Los Angeles Times
More than a one-man show
Senior point guard Ellis’ ‘great decisions’ have made USC teammates better.
Before they saw each other as brothers more than a decade ago, Boogie Ellis first asked Vince Rogers to be his trainer. Rogers kindly rejected him.
Rogers trained only professionals, he told Ellis, and the future USC point guard was just a preteen, albeit a confident one. Yet Ellis, whose cousin played on a team Rogers coached, was determined. Every fiber of his being yearned to be better. So the kid kept coming around. Eventually, Rogers relented.
He has been by Ellis’ side since, helping him through every up and every down, guiding him on and off the court as basketball guru and self-chosen sibling. No one understands Ellis and what makes him tick like Rogers. During this season, Ellis’ second and final at USC after transferring from Memphis, Rogers has looked on proudly as the point guard made a critical discovery, one that has helped him mature into one of the West Coast’s best.
“He’s always been a perfectionist, and sometimes, that can mess with you,” Rogers said. “I think he’s
learned that things aren’t going to always be perfect. So he’s much more at ease. He’s in a really good place.”
By every measure he has never been better. Over his last 10 games, Ellis is averaging 22.3 points and nearly four assists. Twice in that span, he has set single-game career highs in both categories.
On Thursday, as the rest of USC’s offense stalled, Ellis tried to carry the Trojans, scoring 35 in an 87-81 loss to No. 8 Arizona.
“He’s taken the next step,” USC coach Andy Enfield said. “He’s actually taken a few steps forward. Even from the beginning of the year, he was very insecure as far as his decision-making, now he’s making great decisions . ... He’s doing it all for us.”
With its senior point guard surging, USC also finds itself in a good place as the regular season winds down Saturday against Arizona State. The Trojans have locked up a top-three finish in the conference, and with a win Saturday or the following Thursday at the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas, USC should safely secure a third consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament.
For Ellis, it’s the only fitting conclusion to a college journey that took a detour through Memphis before sling shotting back to Southern California. Those two years in Tennessee were especially tough on Ellis, whose freshman season, he explains, was a rude awakening.
“Out of high school, I’d never had any problems,” said Ellis, who starred at San Diego Mission Bay High. “I was a top-30 recruit, had every school in the country [talking to me]. But when I got to college, I struggled.”
It wasn’t until the end of his sophomore season that Ellis earned a starting role at Memphis. Still, he struggled to shake his frustration. His hard work wasn’t paying off as he’d hoped.
He’d always been his harshest critic. But that propensity for perfection was turning the point guard into his own worst enemy. He was too deep in his head.
“That’s the biggest thing he’s always battled with, the emotional ups and downs,” Rogers said. “When it’s going great, he’s high. When it’s not going great, he’s lower than it should be.”
Those feelings didn’t go away upon his transfer to USC. After a fast start in his first season with the Trojans, Ellis hit a wall in December.
He found his stride only intermittently from there, falling flat in the NCAA tournament. He scored just three points, turned the ball over three times and played only 14 minutes, a season low, as USC was knocked out in the opening round by Miami.
The unceremonious end to his junior season left questions about Ellis’ future at USC. Shortly after, he dipped his toes in the NBA draft waters. Through that process, it became clear he had plenty of room to grow. As he saw it, he had one year to show marked progress, in hopes of carving out a role in the NBA.
Namely, he needed to become more of a floor general and less of an isolation playmaker.
“It’s something that people have always talked about with him, that he’s not a point guard, that he doesn’t make others better,” Rogers said. “I think he’s taken that personally.”
In response, Ellis dove deeper into his film study, absorbing every nuance, internalizing every detail about offense he could discern from hours and hours of video. Almost every night, he and Rogers would watch together, with Rogers lobbing questions his way.
Scoring had never been an issue for Ellis. Instead of creating his own opportunities, Ellis tried to focus on uplifting those around him, anticipating how their defenders might react and using it against them. The results have been undeniable.
“He’s just becoming more of a point guard,” sophomore wing Kobe Johnson said. “He’s taken a big stride in controlling the game. When he needs to take over, he takes over.”
That much has been apparent over this last month. Rogers points to USC’s win over UCLA in January as the turning point for Ellis. The previous season, he was held scoreless in the same game at Galen Center. This time, he scored 31, his first of three 30-point performances in his last 10 games.
“I’m really believing in myself, you know?” Ellis said. “I went through a lot, a lot of ups and downs. I’ve been at the lows and I’ve been at the highs. But at the end of the day, you’re gonna make shots, you’re gonna miss shots. Six assists one game, six turnovers the next game — you just have to keep believing. If you don’t believe in yourself, no one else will.”