When he left the University of North Carolina in 2009, Wayne Ellington was on top of the college basketball world. The 6-5 shooting guard averaged 15.8 points per game as a junior, hit a career-high 41.7 percent of his threes, helped the Tar Heels win a national championship, and Ellington won Final Four Most Outstanding Player after dropping 20 points on Villanova in the national semi and 19 on Michigan State in the title game.
Since being selected in the first round of the NBA Draft by the Minnesota Timberwolves, however, Ellington has seen the contrasting side to success. As a rookie, Ellington averaged 6.6 points in 18 minutes while his team went 15-67, second-worst record in the League. Early into his second season, Ellington is again putting up 6.6 points while logging 18 minutes a night, and the Wolves again have the second-worst record in the League at 5-17 through Wednesday’s schedule.
Earlier this week, after Ellington had dropped a season-high 16 points and four threes against Cleveland, I spoke with the second-year pro about finding his game and his niche in the League, and the NBA’s extensive North Carolina network.
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Dime: Why have the Wolves struggled this season?
Wayne Ellington: We’ve had some games where we played well, but we can’t finish at the end. Our record would be a lot different if we knew how to finish ballgames. But we’re a young team, and that comes with experience. We just really have to work on getting better.
Dime: In not finishing games, is it more a defensive issue or offense?
WE: It’s both. At the end of games, you’ve gotta step up and play your best basketball. You’ve gotta get stops on the defensive end and go down on offense and get the shots that you want. You have to be on the same page. Like I said, though, we’re a young team, so those things should get better with time.
Dime: What is your role?
WE: Coming in and trying to give us a spark off the bench. That’s what I’ve been trying to do, just give us a spark offensively and defensively. I got injured an missed a couple of games, but in the game where I’ve been getting time I think I’m doing OK.
Dime: I’d guess you’ve been a starter most of your life. Is it tough getting into a familiar rhythm when you’re coming off the bench?
WE: It’s something you’ve gotta learn how to do and adjust to. I’ve been trying to do better coming of the bench and bringing that. But like you said, I have been starting all my life, so it’s a process, man.
Dime: Do you have a regular pre-game workout routine?
WE: Yeah, definitely. I get a lot of jumpers up, working on some things we get out of our offense so I’m more comfortable with those looks. It’s a lot tougher in the game when you’re not shooting by yourself, so when you practice you’ve gotta shoot every shot game-like so it comes natural to you later. But it starts by yourself in the gym.
Dime: What’s the biggest difference between your rookie year and this year?
WE: I think it’s the sense of confidence. I have a lot more confidence on the basketball court. I’m more comfortable and can see more things before they happen; the game has slowed down for me a bit.
Dime: What about off-the-court differences?
WE: I know what to expect now. When you’re a rookie you’re kind of blindfolded. Now when we go on the road for a seven-game trip, I know what it’s gonna be like. I have my own little routine.
Dime: When you go on the road, what are the essentials you have to bring?
WE: You have to make sure you’ve got enough outfits, but you wanna pack as light as possible. For me, my most important thing is … just bringing my game, that’s all.
Dime: Who is the biggest personality on the Wolves?
WE: Oh man, we’ve got some characters on this team. Mike Beasley, he’s always talking trash. Jonny (Flynn) is kind of loud and silly. Darko and (Nikola) Pekovic, they’re quietly humorous. They do little stuff on the sneak-tip.
Dime: Who is the best dresser?
WE: That’s tough … We’ve got some nice dressers. Sebastian (Telfair), he always gets fly. Wes (Johnson), for a rookie he throws it on. Jonny throws it on. Really, all of us East Coast dudes are the best dressed.
Dime: What’s your personal style?
WE: Me, I’m a little bit Euro. I like my stuff fitted but not too tight. But I keep it real up to date. I like fashion, so I stay on top of my gear.
Dime: Have you seen North Carolina play this year?
WE: Yeah. We started off slow, but we have a real young team. We got a big win against Kentucky, which should be a confidence-builder. We can take that win and build off it.
Dime: I’ve heard about the UNC network within the NBA. How tight is that group?
WE: It’s tight man, for sure. I feel like every NBA city you go to, we’ve got somebody there you can connect with on the other team because there’s so many of us in the League. Like in New York, I got Ray (Felton). The other night when we played Cleveland, they had Antawn (Jamison). You holler at each other before the game, check on each other and see how we’re doing. You can hit them up like, “Yo, what’s going on tonight? You trying to go eat?” or ask where’s the good spots in their city. And it goes from me, all the way up to guys like Vince (Carter) and Antawn. It’s pretty cool.
Dime: I’ve heard about the pickup games over the summer at Chapel Hill.
WE: They get pretty competitive because you’ve got a lot of guys that come back. Then the guys who are there now, they’re always talking trash, trying to compete and get the alumni into it. It’s fun, man. You get a lot of talent in the gym.
Dime: Which alumni were coming through last summer?
WE: Last summer it was a lot of guys from the ’05 team. Ray Felton, Rashad McCants, Jawad Williams. Antawn came back, too. The summer before last, we had the Alumni Game and everybody was back. Like, literally everybody. It’s a tight-knit family.
Dime: What did you do with the Final Four M.O.P. hardware and the national championship ring?
WE: Oh man, that’s something I keep with me. I put it up. It means so much to me, and there’s no price on that. It’s something you can’t really put into words. Everybody knows how hard we worked, but nobody knows everything that went into it behind the scenes except us, the guys on the team and the coaching staff. It’s something that’s real special to me.