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WSU Men's Basketball

‘Fearless’ quality should help CJ Elleby succeed in early jump to NBA, Washington State coach Kyle Smith says

Washington State forward Elleby drives in the second half of a college basketball game against Washington Feb. 9, 2020.  (Associated Press)
By Percy Allen Seattle Times

A few thoughts went racing through Kyle Smith’s head as No. 11-seed Washington State upset No. 6 Colorado in the first round of the Pac-12 men’s basketball tournament in March.

The then first-year Cougars coach was overjoyed for his players and the team’s long-suffering fan base following WSU’s first conference tournament victory since 2009.

Smith noted the eeriness of the game, which was limited to just 7,452 spectators inside the 18,000-seat T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas due to last-minute safety protocols at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

And after CJ Elleby finished with 30 points – four shy of his career high – along with 10 rebounds and five assists to carry the Cougars to the 82-68 victory, Smith quietly said to himself: “He’s gone.”

At the time, Smith had no idea WSU had played the final college basketball game of the season, which ended abruptly the next day when conferences around the country suspended their tournaments. Soon after, the NCAA canceled the men’s tournament.

Four months later, Washington State lost its star when Elleby announced he was forgoing his final two years of eligibility and entering the NBA draft, which will be held Wednesday.

In retrospect, the former Cleveland High standout capped a relatively brief and productive WSU career with a fabulous finish that left Cougar fans wanting more and pondering what-if scenarios.

“It’s a good ending,” Smith said laughing. “To win your final Division I game and score 30. I thought about that. I thought, ‘He’s going to go (to the NBA).’

“We beat a good Colorado team, and we were going to play (No. 3 Arizona State), and we were going to play in some postseason (tournament). I wish we could have had a few more games, but everything is altered for everyone these days.”

There’s a feeling in Pullman that Elleby, who also considered turning pro after his freshman season, was going to return to school if not for the uncertainties and the delay to the upcoming season.

“I thought one more year with CJ, then he’s really going to make a big jump,” Smith said. “But he will anyway. It’s just going to be in a different uniform.”

Last season, Elleby ranked fourth in the conference in scoring (18.4 points a game), seventh in rebounding (7.8 a game) and first in steals (1.8 a game) to garner first-team all-Pac-12 honors.

Out of necessity, Smith used the 6-foot-6, 200-pound shooting guard at power forward at times rather than on the wing.

Despite playing out of position at times, Elleby became the first player to lead WSU in scoring, rebounding, steals and blocks in a season.

“The thing that impressed me the most about CJ last year was using his length in defending – lots of deflections and anticipating passes led to a lot of his steals,” said Craig Ehlo, a WSU great and radio analyst, in draft analysis on “He rebounded well, too, and that had a lot to do with those same attributes. He’s a natural shooter and a creative offensive player.”

Still, it remains to be seen if Elleby will become the first WSU player taken in the draft since Klay Thompson went No. 11 overall in 2011.

Aran Smith at praised Elleby’s 36.7 three-point shooting percentage at WSU, toughness and shot mechanics but expressed concern about his athleticism.

“Lacks speed in the open floor,” Smith wrote in a draft analysis. “Unorthodox athlete, better off 2 feet and seems to explode better when he has time to gather himself. … Likely to struggle to get shots, especially if he’s forced to create for himself.”

Several NBA analysts did not include the 20-year-old Elleby in their mock drafts. However, tabs him as the 19th pick in the second round (No. 49 overall), going to Philadelphia.

“Could find a role with an NBA team or spend time overseas and in G-League improving his skill set before sticking,” Aran Smith noted.

Kyle Smith, who as an assistant at Saint Mary’s coached current San Antonio Spurs veteran Patty Mills, has no doubt Elleby can thrive in the NBA.

The WSU coach questioned if Elleby “might be a bad fit” for his Nerd Ball system after initial practices last season.

However, those concerns disappeared following a preseason scrimmage against Eastern Washington when Smith began to understand what makes Elleby special.

“I didn’t know until we played somebody else, then I was like, ‘OK, I get it,’ ” Smith said. “He gets excited like no one to compete on game night. It’s a joy for him. I don’t know if that’s his process or what, but I told all the NBA guys that’s what makes him special.

“Patty Mills had that same quality, but he’s maybe not as talented as CJ. But Patty has NBA speed and NBA belief. He thought he belonged out there, and CJ is the same way. He is not scared. He’s going to play fearless. That’s an incredible quality that you can’t teach.”