Monta Ellis had an epiphany, and he’s a better man for it. It’s evident when he speaks, in his smooth, Southern vernacular. It’s evident when he confidently struts around the hardwood. It’s evident in everything he does, and everything he doesn’t do.
The epiphany wasn’t discovered escaping the drug-infested corners of the Jackson, MS, neighborhood where he grew up in his grandparents’ home. It wasn’t the six-year, $67 million contract that made him a wealthy man at 22. It wasn’t the cringe-inducing, ligament-severing moped accident that occurred a month later in August, 2008. Sure, all of these affected him. But it was something smaller in size, and yet so much grander in scale, that shook Monta Ellis to his core and awakened the grown man in the baby-faced boy. It was the birth of his son Monta Jr and the marriage to little man’s mother, Juanika.
“My little son, he acts so much like me,” says the 25-year-old Monta Sr. “He looks up to me. In his eyes, I do no wrong. I try to keep it that way by doing the right things, because we have the same name. If I destroy my name, then I’m gonna destroy his name. So I just try to be positive and teach him the right way of doings things, because I didn’t always have my father in my life to teach me to take my first dribble, to shoot my first jump shot, or how to kiss a girl when it was time to or things of that nature, of being a young boy becoming a man, and from being a young man to being a grown man. So I just try to teach him the way that my granddaddy taught me.”
And in doing that, in raising his baby boy, Ellis has raised himself and his game to new heights.
Wednesday, November 10, 2010: The Golden State Warriors, in the midst of a five-game, eight-day road trip, are in New York to play the Knicks. From morning shootaround through the end of a 122-117 win, Monta Ellis version 2.0 is on full display.
Two days prior to this tilt, with 1:23 left in an eventual 109-102 victory over the Toronto Raptors, Ellis caught a pass from Stephen Curry on the right baseline, noticed that defender Sonny Weems was slow to rotate and launched himself toward the basket. One dribble, two steps and a legs-splayed, back-jarring, grisly crash-landing later, Ellis lay grimacing on the Air Canada Centre floor, seemingly severely injured. After various scans and X-rays, Monta, who wasn’t able to fly with his teammates to New York that night, was diagnosed with a strained lower back and listed as day-to-day on the Golden State injury report that was released.
Most players would have taken some time off, if only for precautionary reasons. That’s why Ellis’ teammates were surprised to hear on game-day morning that their captain wanted to play that night.
“When the players saw him at shootaround this morning, it just lifted their spirits,” said first-year head coach Keith Smart outside Madison Square Garden’s cramped visitors’ locker room minutes after his team defeated the hometown Knicks. “It gave our team…a nice boost, to see that he was gonna try to perform out their on the floor tonight.”
Crashing to the floor while heading to the bucket at diabolical speeds; absorbing abuse from stronger, taller off-guards; playing through abrasions and contusions, bumps and bruises. The 6-3, 175-pound warrior experiences this on a nightly basis. According to Ellis, the toughness he displays is rooted in his country upbringing.
“Mississippi players,” says Monta, who has his home state tatted on his upper body, “we built different. Coming from my family, where I’ve seen my granddaddy—he used to work on cars; he was a mechanic for 40 years—drop a motor on his hand, and he would go in the house and get a tissue, wrap it up with duct tape and return out there with that same motor. So [toughness], it’s just in our family.”
Back to the Garden. Tip-off is only 45 minutes away, and Ellis is fine-tuning his three-point shot from the corner. Except, par for his usual pre-game course, he has his back to the basket, face toward the crowd and is shooting the ball over his head toward the basket. He proceeds to attempt a handful more circus shots and then does the same from the opposite baseline before settling in for some left-handed mid-range jumpers. Almost as well-known for his trick shot routine as he is for his scoring ability, Monta views these artful shots as a way of expressing his creativity and as a means of challenging himself. Tonight, the MSG crowd is taking it as proof that the “Mississippi Bullet” will be playing.
Though his back is bothering him, before taking the court Ellis refutes all attempts to get him to wear some sort of padding beneath his jersey. A few minutes into the game, in trying—unsuccessfully—to draw a charging foul on Amar’e Stoudemire, Monta proves he’s physically ready to play. More than that, though, by staring down and stepping in front of a driving Stoudemire, something he would have been hesitant to do in the past, Ellis proves that, mentally, he’s a changed player.
“I’m trying to lead by example,” says the six-year pro. “I stepped back after last year and evaluated myself. Pointed fingers back at myself, instead of putting fingers over here and there. I wanted to make a change this year. I wanted us to be a great team, and I just wanted it to start with me.”
Aside from Coach Smart, no one is better qualified to assess Monta’s game than long-time Golden State assistant coach Stephen Silas. So when he corroborates Ellis’ story of growth, it’s good as gospel.
“It’s amazing how he’s evolved,” says Silas, who recently left the Warriors to join his father’s staff in Charlotte. “There are so many little things that he does this year that he hadn’t done in previous years. For instance: He’ll just stop practice and explain to the younger guys and to the guys who aren’t understanding what we’re trying to get done as far as different defensive coverages or different offensive plays. And he never used to do that; he was one of the more quiet guys. This year he’s really taking it upon himself to stop practices and let guys know. And as a coach, that’s great. It’s one thing hearing it from a coach, but hearing it from a top player, that really goes a long way.”
Evolved and, at least for this contest, nicked up, Monta Ellis isn’t getting as much lift as he usually does on his jumper. Still, less than three minutes into the first quarter, he hits his first of the evening. Aside from his attitude, the thing Ellis spent the most time this offseason adjusting was his jump shot.
“This summer we worked on—there are certain spots on the floor where he gets the majority of his shots, so we worked on those specific spots,” says Silas, who stayed in Ellis’ Memphis, TN, home for a week in July. “And then a lot of his balance and his shooting. When he starts missing there are certain keys that we’re looking for, as far as his shoulders being in the right position and his legs being in the right position. So we really broke it all the way down to the basics as far as his form. We worked on a little bit of everything.” Through the first half of the season, the improvement in Ellis’ shooting is marked; he’s hitting on over 47 percent of his 20 looks per game.
One thing that Monta’s never had to put any effort into developing is his quickness. The only thing remotely slow about him is his soft, Southern drawl. Though he’s unsure where his abundance of fast-twitch muscles originated—neither of his parents were “track stars”—he knows what to do with them. On the Warriors’ first possession of the second quarter, Ellis climaxes at his typical Bugatti-on-a-highway speed while accelerating to the cup, turning the other nine guys on the court into parked car lookalikes in the process.
“I knew how quick he was, but I didn’t know he was that fast,” says Charlie Bell, a summer addition to the Warriors. “He’s one of those guys that if you blink, you might miss him. Monta’s a blur out there.”
“You just don’t realize, ’til you see him night in and night out, just how fast he is,” agrees another new teammate, David Lee. “I think he’s among the three fastest guys in the League. You can’t teach his kind of speed.”
Running faster than the Mississippi River flows after a rainstorm is crucial to Monta’s success. But being able to finish while jumping off of either leg, with either hand, while bending his body like origami, after blowing by a defender—that’s what separates Ellis from the average NBA speedster.
“In my opinion, he’s up there with LeBron, Wade and Kobe and those guys, as far as pure scoring,” says David Lee, clearly enamored of his friend’s 25.5 ppg average last season. “Those guys do a lot of other things, but as far as pure scoring, he can put the ball in the basket. He really can.”
With his strained back slowing him down to near-mortal speed, Monta still was able to Swiss Army knife New York for 22 points, 6 assists and 4 steals. For the season, in a sliver under 41 minutes per game, Ellis is dropping over 25 points, 5 assists and 2 steals per outing. Pretty solid stats for a guy who was never supposed to make it in the first place and, once he did, almost lost it all in an accident.
“Growing up, the drugs, the killing, the stealing, it was all around me,” a hushed Ellis says, reflecting coolly on the perils of his childhood block. “So when I step on the court, I’m representing Mississippi, my family, pretty much any little boy that dreams of making it out of the environment that I made it out of.”
Thirty minutes after the final buzzer sounds on the Warriors’ W in the Garden, dressed in all black, Monta walks out of the locker room on a mission. A little later, he locates Juanika and Monta Jr and kisses both of them gently, smiles spreading wide across all three faces.
Monta Ellis has had the phrase FAMILY FIRST inked on his chest for a while. But now the words have seeped through his skin landing somewhere deep in his heart.
“Everything I do now,” Ellis says before ending the conversation, “I do for my family.”