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WSU Men's Basketball

CJ Elleby has been a rare rookie for Washington State, and the Cougars are reaping the full benefits of his skills

PULLMAN – Seven months into his time at Washington State, CJ Elleby has already become something of a trend-setter for the Cougars.

At a school that showed its appreciation for bold facial features this football season, Elleby’s novel hairdo could be the next thing Cougar sports fans latch onto in the wake of the Gardner Minshew mustache craze.

The freshman forward wears it short on the sides, tall and frizzy on top. Anyone familiar with Dragon Ball Z might think coach Ernie Kent recruited Elleby from an episode of the popular Japanese anime television series.

And just like the curly black tufts on top of his head, Elleby’s game has grown at a quick pace this year at Washington State.

Here’s another example of how the 18-year-old Elleby has stood out in a crowd this season.

When Wazzu icon Klay Thompson was a freshman in Pullman, he scored 414 points in 33 games with the Cougars. At 371 points through 24 games, Elleby’s on track to surpass Thompson’s total with four regular-season games remaining. Then he’ll make a run at Steve Puidkoas’ freshman record of 454 points, set in 1974, more than a decade before the advent of the college 3-point line.

At Elleby’s current pace, Puidokas’ mark should fall before the Cougars host Oregon and Oregon State the final weekend of the regular season.

But part of the freshman’s excellence has been ignoring the history he’s bound to break and rebranding his game for a WSU team that believes it’s on the verge of a breakthrough.

The Cougars are coming off two banner road wins, at Arizona State and Arizona, and next to Robert Franks’ scoring surge, Elleby’s balanced play may be the biggest reason why.

“It’s very abnormal for a freshman to play that well and in his case when he’s not scoring, there’s still so many more things he can do to impact a game,” Kent said. “His defense, his shot-blocking ability, his toughness, his rebounding, his ability to push the pace with the ball, his ability to find people in transition, find them in the half-court. He has a high basketball IQ and probably the biggest thing is his competitiveness is contagious.”

Elleby is the second-leading freshman scorer in the Pac-12 Conference, at 15.5 ppg. But you might find the true freshman more elated to hear about how he was one assist shy of registering the second triple-double in school history – and the second in the Pac-12 since 1985 – when he finished with 10 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists in the upset win at Arizona.

“I think that’s one thing I’m proud of … is kind of not worrying about how many points I’m going to get, because I think that started to be, ‘Well, OK, we’re not winning games. OK, let me get it where I can,’ ” Elleby said. “But I think these last few games I kind of focused on, ‘How can I make my teammates better? How can I put them in positions to where it’s a bucket for them or it’s a layup for them?’ So I think just doing that this weekend, it helped all my teammates kind of. It opened up the floor.”

Sage words from a player who learned early how effective he can be as a scorer at the college level, but who hasn’t always resorted to it.

Something clicked in the fifth game of the season, when Elleby followed a four-point effort against Delaware State with 23 points against CSU Northridge. He followed with 18 against New Mexico State, 20 against both Idaho and Montana State, and 18 against both Rider and SIU-Edwardsville.

“Once we all got here on campus and we all started hooping, just like open gyms, you could tell that he was going to be special,” Franks said. “Just the way that he defends, shoots it, passes it and kind of rebounds out of his area is unique and special. So ever since I first saw him play live, firsthand, I thought he was going to be a great player.”

Elleby, a willowy 6-foot-6, 200 pounds, is also the second-leading freshman rebounder in the Pac-12, at 6.8 boards per game.

Before it became an asset on the basketball court, the length was a huge help in the swimming pool. Elleby raced competitively throughout his childhood, but pushed swimming aside when the magnetic draw to his father’s sport became larger than the one to his mother’s.

“If I wasn’t playing basketball,” Elleby said, “I’d probably want to go back and doing that swimming.

“I was actually really good at it.”

Bill Elleby was a career 8-ppg scorer for California in the late 1980s/early 1990s and stuffed a basketball into his son’s hands at 2 years old. Bill worked in professional basketball when CJ was born and has spent more than 40 years around the game in various roles, including scouting, coaching, recruiting and player representation.

Elleby, one of five siblings, developed a second-hand appreciation for the game as an infant.

“I think there’s pictures of us in strollers at the basketball games,” CJ said.

While Elleby said his father didn’t force-feed basketball, “he instilled the passion I think – the passion I have for the game.”

Bill runs a scouting-based website called “Seattle Basketball Services” with Fred Brown Jr. – the son of former Seattle Sonics great Freddie Brown – and ranks the top players in the state. CJ appeared at No. 3 on dad’s list last year.

Even without Bill’s influence, CJ may have still discovered his thirst for sport by virtue of growing up in one of the country’s most underappreciated hoops hotbeds.

“They have good people in place to help develop those kids at an early age,” Kent said, “and it’s such a competitive environment playing in that (Metro) league over there … that by the time they get to college they’re already groomed to know how hard you have to play, how to compete and how to play tough, and that’s a tribute to those coaches and the environment they grow up in, in terms of basketball.”

The Metro League is home to Seattle’s top flight of prep players. Two years ago, Kent hired longtime Metro League coaching legend Ed Haskins in part to revamp the Cougars’ recruiting efforts there.

In his four years at the WSU helm, Kent had browsed the Seattle/Tacoma area and landed signatures from a few of the west side’s top players, including Franks (Vancouver), Daniels (Federal Way) and Malachi Flynn (Tacoma). But he hadn’t signed a Metro League prospect until Elleby submitted his letter of intent in November 2017.

The Cougars hope their point-scoring, rebound-snatching rookie can set a trend in that regard.

And also in another one: Elleby is the rare example – and the only one since Kent’s been in Pullman – of a WSU player who chose the Cougars despite also holding an offer from Pac-12 rival Washington.

That adds another layer to Saturday’s 5 p.m. (ESPNU) rivalry game between the Cougars (10-14, 3-8) and Huskies (19-5, 10-1) at Beasley Coliseum.

Both rosters usually consist of players born and bred in the greater Puget Sound area. Typically, a few of the Huskies had interest from WSU, but never considered playing in a more remote part of the state, for a program with less prestige/history. Vice versa, there are generally a few Cougars who grew up with aspirations of playing for UW, but never got the time of the day from the school in their backyard.

Elleby’s the exception. The Huskies used a full-court press on the Cleveland High star, offering him after his junior season. They urged him to commit, but Elleby didn’t budge because he wanted to see what other offers he’d receive and let the rest of his recruitment play out.

Rather than leap at an offer from his “dream school,” Elleby began to value other things – the relationships with the coaches recruiting him, the offensive system he’d be playing in.

“As time went on and I didn’t commit right away, I didn’t feel the love and I don’t feel like I was reached out to enough,” he said. “Then once coach Haskins reached out to me and WSU started recruiting me, it was kind of like a no-brainer. It was kind of like, ‘OK, this is a better option for me.’ ”

Elleby was sensational in the first meeting between the Huskies and Cougars, but his 26-point, 10-rebound double-double wasn’t enough in an 18-point loss at Alaska Airlines Arena in Seattle.

Since then, Elleby’s learned plenty about the college game – and more important, his own game. That’s partly why the once-defunct Cougars enter Saturday night’s contest in top form, riding a two-game win streak.

“Now he’s starting to figure out the game where he doesn’t need to take 16, 17, 18 shots,” Daniels said. “He can take 10 or 11, but instead of getting 18 points, four rebounds, five assists, he’s getting 10, nine and nine. The game is starting to slow down for him and you can tell it slowed down for him in these last two Arizona games.”

Washington State forward CJ Elleby shields Arizona guard Dylan Smith (3) from the ball during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 9, 2019, in Tucson, Ariz. (Rick Scuteri / Associated Press)
Washington State forward CJ Elleby shields Arizona guard Dylan Smith (3) from the ball during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 9, 2019, in Tucson, Ariz. (Rick Scuteri / Associated Press)