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?

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. [page]

Yet once the season started, Ellis planted himself next to Elie on the bench and, without complaint, executed the scrub's mundane duties: High-five teammates when they check out of the game; surrender your seat to them during timeouts; swallow hard if you feel a yawn coming on.

“It's not easy when you're used to being in games, but you have to wait for your time,” Ellis says. Traces of a Southern accent seep into his voice now and then, softening “help” to “hep.” “It's a chance to help myself get better, being around people like Jason Richardson, Baron Davis — practicing against 'em, watching 'em every night.”

Ellis shares an easy rapport with Elie, and in the coach, the rookie found a mentor with an acute grasp of the bench jockey's psyche. Undrafted out of college, Elie turned basketball gypsy, playing in Argentina, Portugal, and Ireland before catching on with Philadelphia for three games in 1990. He parlayed that chance into an 11-year career as a sixth man and a starter with five other NBA teams, winning two title rings in Houston and a third in San Antonio.

Along the way, Elie obeyed the scrub's golden rule: Any playing time is good playing time. “What I tell Monta is that whether it's 15 minutes or five seconds, the coaches are watching,” he says. “Be ready. Make it hard for coach Montgomery to keep you out of there.”

In a modest debut, Ellis recorded his first NBA action in the season's seventh game, posting no points, two assists, and two turnovers in five minutes. Nearly a month would pass before he got off the bench again, hitting a three-pointer in nine minutes against Phoenix. His hustle won over fans, if not Montgomery. During the next dozen games, Ellis saw the floor exactly once.

Between the on-court cameos, he continued working with the team's trainers to beef up his boyish figure. Ellis weighed 165 pounds when he joined the Warriors last July, his jersey looking as thin on his body as on a hanger. By picking up weights and swearing off Big Macs, the caloric depth charges he used to eat before high school games, he has added 15 pounds of muscle. His bench press has increased from under 100 pounds — “I couldn't even lift the bar,” he jokes — to 205. Teammates have noticed that he's made more of himself — literally.

“He works hard and practices with a purpose,” Fisher says. “When you do that, your time will come.”

In fact, it came sooner than expected, after injuries sidelined Dunleavy and Richardson in late January. On the night the Lakers' announcer butchered his first name, Ellis played 31 minutes, delivering seven points, six rebounds, and a pair of steals in an overtime loss. He also riled Kobe Bryant, who in his previous game had racked up 81 points, the second-highest total in league history.

Ellis flits about the court on defense the way a water bug skims the surface of a lake. In the third quarter against L.A., he intercepted a pass by darting in front of Bryant, who grimaced as Ellis cruised away for a dunk. Late in the fourth, Bryant drove toward the basket for a potential game-tying layup against Ellis, who moments earlier had air-balled a three-point attempt. Undaunted by his mistake, Ellis all but crawled inside the jersey of the NBA's top scorer, forcing Bryant to lose his dribble out of bounds. Cue grimace No. 2.

Growing up, Ellis idolized Michael Jordan and Bryant, whose jersey number he shares. Still, the novelty of playing against the Lakers guard hit him only after the game, he insists, when family members called to rave about his effort. On the court, “I looked at [Bryant] as another player. It's like practice, like going up against J-Rich,” he says, referring to Richardson. “You just try to stop him.”

Ellis talks to beat reporters in a soft monotone, the preferred timbre of pro athletes supplying rote responses to rote questions. His comments sound culled from Joe Montana's Big Book of Bland Quotes, and it's perhaps natural to presume that, owing to his youth, he affects an impassive tone to mask naiveté. But his body language says otherwise. As he talks, he stands with his arms loose at his sides, his dark eyes holding steady on his interrogators. His relaxed locker-room manner conveys a self-assurance that, as former NBA player Jim Barnett says, “you just can't coach.”

“I would have been scared to death to come out of high school and go right to the NBA,” says Barnett, the Warriors' longtime TV analyst. “But he's never intimidated. When you're that calm and cool, and you have talent, it's hard to keep you on the bench.”

Montgomery apparently agreed after Ellis' effort against the Lakers. The following night, Ellis stayed on the floor for 27 minutes against Portland, the game in which his last-second block before halftime electrified the crowd. Since then, he has played in 15 of the team's 16 games through last weekend, averaging 17 minutes. Two weeks ago, in a loss to San Antonio, he led the Warriors in scoring for the first time, posting a career-high 16 points. Call him a scrub no more.

“He doesn't act like a guy out of high school,” Montgomery says. “He acts like he belongs here.”

Thomas Billups has spent the last half of his almost 30-year coaching career at Lanier High, building a Mississippi basketball powerhouse that has won six state titles. He bears a reputation for pushing his teams hard, detonating when they fail to execute, and possessing a fierce loyalty to his players. “They call me the black Bobby Knight,” Billups says, breaking into a hoarse laugh. “You can be called worse, I guess.” [page]

Five years ago, hearing the early buzz about Monta Ellis, Billups attended one of his games to find out if the kid deserved the hype. He saw NBA potential in an eighth-grader's body. The young phenom baffled opposing players and dazzled the crowd, dribbling behind his back, attacking the hoop, dishing assists to teammates. By the final horn, Billups says, “I knew I'd be coaching the best player I'd ever had.”

Ellis understood the sacrifices Billups would demand of him after he joined the Lanier squad as a freshman. He had been a team ball boy when his older brother, Antwain, played for the Bulldogs, so he knew the coach's penchant for grueling workouts and full-throated critiques. Less expected was the vow Billups made to him before the season began.

For the next four years, the coach said, “I'm going to let you make mistakes because I trust you to run my basketball team. If you listen to me, I'm gonna take you to the top.”

Reaching the top would deliver Ellis from Jackson. He grew up in a section of town considered gang turf, living in his grandparents' house with his mother, Rosa, and his two brothers. Drug peddlers plied their trade in the open; gunplay interrupted the drone of cicadas. As a youngster, wary of walking alone to a nearby basketball court, Monta built a makeshift hoop by nailing a milk crate to a light post in front of the house. He would shoot baskets into the evening, finally quitting when his mother ordered him to bed.

In later years, Antwain brought his younger brother along to pickup games, where Monta learned that even big kids stop talking smack when you blow past them. He revered Antwain, a member of Lanier's 1999 state title team, whose 6-foot-8 frame and shooting touch stirred talk of a possible pro career, until a teammate's murder derailed his ambition.

The teenager, a close friend of Antwain's, died over a $30 dope deal, an incident that pushed Antwain into chronic depression. His NBA aspirations long since faded, he lives with his mother and her husband in Jackson, “not doing much of anything,” Rosa says.

His brother's unraveling “opened my eyes to how much you can lose,” Monta Ellis says, while giving him tunnel vision to pursue his own hoop dreams. He devoted himself to working with Billups, the uncle of Detroit Pistons guard Chauncey Billups. Beyond refining Ellis' shooting form and teaching him to read the entire court, the coach instilled in the high-schooler a passion for defense, a rare trait among young players. Billups also provided reassurance when one senior questioned the decision to hand the team's reins to a freshman.

“Everything I know, he helped with,” Ellis says. “He was like a father to me more than a coach.”

But Billups refuses any credit for Ellis' precocious composure. In steering Lanier to a state title his first year, Ellis showed a cadaver's immunity to pressure, tuning out the chatter already percolating about his NBA prospects. “The guy just doesn't rattle,” says Todd Kelly, a sportswriter for the Clarion-Ledger, Jackson's daily newspaper. “He may have not been ready to wear the crown of leader, but when it was given to him, he didn't run away.”

Speculation about whether Ellis would bolt straight to the pros after high school intensified in each of his next three seasons, fanned by his brow-raising performances in national prep all-star games. Facing the likes of LeBron James and Josh Smith, eventual first-round picks who bypassed college, he wowed scouts with his smooth shooting and court sense, says Rob Harrington, a high school hoops columnist for USA Today. “He got on their radar.”

In Jackson, his presence guaranteed sellouts wherever Lanier played, as a growing number of pro and college scouts dotted the stands. Ellis displayed a blend of finesse and toughness, draining NBA-range three-pointers and flying to the rim heedless of the risk of taller defenders scalping him. He evolved into an unselfish point guard — though his no-look passes sometimes thudded off the hands of unsuspecting teammates — and he suffocated opposing players with his quickness and lanky arms.

He proved equally adept at shutting down the dozens of “long-lost” cousins and uncles who sought favors of him as his reputation swelled. Strangers dangled money, jewelry, cars, and other bribes in exchange for a stake in the future riches they assumed he would earn.

“He just always said, 'Nope, I'm good,'” recalls Rosa Ellis, who adopted what she describes as her “rude momma” persona to chase off grifters. “People we'd never seen and knew nothing about were coming at him. But Monta, he just kept cool. He didn't want to get caught up in anything like Antwain.”

The publicity surged higher his senior year, thanks to a series of performances that registered more like hallucinations. Ellis scored 54 points in a game against a Louisiana team led by that state's top prep player, Tasmin Mitchell, now a starter for Louisiana State University. In another tournament, he dropped 46 points on Georgia's best high-schooler, Louis Williams, who would be selected in the 2005 NBA draft. Two weeks later, he netted 72 points against a conference foe, tying the second-highest total in Mississippi history.

The season ended with Ellis winning a second state title last March — a game that drew almost 8,000 fans — and USA Today naming him the country's top prep prospect. A month later, renouncing his intent to attend Mississippi State, he declared for the NBA draft. “My opportunity is here,” he said at the time.

Mississippi produced a string of prep-to-pro players before Ellis, including Boston's Al Jefferson in 2004 and, a year earlier, Portland's Travis Outlaw. It was the selection of Outlaw, an unpolished talent compared to Ellis, that convinced the Lanier star he could leap to the NBA one day. He predicted he would be chosen in the top half of the first round. [page]

Dozens of friends and supporters joined Ellis and his family in Jackson last June to watch the draft day telecast from Madison Square Garden. They discussed which team would pick him, whether he would start at point or shooting guard. When he wasn't the first player taken, good-natured razzing ensued. Three hours later, by the time NBA Commissioner David Stern had announced the 30th and last first-round selection, the banter had ceased. Ellis still lacked an employer. Feeling embarrassed for him, people began to slip out.

Once regarded as a possible lottery pick (the first 14 players chosen), Ellis had seen his stock tumble in the weeks after his senior season. Amid existing concerns about his wispy build, a minor knee injury that slowed him in a pair of national all-star games stoked doubts about his health. His decision to skip at least one other all-star game provoked further questions.

Yet as friends offered awkward condolences on draft day and his mother wept, it was Ellis who sought to leaven their deflated hopes. “Mom, don't worry about it,” he told Rosa. “It's gonna be OK.” His faith surprised no one familiar with his high school exploits. “Even if he wasn't drafted, it wouldn't have affected his confidence at all,” says the Clarion-Ledger's Kelly. “He knows what he can do.”

Meanwhile, the news — or absence of news — that devastated Rosa Ellis cheered Golden State's Montgomery and Chris Mullin, who had selected Arizona State forward Ike Diogu in the first round. Mullin, the Warriors' head of basketball operations, had visited Mississippi to scout Ellis. He observed a young man who listened to his coach during timeouts, who looked adults in the eye and addressed them as “Sir” and “Ma'am.”

“What sets him apart on and off the court is his maturity,” Mullin says. “It's beyond his years.”

Four hours after the draft began, the Warriors nabbed Ellis with the 10th pick of the second round. Jackson's native son would head west, added motivation at his back. “Those other teams that didn't take me? That just makes me want to work harder.”

Sliding in the DVD of NBA Live 2006, Louis Ellis calls up the Golden State Warriors roster on a flat-screen TV roughly the size of a bus windshield. A moment later, he's staring at a virtual double of his cousin, dressed in the team's midnight blue road jersey. As Louis punches the buttons on an Xbox gamepad, digital Monta dribbles and spins toward the hoop, then launches and throws down a thunderous one-handed jam.

“He's got hops,” Louis says with a satisfied smile.

“Yup,” Monta says from an adjoining room. “He can go.”

Watching simulated Monta dunk while real Monta lounges a few feet away only confirms the obvious: Pro athletes are not like the rest of us. Even so, Louis says, the Monta who grew up poor in the South and the Monta who plays in the NBA remain one and the same. “He hasn't changed.”

Last year, Ellis invited Louis and another cousin, Jarenta, both 20, to move west from Mississippi. The three men occupy a four-bedroom house in Alameda, in a tidy subdivision located 10 minutes from the Warriors' practice facility and the Arena. Monta covers the $2,100 monthly rent while his cousins handle the cleaning, cooking, and homesickness prevention. Though relieved to leave Jackson behind, Ellis wanted at least one relative to join him in California to assuage the isolation of living 2,000 miles from his fiancee and family.

“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.

“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.” [page]

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.”

During a Warriors loss to Houston last month, Ellis provided what might be called sudden defense, triggering instant offense. As Rockets guard Luther Head knifed toward the basket and pulled up for a short jumper, Ellis, as if wearing spring-loaded high-tops, spiked the shot. Warriors forward Troy Murphy corralled the loose ball and passed to Derek Fisher, who drove downcourt for a layup.

The final box score failed to detail Ellis' full impact on the game. He twice forced a Rockets guard to lose the ball out of bounds, turnovers that don't count as steals. But never mind the stat sheet, Jason Richardson says. “Monta Ellis can play. That's just how it is.”

Ellis' emergence over the past six weeks has coincided with injuries to teammates. In February, 10 days after Richardson returned to the lineup from a back injury, an ankle sprain claimed Baron Davis. With the point guard's return to the starting lineup last week, Mike Montgomery may need to rely on algorithms to calculate playing time for his six guards. In discussing what he might do, the coach offers a firm hedge. “It's a good problem to have if you can keep guys motivated.”

Despite logging more minutes in the season's second half, Ellis remains unassuming, reciting the scrub's mantra when talking about his own circumstance. “I just want to help the team win any way I can,” he says. “That's what we're all trying to do.” But fans fear that sitting Ellis will doom the Warriors to repeat the Gilbert Arenas mistake. Now an all-star guard with Washington, Arenas languished for much of the first half of his rookie season behind the fossilized Mookie Blaylock, the team squandering a chance to nurture young talent.

During a blowout win against Minnesota last month, one fan made clear his sentiments on Ellis, who was out of the game at the time. Standing up, the man yelled toward the Warriors bench, “We want Monta Ellis!” It was impossible to know whether Montgomery heard the demand. It was also impossible to miss the cheers when, a few minutes later, the rookie checked back in.

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