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?

"It just helps to have a Mississippi face to look at," he says.

On a late afternoon following practice, Ellis, wearing a white T-shirt and black sweat pants, relaxes on a cream-colored suede sofa aimed toward another flat-screen TV. He flips channels among a trio of NBA broadcasts, a cell phone and text-message device within arm's reach. Shades on the living room's large windows block out the waning sun, and with the TV's glow creating the only light, the room's tan and white hues jell to gray. It's like sitting inside a giant cocoon.

Ellis decompresses in this space, as much from the day's grind as the hysteria of "The Greatest Show on Hardwood." Moving to a metro area about 35 times the size of Jackson has granted Ellis a soothing anonymity. Save for the young women who recognized him during a visit to a Walnut Creek mall not long ago, he has avoided scrutiny. Back home, people pointed and gawked when he drove past in his black Cadillac Escalade; in the Bay Area, it's just another sweet ride with spinner rims.

NBA observers invariably invoke Allen Iverson's name when discussing Ellis' future.
Paul Trapani
NBA observers invariably invoke Allen Iverson's name when discussing Ellis' future.
Ellis possesses poise that "you just can't coach," says former NBA player Jim Barnett, a Warriors broadcaster.
Paul Trapani
Ellis possesses poise that "you just can't coach," says former NBA player Jim Barnett, a Warriors broadcaster.

"It's peaceful here," he says. "You don't have to worry about everyone asking you for something."

Removed from the basketball court, Ellis talks more openly, at least when he pauses to stop munching chocolate chip cookies, one of his few dietary vices. He cops to leading a homebody's life, too young to drink legally or go to clubs, too frugal to eat out much. He would rather chow down on Louis' pork chops and dirty rice while reviewing game film. On the road, he sticks to his hotel room to watch TV and check in with family. He talks to his mom two or three times a day, sometimes more on game nights, when she calls to provide unsolicited feedback on his play. ("He's not aggressive enough on offense," she says.)

Starting with this year's draft, the NBA will require incoming players to be a year out of high school and at least 19 years old. Concern over young players struggling to adjust to their heady new status compelled the league to establish the rules. Yet his teammates put the odds at less than zero that Ellis will mutate from player to playa. "He's humble; he has a good head on his shoulders," says Calbert Cheaney, 34, the Warriors' elder statesman and a mentor to the rookie. "He understands what it means to be a professional."

At the same time, Ellis must contend with money matters for the first time in his life. He signed a two-year contract that will pay him $450,000 this season, poverty wages by the NBA's salary scale but a dizzying sum for a Mississippi kid in his first job.

Most of his paycheck winds up in investment and retirement accounts, according to his agent, Jeff Fried, while Rosa works with a financial adviser to ensure Monta pays his bills. His salary, besides supporting his two cousins, has enabled his mother to quit her job as a prison guard. In the end, he receives about $1,000 a month in spending money, plenty to sustain his clothes jones. A walk-in closet in his bedroom teems with pressed jeans and suit jackets, his game-day ensemble of choice.

Considering an NBA player's salary and the travel perks he enjoys -- chartered planes, upscale hotels, a $104 per diem -- only another player might regard him as holding an actual job. And, indeed, while the NBA's 82-game regular season may feel endless to a losing team, it isn't exactly the Trail of Tears. But coupled with almost daily practices and weekly road trips, the schedule can enervate players who jump to the pros from high school, where the typical season lasts 35 games.

"For 18 years, it was a game," says Los Angeles Clippers guard Shaun Livingston, drafted out of high school in 2004. "Now it's work. You gotta get up every morning, go to practice, be on time."

But to Ellis, since his days of shooting a ball through a milk crate, basketball has presented an escape. Elie, the assistant coach who refers to Ellis as "son," shares that perspective, one rooted in the memory of his own hardscrabble youth in New York City. "When you grow up poor, the court is your haven. That's what it is for Monta," Elie says. "When he gets on the court, everything else falls away."

Unless Elie wants to goof on Ellis. Then he tells him what should happen after the rookie signs his next, presumably fatter contract: "Buy me a Rolex."

NBA observers invariably invoke Allen Iverson's name when discussing Ellis' future. Aside from his small stature and natural speed, Ellis, like the former MVP, neither flinches from attacking the basket nor betrays self-doubt. But at the same stage of his career, Iverson lacked Ellis' defensive tenacity. Even when his shot goes cold, a persistent problem of late, Ellis can ignite the Warriors.

"He's a guy who can make things happen on both ends of the floor," says Ric Bucher, a former Mercury News sportswriter who covers the NBA for "With his speed, he can really throw a team out of its offensive rhythm."

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