Gophers' Wally Ellenson not regretting decision to forgo redshirt year
Get the 1500 ESPN SportsWire delivered to your inbox daily, and keep up with all the news in Twin Cities Sports
MINNEAPOLIS -- There was no changing Wally Ellenson's mind.
The Gophers' true freshman guard didn't care that he had already more than a month of the season with a broken hand. He had no intentions of idly watching his eighth-ranked team march through a bruising Big Ten schedule. If he had a chance to play now, he was going to seize it.
And that was his message to coach Tubby Smith. Smith had been blunt and upfront with him when giving Ellenson the choice between salvaging a full year of eligibility by taking a redshirt or playing where he could this year.
There was no hiding that getting playing time over nearly halfway through the season on a team with an established rotation would be exceedingly difficult task. But that was a non-issue for the 18-year-old freshman
"It wasn't a hard decision for me," Ellenson said. "I wanted to play this year. If I could help one second of a game I was going to play this year. I don't want to be in college for five years. I have more goals and dreams in the game of basketball, so I just wanted to get playing right away."
He got his wish. After meeting with his parents and Smith on the eve of the Gophers' Dec. 11 match-up with North Dakota State, the decision was made final.
Twelve games into the season, Ellenson, with his hand finally healed, surprisingly made his belated collegiate debut. In a short four minute, one-point stint in the twilight of a 70-57 thrashing of NDSU, the Rice Lake, Wisc. native snuffed out a widely held assumption that he would sit out the year.
Ellenson hasn't been put off by the fact he enters the fray as the low card on a team with a deck loaded with experienced talent. He understood that when he made his appeal for any way to avoid spending the year on the bench clad in his Maroon and Gold warm-ups.
However, where Ellenson fits into the current Gophers' lineup and Smith's plans this season still has yet to be seen.
As expected, he has played sparingly in the four games since shedding his redshirt status. Kept on the bench in the Gophers' victory against then-No. 18 Michigan State, Ellenson has seen all 25 of his minutes in three games come in the second half with his team comfortably up by 16 points or more.
The 6-foot-4, 200-pound combo-guard has the athleticism and explosiveness to integrate smoothly with Smith desire to play up-tempo and create in transition. But as a freshman still trying to learn the system and find his role after an injury forced hiatus, the process has been gradual.
"He was way behind. It's as simple as that ... He's done remarkably well having not played in 12 games," Smith said.
"He's just got to get playing time and right now it's tough to get playing time. That's what he was told from the beginning. Hopefully he will stay focused and we can find opportunities for him to contribute, because he can help us.
Though Ellesnon had the summer to begin his adjustment to his new team, a misstep in a rebounding drill 10 days before the season opener abruptly derailed his progress. His middle finger got ensnared awkwardly in a teammate' jersey, resulting in a fracture that left him to spend four weeks with his left hand bound in a cast.
The month-long lull was miserable for the anxious and ever-confident guard. His urge to play continued to rapidly swell, making it hard for him to relax. He knew he couldn't spend the rest of the season like this, even if his hand was fully healed.
"With that broken hand, I was just stressing out. I couldn't dribble. I couldn't shoot," Ellenson said. "I was working with my right hand a little bit, which kept me sane. But not playing the game how I usually do, it just drove me crazy. Thinking about redshirting and taking off a year, I could barely take a year. I just wanted to play so bad."
Able to practice and play at full speed for the last four weeks, Ellenson has returned to his comfort zone, his range of motion, as well as his confidence, back to its pre-injury status.
On first glance, Ellenson's considerable belief in his own talent and future prospects can come off as overconfidence bordering on ungrounded cockiness. But his teammates don't see it that way.
"He's a great player," senior forward Rodney Williams said. "He's a great shooter and really athletic. He's obviously really confident, for a freshman to make a big decision like that and to know that there might be games you don't play and there might be game you're playing the whole time. I think that's a plus for us, just to have a guy with that much confidence in himself and in us."
Though he hasn't seen much game action, he has made himself noticeable when given him the nod to check in. Just take a look at his short, but impressive three-game highlight reel, starting with a reserve dunk on a soft underhand feed from Oto Osenieks against Lafayette and bookended by a pass turn one-handed alley-oop courtesy of forward Mo Walker.
Ellenson is undoubtedly exciting to watch, but he still plays with the overexcitement and desire to do too much - a freshman trademark. He isn't short on ambition to shoot, but his results have been sporadic, regardless of the limited sample size. Of his 10 total points, six have come off dunks. He has taken 10 other shots from the floor, converting on just one -- a 3-pointer vs. Lafayette -- to put him at 30 % overall (4-of-13).
Given Ellenson's debut in the heart of the season, Smith reiterates the need for patience.
"Wally is a very gifted athlete," Smith said. "He'll continue to get his stroke and get his wind, and that just takes getting on the court and getting those minutes in. He really does have a bounce in his step. You can tell his legs are alive. He's playing extremely well in practice.
Barring a major injury or notable shuffle of a currently thriving Gophers lineup, Ellenson will likely remain a role player and relief option this season. And for now, that's OK by him.
After all, this was what he wanted.
"I know I can play out there," Ellenson said. "I just have to be proving it every day in practice and just showing that I can hit my shots. I want to play. I want to play, but it's up to Coach really."