Second Team's Smooth Operator
After a bombastic All-Star weekend in Houston, it’s nice to turn our attention back to regular old, normal NBA players.
You know … Guys that were named the NCAA Tourney’s Most Outstanding Player after winning a National Championship with the most prestigious college program in history, then going on to a solid pro career that finds him leading their current team’s midseason turnaround as their most effective three-point shooter.
The Cavaliers have a guy just like that. His name is Wayne Ellington.
Ellington arrived in Cleveland via a deal with Memphis on January 22 – along with Marreese Speights and Josh Selby. In the ten games since joining the Wine and Gold, all he’s done is lead the team in three-point shooting and, more importantly, help the Cavaliers turn their season around.
In the ten games since the deal, Cleveland is 5-5, part of their most successful overall stretch in the last three years. Ellington and Speights – along with Luke Walton and Shaun Livingston – have also re-energized a second unit that’s been one of the biggest parts of that success. The bench is averaging just over 40 points per contest (40.2) since the Memphis deal.
The second team, once the squad’s weakness, is now one of the Wine and Gold’s strengths.
“When we come in, it’s funny, we always tell each other: ‘You know what we do. You know what we do,’” smiled Ellington. “We just come in and bring energy, bring intensity, bring good effort on the defensive end of the floor. We’re gonna help each other. We’ll foul if we have to, dive for loose balls. And on the offense, we’re just gonna move the basketball – set it up so the open man gets the shot.”
The second unit has even breathed life into the Cavaliers starters. On several occasions already, Byron Scott has gone with his reserves down the stretch – sometimes closing out the entire game, sometimes mixing and match with starters. When he brought his first team back in against Denver on Feb. 9, he kept Ellington on the floor to battle Andre Iguodala.
Ellington and Co. want to see that energy off the bench rub off on Cleveland’s young starting lineup.
“That’s exactly what we’re hoping,” said the former UNC standout. “They see how much fun we’re having and how we play with so much pace and energy that they want to go out there and do the same thing.”
The soft-spoken two-guard is the less-demonstrative half of the duo that arrived from Memphis. Cavalier fans witnessed it over the recent homestand: Marreese Speights plays loud. Ellington is a smooth operator.
That’s not to say they both haven’t made some noise since coming to the Cavaliers. Speights has scored in double-figures in eight of those ten games; Ellington in six. During that time, the former Tar Heel is shooting 45 percent (18-40) from beyond the arc.
Ellington laughingly recalls the morning he found out he was Cleveland-bound.
“I actually woke up and Mo was calling me – I had no idea – and he said: ‘We got traded, man!’” said Ellington, “I said, ‘Let me call you right back.’ I was still half-asleep. And I had all these text messages and missed calls and thought, ‘He must be telling the truth.’ I didn’t know if he was playing with me or what.”
It was the second time in his NBA career that the Wynnewood, PA native had been dealt. Originally drafted by the Minnesota Timberwolves with the No. 28 overall pick, he was dealt to the Grizzlies for Dante Cunningham this past summer. But the latest deal with the Cavaliers still came as a surprise.
“At the time, it was shocking,” he continued. “I didn’t know much about the Cavs. I knew Dion (Waiters) from working out with him this summer. I knew some of the guys on the team. I knew that the big fella (Anderson Varejao) was out for the rest of the season. Other than that, I knew it was a young team that was continuing to get better with a lot of talent.”
Like the Cavaliers’ second team and the squad overall, Ellington fortunes have improved since the lopsided deal. A career 6.2 ppg scorer, Ellington has averaged 9.1 points per contest with Cleveland.
“It definitely feels like a good opportunity for me,” said the 6-4 shooting guard. “I feel like I’m a good fit here. I feel like I fit in well with the personnel we have here. And I’m working hard and doing whatever I can to help this team.”
As the calendar turns from February to March, the Cavaliers are starting gearing for the season’s second half. And once March does roll around, several of them will have some of their attention tuned to the NCAA Tournament.
Ellington, of course, had a fantastic Tourney before being drafted in 2009. As a junior, he led the Tar Heels to the National Championship, where they manhandled Michigan State, 89-72. He went 7-for-10 in the Final Four and was named to the All-Tournament Team as well as the Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.
Like many Tar Heels before him, Ellington knows the value of prepping for the NBA as part of such a prestigious program.
“It helps a lot,” reasoned Ellington. “Playing with so many guys at a respectable program, it really prepares you for this league. I feel like it helps you play the game the right way. You have to learn to be unselfish because so many guys on your team that are talented and have a chance to be professional as well. So it helps you learn how to play with talent around. That’s something it definitely prepares you for.”
Ellington will take that unselfish attitude into the second half of a Cavaliers regular season that’s been exponentially better since his arrival.