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Player in review: Malik Ellison

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The son of the famous NBA player showed some very promising signs last season.

St. John's vs Georgetown 1-14-16
by Wendell Cruz

It was that kind of season, a forgettable one for the Johnnies. Case in point, perhaps: St. John's Malik Ellison may have gotten less publicity last season than the OTHER basketball-playing Malik Ellison, an undersized guard from near Flint, MI, who earned a SportsCenter Top Ten play appearance and a state championship.

Back in New York, for a long segment of the season, no player took more heat on St. John's than Malik Ellison... (well, maybe Durand Johnson, but we will touch on him later). He missed from the Rutgers game until the December 18th incarnate Word loss, losing a month of playing time. But Ellison was one of the mainstays for the squad, playing heavy minutes when he was healthy - minutes that, on a different squad, that may not have been available, especially given his early results.

It's important to keep in mind that Ellison did not come to St. John's a fully-realized player. In fact, this article from the Baltimore Sun, from when the Maryland Terrapins were giving Ellison a look, highlights the developments needed in his game and the changes that he'd have to adjust to in college.

After his first college season, the 6'6" guard Ellison has raw numbers that draw low levels of attention, but his game says there is a real shot of a breakout player in there. Let's take a closer look.

[Our preseason preview of Ellison]

Malik Ellison scoring stats, 2015-16 season

g
mp
pts/g
2p%
3p%
ft%
pf/ 40
24
21.3
7.3
0.395
0.318
0.653
5.0

Malik Ellison tempo-neutral/ rate stats, 2015-16 season [glossary of terms]

usg%
efg%
ftr
orb%
drb%
ast%
stl%
blk%
tov%
22.4
0.423
0.777
3.0
9.6
24.4
1.0
0.4
26.1

Season high points: 17, vs Creighton

Season high assists: 6, twice - at Seton Hall and at DePaul

Season high rebounds: 6, twice - at Marquette, vs. Creighton, vs UMBC

Season high turnovers: 4, five times

Three things about Malik Ellison

Poor shooting, good offensive peripherals. For Ellison, a final stat line of seven points per game, two rebounds per game, three assists per game might seem somewhat pedestrian (though in only 20 minutes, those numbers extrapolate into an interesting player).

Ellison's shooting percentages over the season are fairly poor: 32% shooting from beyond the arc, 39% shooting inside the arc, 65% shooting from the free throw line.

Add 2.6 turnovers per game and one can see why St. John's fans cringed at some of the turnovers, at the numerous missed layups, and the missed shots.

But wait! Malik Ellison managed to use upwards of 22% of the team's possessions, which means he can get shots off. (We will see later in these reviews that this is not an insignificant skill.)

But wait! Malik Ellison drew 6.3 fouls per 40 minutes, taking an average of four free throw attempts per game. The only team all season that kept him off the free throw line was Xavier, where he attempted zero free throws in a combined 29 minutes of game time. That means that not only can he get his shot off, but that he has a quick enough first step that he can break down defenses on offense and get them lunging.

And wait! Ellison assisted on 24% of his teammates' made shots. The turnovers may be maddening, but he was a consistent assist man on a team struggling to find ballhandlers and distributors.

Actually, good offense down the stretch. Malik Ellison also managed to step his game up in conference, where he improved from 29% shooting inside the arc and 20% shooting outside of the arc in non-conference play to 42% shooting inside the arc and 38% shooting from beyond the arc in conference play (including the Big East Tournament).

Additionally, the percentage of shots Ellison attempted that were three-pointers also dropped from 50% of his shots to 30% of his shots.

Looking at his final eight games, after Xavier was done having their way with Ellison, his percentages are even better - 52% shooting inside the arc, 50% shooting outside the arc.

Did we watch some in-season development? The changing of the kinds of shots taken, an increase in efficiency?

Ellison tended to miss his jump shots a bit short/ front rim, as well - which can be improved upon with strength, conditioning and skill practice. His layups will also need some practice; he's a good athlete, but not the player who can throw down dunks in traffic on his drives at this point to finish more efficiently.

The defense is...resting? So, let's talk about Malik Ellison's defense. He's 6'6", often played in big lineups facing the opposing point guard.

Maybe that's a factor in his five fouls per 40 minutes, and the visuals of him getting beaten off the dribble. But added to the very low block rate (0.4% of opponent shots) and low steal rate (1% of opponent possessions), it raises questions about the overall defensive package, especially since the one thing the Red Storm did decently was force turnovers.

Player
Fouls/ 40
Block %
Steal %
Malik Ellison
5.0
0.4
1.0
Kellen Dunham
2.1
0.3
1.2
J.P. Macura
4.2
0.1
2.6
Haanif Cheatham
2.8
0.1
1.9

For comparison, fellow 6'6" guard Kellen Dunham had a 0.31% block rate and a 1.2% steal rate, fouling 2.1 times per 40 minutes; sophomore J.P. Macura had a 0.10% block rate and a 2.6% steal rate, fouling 4.2 times per 40; Marquette freshman Haanif Cheatham had a 0.10% block rate and a 1.9% steal rate, fouling 2.8 times per 40.

It's not that Ellison needs to block more shots, or get more steals. Guards don't often block shots unless they are helping inside the arc; and not every good defender generates a lot of steals. Not saying that he needs to foul as little as Kellen Dunham, whose numbers beg the question of whether Dunham had a non-contact contract with opponents on defense.

What I am saying is that, visually and by the numbers, the defensive package has to be a lot more positive. Not disrupting opponents on the stat sheet while ALSO fouling is a double dose of defensive negativity that the team does not need.

Looking forward

This coming season, Malik Ellison won't have the ball in his hands as often, now that ball-dominant guards Shamorie Ponds and Marcus LoVett join at-times-ball-dominant Federico Mussini on the St. John's roster. How will all these players integrate?

If Ellison makes the sophomore leap that he looks primed to make, that might not matter. or Ellison might be the right kind of player - one who can take over if another falters, one who can slot in as a rebounder, assist man, a deep shooter, a slashing force or a decoy for the scorers.

At times, Ellison played like a player a coach would be reluctant to keep off the floor last season. At other times, he looked like a player whose plus/ minus numbers (the team's scoring margin with him on and off the court) were a negative.

The eight game stretch at the end of the season was lovely, but Ellison needs to put that performance on the floor night in and night out. Ellison's defense needs much improvement, and the overall package needs to tighten up.

(And put that performance up against Xavier, a team that forced him to shoot 4/15 and hand out two assists in a combined 29 minutes.)

And there's room to get better - can he be a higher impact passer with fewer turnovers? Can he make smarter plays in transition? Can he be the glue guy, the linchpin of the team with far more scoring and passing options? Can he be the player who helps institute Chris Mullin's offensive ideals of playing fast and making the extra pass?

Developmentally, he's on a solid track to get better.

In conversation with the Savannah Tribune, Ellison said:

"I got used to the pace of the game in college so individually I need to tighten up my shot, defense, conditioning and my IQ. As a team, for us to come together early on. Last year everyone was new so we now have experience. It will be good for us this summer to work out together and come closer as a team."

Let's hope the whole team improves with familiarity.

What did you think of Malik Ellison's game?