Kings’ Ellis proving he belongs in NBA with patience, professionalism

NBC Sports Bay Area

SACRAMENTO — When you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready.

That has been the philosophy and mindset of Kings guard Keon Ellis, who continues to make the most of the opportunities presented to him.

Wednesday night presented his sixth start of the 2023-24 NBA season, and second consecutive. His two-way presence helped Sacramento secure the season sweep of the Los Angeles Lakers with a 120-107 win Wednesday night at Golden 1 Center, improving his record as a starter to a perfect 6-0.

“Keon is a true professional,” Kings veteran forward Harrison Barnes said after Sacramento’s win. “To look at his season — to look at the games where he’s getting DNPs and then he’s all of a sudden thrust into the starting lineup having to guard a top player on another team, I think he’s 6-0 as a starter, so probably the highest win percentage in franchise history for a starter. 

“But just credit to him for always staying ready and giving this team a lift where we need it defensively.”

Being called a true professional by one of the most professional athletes in sports is telling.

But Barnes isn’t the first to use the word to describe the 24-year-old guard.

Ellis’ maturity and patience have been applauded by his Kings teammates and coaches over the course of the season, and having him in the starting lineup makes the job of one teammate in particular a little easier.

Kings star point guard De’Aaron Fox has taken a dramatic leap in his defensive approach this season, thanks to the push from his defensive-minded coach Mike Brown. And while Fox usually picks up the task of defending the other team’s star guard, having Ellis on the floor frees up that assignment for Fox.

“Like I’ve said before: When Keon’s on the court, good things happen,” Fox said postgame. “The way that he plays and the way that he guards — it’s not normal. The way he’s able to get through screens, even if he’s guarding someone we consider ‘hot,’ there are times where he’s able to slide under and still be in front of the ball and still contest shots. And then he’s shooting the ball well for us. He’s adding to our offensive dynamic as well, not only on what he’s doing on the other end of the court. 

“So, he’s been great for us, regardless if he’s starting or any time he’s gotten minutes this season. I think you’re starting to see he’s getting more comfortable as his minutes are growing. He’s been great for us.”

Ellis has recorded 18 DNPs (Did Not Play) this season and split his time with both Sacramento and the team’s G League squad in Stockton as a two-way player. But Ellis’ resiliency and hard work were rewarded with a standard NBA contract last month, signing a three-year contract with the Kings that allows him to play without restrictions moving forward.

After playing collegiate ball at Florida SouthWestern and Alabama, Ellis went undrafted in the 2022 NBA Draft and signed a two-way deal with Sacramento that July. The Kings gave him another two-way last July before signing him to a multiyear contract in February.

Ellis and his NBA journey are more than just an inspiring, feel-good story about an undrafted athlete. The signing now gives him a real opportunity to showcase his talent and prove he belongs in the league — all whilst helping the No. 6-seed Kings return to the playoffs for a second consecutive season and compete with the best of the best.

And he’s doing just that.

“Eight deflections. Not only that but he’s 6-0 a stater,” Brown said of Ellis. “He’s done a heck of a job for a guy who was a two-way guy up until the halfway point this year. To get eight deflections in a game where you play 28 minutes, even if you played 48 minutes, that’s an amazing thing to do. 

“It’s just a heck of a job by Keon.”

In 12.3 minutes this season, Ellis is averaging 3.6 points on 43.6-percent shooting from the field and 37.6 percent from 3-point range, with 1.4 rebounds and 1.3 assists in 39 games.

Over the last five games, he’s averaging 7.4 points on 14-of-24 shooting (58.3 percent) from the field and 8 of 15 (53.3 percent) from deep, adding 2.6 rebounds, 1.0 assists and 1.8 steals in a little over 20 minutes.

With a team full of sharpshooters such as Keegan Murray, Kevin Huerter, Malik Monk and others, the Kings’ offense has a way of feeding off each other’s energy.

Fox believes the same applies on the other end of the floor, too, and Ellis’ defensive prowess helps the Kings lock in defensively. 

“Definitely, definitely. Especially when it’s the guy that’s pressuring the ball. Whenever [Ellis] is coming off the bench and he and Davion [Mitchell] have started pressuring the ball, that becomes contagious,” Fox said. “You feel that type of energy. When you see a guy turning someone in the backcourt two or three times, your defense feeds off of that and he’s definitely been great for us. 

“That’s a big reason why our defense was the way that it was the last two games.

On Tuesday night, Ellis locked down the 3-point machine that is Milwaukee Bucks guard Damian Lillard, who finished with just 10 points on 2-of-12 shooting from the field and 1 of 6 from behind the arc after averaging 24.4 points on 42.3 percent from the field and 35.2 percent from downtown this season.

The very next day, Ellis did the same with Lakers guard D’Angelo Russell, who was on a recent hot stretch, averaging 21.6 points on 47.5-percent shooting from the field and 44.9 percent from 3-point range since January. 

Russell finished Wednesday’s game with six points on 2-of-9 shooting from the field and 1 of 4 from deep.

With the struggles and inconsistencies of Huerter, Barnes and Murray this season, many Kings fans have questioned — and demanded, at times — that Ellis’ move to the starting lineup be made permanent.

Brown, whose confidence in his current starters runs deep, won’t budge — at least not yet.

“There’s a lot that goes into it,” Brown said. “It comes down to feel. Kevin gives us a lot, too. Does it make us better with Kevin or Keegan or HB coming off the bench just to start Keon? I don’t know. I don’t have that feel yet. You can always bring Keon into the game early. Keon can still average 20, 25 minutes a game if need be. Kind of like Malik [Monk], it can give us the luxury of finishing the way that we want to finish but playing different lineups based on the flow of the game. 

“We might go out there and the flow of the game might be in our favor with whoever’s starting. OK let’s ride with that. OK they want to go on a run, you know you got Malik, you got Keon, you got Davion coming off the bench. And it just adds to whatever is already a very, very good bench.”

Whether he’s a starter or coming off the bench, Ellis’ growth from undrafted to a two-way player to a “true professional” on a team with championship aspirations has been nothing short of impressive.

And it’s clear he’s just getting started.

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