With the excitement surrounding Washington State Cougars Men’s Basketball stemming from Klay Thompson’s jersey retirement—and the sweep of the Oregon schools—it may be time to analyze this team’s forceful leader in CJ Elleby. Thompson is often regarded as the best basketball player to come from WSU, but Elleby is likely a future NBA player in his own right. Let’s figure out who he is before be goes big time.
Reigning from Seattle, WA, he is a six-foot-six, 200-pound forward with a never-ending motor. He is one of those guys you love to play with if he’s on your team, and are likely to show respect too if he’s your opposition.
It was obvious from his freshman year that he was a talented player, but he wasn’t the first option last season because of the skillful big-man shooter Robert Franks. Nevertheless, Elleby still finished with 14.7 points per game, 7.1 rebounds, and three assists. Those are quite phenomenal stats for anyone, let alone a freshman.
With all the changes in the program in the offseason with the Ernie Kent firing and subsequent hiring of Kyle Smith, Elleby decided to test the NBA Draft waters. After deciding he wasn’t quite ready for the pro ranks just yet, he returned to Pullman for his sophomore year.
As the season began, he quickly asserted himself as the best player on WSU’s roster, dominating most opponents in non-conference play. After a rocky 3-4 start, the Cougs reeled off six straight wins to pull themselves to a 9-4 record before Pac-12 play. At many times, he was the only consistent scoring threat WSU had on the floor.
Upon conference play, he struggled to find his scoring identity against better competition. He only put up nine points against USC and shot 13.6 percent from the field. Against UCLA, he scored 15 points on 30.8 percent shooting. It appeared that he may not be ready for the spotlight just yet.
But at the end of the Bruins game, after struggling to buy a basket the entire contest, he nailed a game-tying three-pointer to send the matchup into overtime. This was his first big moment as the guy, and it ignited hope that he may be able to reverse the fortunes of a consistently desolate WSU basketball program.
As the season continued, he has had up-and-down performances until this past weekend in the Palouse.
The Cougs faced the incredibly talented and arguably best team in the Pac-12 in the then-eighth-ranked Oregon Ducks. This game was expected to be an afterthought; UO was supposed to wipe the floor with WSU, steal their lunch money, and eat a bowl of Cheerios in their own living room.
But Elleby had another plan.
He finished the game with 25 points, 14 rebounds, and shot above 57 percent from beyond the arc. A star was born in Pullman. The Cougs won the game handily, shocking the entire college basketball world and the Ducks alike.
But his weekend wasn’t done just yet. WSU hosted the Oregon State Beavers on Saturday in a second act behind Thompson’s jersey retirement night.
Again, Elleby came to play. Even though point guard Isaac Bonton stole the show with 34 points, eight rebounds, eight assists, and a first-half ending, half-court buzzer-beater shot reminiscent of Stephen Curry (who was in attendance for Klay’s big night). Elleby paced the Cougs with 22 points, nine rebounds, five assists, and played stellar defense all night.
This is the sign of a player who is primed for success, one who has the ability to dominate the game while simultaneously bettering his teammates. This type of player is far and few in-between, and the unsung heroes of NBA championship-winning rosters.
What this past weekend means for the Cougs season as a whole is yet to be determined and it may be foolish to suggest some sort of massive turnaround.
However, it should be obvious that he is the best player WSU has had since Thompson, and his career could just be beginning. It takes a special type of player to win in Pullman—a hard-nosed guy, with defensive intensity, never-ending hustle, and a heart bigger than Andre the Giant.
Elleby fits this mold and combines it with an aggressive and dangerous offensive game.