This season, the unique offensive mindset of first-year Rio Grande Valley Vipers' head coach Nevada Smith has been well documented. As many have noted over the past few months, such a system arguably has both its pros and cons.
Still, there's no denying how much Akeem Ellis has reaped the benefits of playing for the Vipers this season. Rising up from an otherwise relatively unknown guard going through the open tryout circuit last fall, the young gun has since continued to steadily emerge as one of RGV's most reliable sharpshooters.
"Coach (Smith) knows I have a good jump shot and that I can get it going. I just have to be a spark for my team," Ellis told RidiculousUpside.com during a recent conversation.
There's no doubt Coach Smith has instilled an immense amount of trust in Ellis. So far, the guard hasn't let him down. Ellis averages 6.1 points, and has converted on 36% of his shots from downtown this season.
Such numbers may not be all too imposing (for what it's worth, Ellis has averaged 9 points over his last ten games, and has put up 8.6 points and 4.1 rebounds in seven starts), his success from deep and steady role in the Vipers' offense is indicative of the fact that a player like Ellis could comfortably serve an NBA team in a similar capacity.
Still, the ceiling for his development appears to be a bit higher than simply standing tall as a spot-shooter. He added, "I can bring a lot to the table, but being a sharpshooter is definitely one of my strong suits. I can really get it going. There are other things I can do, too. I'm a playmaker, can dish the ball, and create for others. I like to rebound and play good defense, so I try and do a little of everything."
Having said that, who can blame Coach Smith for playing to the strengths of a player like Ellis? He recognizes the youngster's top skills, and is enabling him to be successful in one of the world's most talented professional basketball leagues.
There's nothing wrong with that.
Even so, Ellis says that the Vipers' coaching staff still works with him to also improve other facets of his game as well. The guard said, "They want me to keep working hard, play good defense, and do all of the little things. I have to be the guy that gets back on defense quickly, fights for those 50-50 balls, and dives on the floor. I love that Coach Smith expects that from me, though, because that's the type of person I want to be. I want to do the little things and be looked at as the guy who makes the plays that don't necessarily come up on the stat-sheet, but still help us win."
After watching the Vipers play, it's easy to understand why players on the team would have a right to feel a bit exhausted after a while. They run and gun like no other team in either the NBA or D-League, and push the tempo throughout.
Ironically enough, Ellis asserted that he and his teammates were primed to succeed in the system, and even shed a little light as to the secret for their collective ability to keep up with one another.
"We're well trained. We do a lot of running and work on our conditioning," he added. "That's why in the third and fourth quarters of games, we're still going at the same pace. It's full-steam ahead. Other teams are dying out there. Coach really prepares us well for this type of play."
For a team gelling so well on the court, Ellis gushed about how well this close-knit group gets along off the court, too.
"I love the group of guys I'm playing with. It reminds me of my junior-college team. We were really close -- like brothers," the guard said. "We do everything together. Man, this group of guys is great. We pick each other up and understand that we all need each other to be successful in this game of NBA basketball. We know what it takes."
A funny, pleasant, and overall positive guy, Ellis is someone to keep an eye on as the D-League season comes to a close and NBA teams look to fill out their Summer League rosters. As he uses his rookie season to develop, Ellis is quickly emerging as one of the more reliable, consistent, and dependable players on his team.
The impact Ellis has for his team appears to be contagious off the court as well. While on the bench, he keeps his teammates upbeat. That, specifically, is worth noting, given the respective rises of players like Kent Bazemore and Orlando Johnson. In four games as a Laker, Bazemore is averaging 17.3 points, and Johnson recently signed with the Kings following immense praise from his Pacers' teammate after a trade deadline related release.
Both players garnered attention and praise, largely in part due to their overwhelmingly positive demeanor as they awaited a shot.
Perhaps Ellis is on a similar path. Speaking with the RidiculousUpside.com staff on our podcast just weeks ago, Coach Smith even went as far as praising Ellis for staying ready this season, as he too, had to wait for ample opportunity to present itself.
Watching Ellis and the Vipers, it's easy to understand why he now serves as a key cog in the team's engine. Still, the confident rookie remains humble as it relates to seeing his early success come with the best team in the NBA D-League.
"Playing in the best team in the league feels really good. Going into this, I didn't even know that the Vipers were looking at me. It was a shock when they drafted me, so it's an honor to be here," he said. "They won a championship in this league last year, and now they see something in me that I can bring to the table at this level. It's definitely an honor."