CJ Elleby is the perfect fit for the Portland Trail Blazers. For those of you know who haven’t heard yet, the Blazers selected Elleby with the 46th pick in the NBA Draft.
As a Washington State University alum and a die-hard basketball fan, I’ve been blessed to watch the forward out of Seattle over the last two seasons. Here are three things you need to know about Portland’s newest player.
This isn’t an attribute that can be measured by stats, but it is something that can be felt within a locker room. Whatever you want to call it: spirit, energy, effort, drive, he has it.
His game isn’t traditional, but it always feels like his impact on the floor is felt. Whether it’s diving for a loose ball, chasing down a long rebound, or taking a charge, he’ll do whatever it takes to help his team win.
Last year, he was the best player during a transformative season for the Washington State Cougars. As leader of the Cougs, they finished with their first .500 record since the 2012-13 season. For those who don’t do mathy things, that’s eight years.
During this campaign WSU beat No. 8 Oregon, swept the season series with rival Washington, and won their first Pac-12 Tournament game since 2009. He helped make Cougar basketball fascinating again for the first time since Klay Thompson left town.
WSU didn’t have the most talented roster, but they did have a fearless leader. It felt like his teammates followed his scrappy style and ultimately this is what led to the Cougs success.
His unselfish play, fiery soul, and lack of ego is indicative of a player primed for a promising NBA career.
As Jimmy McGinty (Gene Hackman) said in the movie “The Replacements,” “You gotta have heart.”
Elleby’s ticker is his most valuable asset.
While heart is extremely important, you must have talent to compete in the NBA. And on the offensive side of the court he needs much improvement before he can be considered a true scoring threat.
At the college level, he was WSU’s leading scorer in the 2019-20 season, averaging 18.4 points per game. However, these numbers are probably inflated because the Cougars only had two consistent scoring options.
In the NBA, he’ll likely struggle to shoot a high percentage from beyond the arc, doesn’t have elite athleticism, and will need to improve his handles.
He shot 40 percent from the field and 34 percent from three-point land in his final year in college, but his athleticism allowed him to get to his favored spots on the court, which should prove much more difficult at the highest level.
In his rookie campaign, I expect him to struggle due to his lack of fluidity on offense. However, if he improves his jump shot, I believe he could become a 10-15 point per game scorer within three seasons.
Another aspect in his repertoire that may often get overlooked, is his clutch shot-making ability.
In the Pac-12 opener last year against UCLA, he struggled offensively all game tallying 4-13 from the field. However, with 19.9 seconds left in regulation, he hit a critical corner three-pointer to tie the game at 65 apiece. This was a thoroughly impressive shot considering it was his first conference game as the No. 1 scoring option.
Another example of his timely shooting was demonstrated in a mid-season matchup versus Arizona State. The Cougs blew a double digit lead in the 2nd half, and momentum had shifted in the Sun Devils favor. On WSU’s final possession of the game trailing by one point, he dribbled through his legs, stepped back, and swished a three-pointer through the net giving the Cougs a 67-65 advantage. This shot proved to be the game winner.
While Damian Lillard will obviously be the No. 1 option in crunch time, don’t sleep on Elleby, he could randomly hit a buzzer-beater.
This will likely be the side of the court where he flourishes in the NBA.
In his final season in the Pac-12 he averaged 1.8 steals per game alongside 0.8 blocks. These numbers are impressive, particularly the steals, but I think they could prove misleading in regards to how effective he is on this side of the court.
The only way I can describe him is that guy in the gym who plays full-court pressure in a pickup game.
He may not have the best footwork, may look herky-jerky, but the pesky persistence usually will annoy someone on the other team. When players are flustered, their more prone to making mistakes.
While the numbers may not be on his side with his 6-foot-7 wingspan and weight of 198.6 pounds, I would not bet against him becoming a premier defender in the NBA.
I’ll be the first to admit that superstars like LeBron James, James Harden, and Giannis Antetokounmpo will get easy buckets against Elleby’s slender frame. But the players who don’t have a strength advantage, will probably struggle to score against him.
From the draft reviews I’ve read, I don’t know if the media really understands how good of a defender he is.
Think of a player like Los Angeles Lakers guard Alex Caruso with more offensive potential. Portland, you’ve now met CJ Elleby.