arms and legs a churning blur.

Loping a stride ahead, Warriors rookie Monta Ellis appears to anticipate Dixon's next move before Dixon thinks of it himself. Ellis watches as the Blazers guard, stopping a few feet short of the hoop, uncoils upward and flicks a jump shot.

As the ball leaves Dixon's hands, the 6-foot-3 Ellis doesn't leap so much as materialize in midair to greet it. His head almost level with the 10-foot-high rim, he swats the shot back from where it came, snapping his right arm the way a rancher cracks a bullwhip. The ball flies past Dixon fast enough to give him windburn, and before Ellis touches back down, the first-half horn blares.

The Arena's 18,000 fans launch from their seats with a roar worthy of a medieval beheading, not a mere blocked shot. Yet Ellis acts oblivious to the din. His mouth a straight line, he walks across the court toward the Warriors' locker room, staring into the middle distance. He looks at peace.

Such poker-faced poise befits Yao Ming or the Shroud of Turin more than a 20-year-old who, at this time last year, starred for the Lanier High Bulldogs of Jackson, Miss. For Ellis, the first player drafted straight out of high school in Warriors history, tonight marks only the 11th pro game in which he has appeared. In most of the team's other 32 games through late January, his official box score line consisted of the five words every NBA player dreads: "Did Not Play -- Coach's Decision."

Golden State entered the Blazers matchup with a 19-23 record after losing nine of its previous 11 games. Recent injuries to Jason Richardson and Mike Dunleavy have opened playing time for Ellis, and by the half, he's already tied his career best with eight points. Among fans making concession-stand runs before the third quarter begins, brothers Erik and Kris Rush suggest Warriors coach Mike Montgomery mull five different words.

"Start playing Monta Ellis more," Erik says. "You got someone who can score and block shots like that, you need to get him in there." The Rushes, who traveled from Milpitas for the game, happen to be standing near one of the arena kiosks that hawk Warriors jerseys. None sells Ellis' No. 8. "Maybe they should stock up," Kris says. "He definitely belongs on the floor."

Early in the fourth quarter, another sequence involving Ellis, if less seismic than his Dixon rejection, proves more revealing. As Ellis dribbles upcourt, Blazers guard Sebastian Telfair, one of the league's quickest players, stabs the ball away and flashes in for a layup.

In his first year, Gilbert Arenas, a gifted Warriors rookie of past vintage, tended to lose his confidence after a miscue. Ellis instead gains revenge, dogging Telfair into an errant pass on the Blazers' next possession. Golden State guard Baron Davis steals the ball and leads a fast break that Ellis finishes with a layup of his own.

The Warriors hang on to win, with Ellis collecting 14 points, five rebounds, and a half-dozen ovations. As fans did during the game, reporters show fresh interest in him afterward, huddling around his locker to pepper him with questions. He answers with a veteran's aplomb, speaking in fluent cliché. "It's a relief to get a win tonight." "I'm grateful for the opportunity." "I don't want to let anyone down."

Assistant coach Mario Elie, strolling out of the locker room, spots the media cluster and a chance to goof on the youngster. "You big-time now, dawg!" Elie bellows, drawing a sheepish smile from Ellis. "You gonna make it!"

The Warriors hold practice two days later at the team's sprawling, two-story training complex atop the Oakland Convention Center's parking garage. His gray scrimmage jersey darkened by sweat, Ellis lingers on the court after the other players leave, stroking jump shots from the baseline, the top of the key, beyond the three-point arc. Ball after ball ripples the net in hypnotic rhythm.

The sight of the rookie guard as the last man practicing strikes his teammates and coaches as nothing unusual. "Happens all the time," forward Calbert Cheaney says. "He wants to be great. That's something you can't teach." Elie offers a variation on the prediction he made following the Blazers game, only without the teasing tone.

"You watch," he says. "In the next two, three years, people are gonna know that name: Monta Ellis."

That name is pronounced MON-tay, a subtlety sometimes lost even on those paid to say it right. When Golden State faced the Lakers in Los Angeles a few weeks ago, the Oakland Tribune reported, the PA announcer introduced Ellis as MON-tuh. The guy could be forgiven. Ellis had appeared in only nine of the season's 41 games up to that point, playing a grand total of 62 minutes, or about what starting guard Davis typically logs over a game and a half.

Every NBA squad has its designated scrubs, the untested youngsters and graying veterans who practice hard and play little. During close games, barring injury to starters or top reserves, they are paid spectators; in blowouts, they serve as janitors, sweeping up the leftover minutes of a party that died early. When the Warriors drafted Ellis last year, team and player alike realized he would begin the season on his haunches, sitting and studying during games.

The transition from high school stud to NBA scrub would have seemed a dispiriting one for "The Greatest Show on Hardwood," as a billboard in his native Jackson dubbed Ellis. Last year, he averaged 38 points a game and guided his team to a state title, earning national Co-Prep Player of the Year honors and Mississippi's Mr. Basketball award. Pro and college scouts ranked him among the country's top high school seniors, likening him to a young Allen Iverson, minus the criminal record and mercurial attitude.

About The Author

Martin Kuz


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