Ellis headlines KU’s win over Duke

Did you see the grizzled veteran, Perry Ellis, go to work against Duke on Tuesday night.

In a game that included diaper dandies (Dick Vitale’s term, not mine) Andrew Wiggins, Wayne Selden, Jr., and Jabari Parker, it was the old guy who is on the brink of turning 20, Ellis, who had the biggest part in Kansas’ 94-83 win at the United Center in Chicago.

While every basketball fan with a set of eyes had theirs locked on Wiggins and Parker in particular, and with good reason, I kept my focus on Ellis, the 6-foot-9 sophomore from Heights who struggled so mightily during the first third of the 2012-13 season.

I will admit here that there were times last season when I wondered whether Ellis had the goods to play at Kansas. He looked lost, intimidated and looking like if he had his wish, he’d be somewhere else, to borrow a line from a Don Henley song.

But Ellis rediscovered himself down the season’s stretch and though he lacks the sparkle and pizzazz of some of the more high-profile players who were on the court Monday night, he didn’t lack the numbers. Ellis scored a KU-high 24 points to go with seven rebounds on 9-of-13 shooting.

It’s important to remember that he did so against Duke. Not Drake. Duke.

I wondered whether Kansas could keep it close against the Blue Devils, who have a little more seasoning and beat Davidson by almost 40 in their season opener. But KU showed me something.

The Jayhawks are one of the youngest teams in the country, but that really didn’t come into play. KU committed only 10 turnovers. Kansas coach Bill Self didn’t have to roll his eyes back into his head often because of his players’ silly mistakes. For the second of game of the season played more than two weeks before Thanksgiving, the poise with which Kansas played was remarkable.

Wiggins gave the fans their money’s worth with an outstanding second half after playing only nine minutes in the first half because of two fouls. He had 22 points and 10 rebounds and showed an offensive arsenal that will someday be the impetus for an NBA team to pay him gazillions of dollars.

But Wiggins is not alone on this loaded Kansas team. Selden plays with basketball sensitivity far beyond his years. Freshman point guard Frank (Have No Fear) Mason stuck his nose into the lane numerous times against Duke and it resulted in 12 free throws, 11 of which he made.

It was interesting that Mason and junior Naadir Tharpe were on the floor together for much of the second half, changing off responsibilities between the two guard spots. It will be just as interesting to see if that becomes more commonplace for KU.

I’ve never been a big Tharpe fan and he was just OK on Tuesday night. But I could see some of his playing time the rest of the season being lost to sophomore Andrew White III and perhaps even to Conner Frankamp, who got in for less than a minute at the end of the first half against Duke.

Ellis, meanwhile, rarely left the floor. He was forced out of the game for a minute or so late because of a cramp, but when he was out there he made things happen.

Ellis is a 6-foot-9 grinder. He works to get solid inside position on every possession and has worked hard to develop the footwork that makes him a scoring threat every time he catches the basketball down low.

Defensively, he uses his instincts and wiles to get his hands on a lot of passes and force turnovers. He also has a great presence of mind to find open teammates on breakaways after making a steal, which happened a couple of times with Wiggins.

Ellis has taken to the coaching of Bill Self’s coaching and become the most indispensable Kansas player, at least until Wiggins or Selden further mature. It’s hard to believe Ellis is the same guy who looked so completely overwhelmed by the moment for much of last season.

His demeanor really hasn’t change, but his confidence has skyrocketed. Ellis is capable of scoring with either had and he stepped out to make a three-pointer against Duke. That won’t be his last. Forgotten in Ellis’ skill set is his shooting ability. He’s a great free-throw shooter and has range to the three-point line.

Defensively, he struggled early on to contain the wondrous Parker. A lot of players will join him in that club as the season continues, however. Parker was fantastic, although Self ran smaller defenders at him in the second half, a plan that worked as well as he could have expected.

It was a big win in a big game, even if it came this early. Kansas is loaded and it’s fun to imagine what Self might be able to do with this group.

Look at what Self has done with Ellis. And look at what Ellis has done with Ellis.