The College Years
Two televisions facing each other, flipped on showing basketball games in the locker room on Sunday after the Hawks/Bucks match in Milwaukee. Like they usually are. Only this time, no NBA on the screens, just Kansas/North Carolina.
John Henson is looking up at the screen that has fuzzy reception, who knows what is wrong with the television, but his Tar Heels are ahead, clear as can be. Drew Gooden cuts away from his locker through a pile of towels to encourage his Jayhawks. “Maybe if I leave they will start winning.” They are down 12-2.
After Gooden left, the Jayhawks came back and won 70-58.
Before that, Brandon Jennings urged a guard on Kansas to shoot an open three. He missed an off-balance two-point bank shot. All the media was waiting to talk to Ersan Ilyasova. Everyone usually waits to talk to someone. For some reason, Monta Ellis was not that person that night, even though he just had another one of those fourth quarters: 3-4 on three-pointers, 11 points. Not enough. The Hawks won a big game, and Ellis was looking at the details on the printed copy of a box score that is handed out to media, coaches, and players after every game. Ellis studied it, then quickly crumpled it, then shot it six or seven feet across the room. It missed the garbage can.
Those three: Jennings, Ilyasova, Ellis.
College hoops on so many minds and on all of the televisions in the locker room. But looking around at the three leading scorers on the Bucks, and thinking: none of these guys even played college basketball.
The three leading scorers. How many teams in the NBA have three leading scorers who never played a minute of college basketball? The answer, verified by clicking through the rosters of every team that night after the game, was almost as expected. The Lakers were in mind (Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol), the Suns not (Goran Dragic, Luis Scola, Marcin Gortat).
Some teams, all of their best players and highest scorers starred at college programs. Take the Bulls, for example. Derrick Rose led Memphis to the championship as a freshman. Okay, he hasn’t even played. But leading scorers Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer play a lot, and they both superstarred at Duke. Nate Robinson electrified Washington for three years. Joakim Noah won two straight national championships on brilliant Florida teams. Richard Hamilton was named the 1999 NCAA Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player after leading Connecticut to the national championship. Those are Chicago’s top five scorers.
This doesn’t make the Bucks better or worse or the same as the Lakers or intentionally different from anyone else, but it does make them a little different.
And the stories of all three are different.
While none of them played college basketball, the three leading scorers on the Bucks – Jennings, Ellis, and Ilyasova – all hold very different stories about their college years that were not.
Here is a short-form answer to what Jennings, Ilyasova, and Ellis were up to around the time many other players would have been in college.
The NBA’s prep-to-pro policy, initiated in 2006 and stating that players must be 19 years old and at least one year out of high school to declare, barred Jennings from entering the NBA Draft straight out of high school.
During his junior year of high school, Jennings initially chose to attend Southern California, which was nearby to his hometown of Compton, California. However, he changed his mind as a senior and opted to instead play for Arizona and follow in the footsteps of a long line of star guards including Steve Kerr, Damon Stoudamire, Jason Terry, Mike Bibby, Gilbert Arenas, and Jerryd Bayless.
However, he changed course again and blazed a new trail by signing to play professional basketball in Italy for Lottomatica Roma rather than attend Arizona. In doing so, Jennings became the first highly-recruited American player to sign with a European team rather than play collegiately following the new NBA rule. The youngest player on the roster, and playing basketball on a new continent, in 2008 Jennings appeared in 27 games in Lega A and averaged 5.5 points and 2.2 assists. In 16 Euroleague games, he averaged 7.6 points and 1.6 assists.
In the same 2005 NBA Draft that the Warriors found Ellis at #40, the Bucks chose Ersan Ilyasova four spots ahead, 36th overall. Ilyasova had already played a season of professional basketball in his native Turkey for Ülkerspor, where in 11 games he averaged 4.5 points and 3.2 rebounds. Modest numbers, but consider that he started that season at age 17.
Ilyasova played in the NBDL’s Tulsa 76ers throughout the 2005-06 campaign, and he played quite well, averaging 12.5 points and 7.0 rebounds in 28.2 minutes. A deep dive into his NBA.com bio even shows that he actually blocked nine shots in a game against the Fort Worth Flyers.
In his third professional season and still just 19 years old, Ilyasova started 14 games a rookie in 2006-07 with the Bucks. In his first NBA start, he showed off a glimpse of his shooting touch with a 5-6 effort including 2-2 on threes while starting alongside Andrew Bogut in the frontcourt. Now eight years after being drafted in the second round, Ilyasova has been with the Bucks far longer than anyone else on the team.
Dubbed the “Mississippi Missile” in high school for his quick first step and scoring binges, Ellis earned plenty of attention and accolades at Lanier High School in Jackson, Mississippi in 2005. He was named Parade High School Player of the Year, along with Greg Oden, in 2005, following a season in which, the story goes, he scored 65 points against rival Greenwood High School… and then scored 72 points in the rematch against them. Of course, he also lit up national powerhouse Oak Hill Academy (coincidentally, where Jennings later played), led by Josh Smith at the time, for 42 points, so it wasn’t just a matter of random, meek competition.
Ellis declared for the 2005 NBA Draft, which was the final draft before the prep-to-pro policy was introduced. He was selected 40th overall by the Warriors. Other prep-to-pros in that draft included Martell Webster (#6), Andrew Bynum (#10), Gerald Green (#18), C.J. Miles (#34), Ricky Sanchez (#35), Lou Williams (#45), Andray Blatche (#49), and Amir Johnson (#56).
Ellis played in 49 games as a rookie out of high school for the Warriors, and then won Comeback Player of the Year in his second season.
My passions? Writing and the Bucks, to start. So it is good to be here. I have reported on media row for just about every Bucks home game since 2009-10 – almost all of that time writing for BrewHoop. I have also written for the Milwaukee Brewers Baseball Club, SB Nation, ESPN Milwaukee, Slam Online, etc. You can follow me on Twitter @alexboeder or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.