Wayne Ellington has one primary skill as an NBA player, and the Lakers need him to be as good at it as he has been at any point in his career.
Welcome to our Lakers Season Preview Series! For the next several weeks, we’ll be writing columns every week day, breaking down the biggest questions we have about every player the Lakers added this offseason. Today, we take a look at Wayne Ellington.
Unlike Magic Johnson three years before, Rob Pelinka and the Lakers’ current front office understood that a team with LeBron James and a shooting-deficient point guard desperately needs role players around them who can space the floor and knock down shots. Enter a parade of mostly 30-somethings who, with a couple of exceptions, are various levels of good at that exact skill. Wayne Ellington may be the best of that group.
Ellington’s reputation in and around the NBA was summed up by new teammate Dwight Howard when the two ran into each other between their formal introductions in the Lakers’ practice facility. The moment was captured on Howard’s Instagram Live.
“One of the greatest shooters, the greatest shooter, one of them,” Howard said.
The moment Dwight Howard and Wayne Ellington met: “One of the greatest shooters, the greatest shooter, one of them.” pic.twitter.com/gT7ntHJqOj
— SFG (@_xLakers) August 6, 2021
For the most part, Dwight is right. Ellington is coming off a fantastic shooting performance last season, a year in which he converted 42.2% of his looks from deep, a number made even more impressive considering that he was on a Detroit Pistons team bad enough to end up with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NBA draft.
But there is actually already some history of Ellington signing with the Lakers after a superb shooting performance from behind the arc. He also did so in 2014 after shooting a career-high 42.4% from 3-point range with the Dallas Mavericks the season prior.
The issue with Ellington is what happened in his first stint with the purple and gold, and the several years after that. The guy who Howard labeled the “greatest shooter” shot just 37% from deep in 2014-15 and 37.6% over the next five seasons as he bounced from Brooklyn to Miami to Detroit to the Knicks before returning to the Pistons for his (second?) breakout season in 2020-21.
Ellington’s career 3-point percentage in the NBA is 38.2% — solid, but certainly not at the elite level his reputation seems to indicate. Add in the fact that he is not exactly a plus defender — as our Jacob Rude pointed out, he had the third-worst defensive rating on the Pistons last year — and it becomes clear why Ellington, despite his reputation, was available for the veteran’s minimum this offseason.
The good news is that as inevitable as a regression to his career shooting norms may seem on paper, there are a lot of factors working against that on the court. The first is that in terms of raw (if aging) talent, the 2021-22 Lakers are the opposite of the 2014-15 squad that was plunging headfirst into a rebuild as Kobe Bryant’s body continued wearing down during Ellington’s first stint in purple and gold. These Lakers, on the other hand, will likely be the best team Ellington has played for in the NBA. The last time Ellington played with a consistently healthy superstar was also his best shooting year yet, when he hit 42.4% of his threes and helped Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks take the eventual NBA champion Spurs to seven games in the first round of the playoffs.
Ellington figures to get even more wide-open looks this season playing alongside three superstars in James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook. In fact, he is counting on it.
“With the type of attacking and the type of ability… and attention that those guys command, the way they get into that paint, the way teams have to guard those guys, my 3-point shooting is going to be at a premium,” Ellington said at his introductory press conference in August. “So I look forward to being able to complement those guys, and I feel like I’m going to get some of the best looks I’ve gotten. Not only in my NBA career, but in my life, this coming season.”
Not only will Ellington likely get some incredibly open shots, but he won’t be the only one needed to knock them down. Though he did make 3-pointers last season at the highest clip of any of the Lakers’ new additions, he is one of four — along with Kent Bazemore, Malik Monk and Carmelo Anthony — to shoot over 40% from deep. Additionally, Ellington has zeroed in on improving his biggest strength, watching footage of past NBA shooting legends like Reggie Miller and Ray Allen to improve his off-ball movement.
It is possible, though perhaps unlikely, that Ellington may see a prominent rotation role to start the season. Depending on whether you believe secondhand information about what Rich Paul has been telling others, the Lakers are looking for one or possibly two wings to fill out their starting lineup. If it’s the latter scenario, Ellington could have an outside shot (no pun intended I swear) at becoming the Lakers’ starting two-guard with Bazemore at small forward and James and Davis in the frontcourt, though the younger and more athletic Malik Monk is likely the favorite if that competition does happen.
Of course, there is just as likely a future where Ellington’s defensive woes ultimately land him on Frank Vogel’s DNP-CD list and perhaps off the roster entirely at some point this season. As covered above, he has never necessarily been known for his performance on that side of the ball, and the Lakers are coached by a bona fide defensive wizard who once exiled Troy Daniels — a pure shooter like Ellington — for not performing well enough to compensate for his lack of defense. If he shoots like he did in his first stint with the Lakers, his second one may be even shorter.
But all in all, while Ellington’s 3-point shot may not have always been as automatic as his reputation would indicate, there are still plenty of reasons to think that he could become a valuable contributor on the 2021-22 Lakers. Especially if he hits those open shots he’s counting on.