When Keon Ellis signed with the Sacramento Kings as an undrafted rookie free agent in the offseason, he joined a team that was mired in mediocrity. The Kings had not posted a winning record in 16 years. They had failed to make the postseason during that stretch giving them the longest playoff drought in NBA history. But as the season began, it didn’t take Ellis long to realize there was something unique about this team. With players like De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis leading the way and a new head coach in Mike Brown, this team set out to accomplish something special.
With the final stretch of the regular season coming up and De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis leading the Kings to snapping their playoff drought, Keon Ellis reflected back on the vibe he’s witnessed as a rookie.
“It’s been good, everybody is enjoying it, everybody gets long well,” Ellis told ClutchPoints. “Everybody knows about the whole playoffs thing. But we’re doing real good this year. The vibe around this team is just great, everybody is having fun, and we’re locked in we we need to. It’s just good for the team and the city.”
This is why we play 👑
Kings embrace @Tyrese_Ellis00 in the locker room with the game ball after scoring his first NBA bucket pic.twitter.com/vOATeTh7vq
— Stockton Kings (@StocktonKings) January 12, 2023
It wasn’t always the easiest road to the NBA for Keon Ellis. He was a standout high school player in Florida where he led Leesburg High School to back-t0-back state championships. As as a high school senior he averaged 12.7 points per game, 11 rebounds and two assists. He had initially agreed to play college basketball at Division 1 Gardner-Webb University but instead opted to play at Florida SouthWestern in the junior college ranks.
Junior college basketball has grown in popularity largely due to recent seasons of the highly successful Netflix documentary Last Chance U which centered around the East Los Angeles College men’s basketball team. But it wasn’t always that way. While there have been players who have made it to the NBA out of the junior college ranks, the path ahead can be tough. While Ellis eventually transferred to SEC powerhouse Alabama and Nate Oats, he looks back fondly on his junior college days.
“It was good, you just can’t look at it as a setback. I went into JuCo with an open mind knowing that if I do my two years that I’d get an offer somewhere. I wasn’t really thinking like I need offers as soon as I get to campus,” Ellis said. “But the years went by and I was able to pick up a couple of offers. I just was never really worried and always just day in and day out I played hard. The team was winning and I think the team success brought everything else that came with it.”
When Keon Ellis arrived at Alabama, he walked into a crowded wing rotation that included future NBA players Herb Jones and Joshua Primo. He managed to make an impact though. As a junior he finished second on the team in three-point percentage at 38.9 percent and he showed the ability to be a tough defensive-minded guard. In the 2021 SEC championship game against LSU, he dropped 14 points and hit a few clutch shots to help seal the win.
As a senior, Ellis started all 33 games and upped his production to 12.1 points and 6.1 rebounds while shooting 43.9 percent from the field and 36.6 percent from the three-point line. He was also named to the SEC All-Defensive Team. He declared for the NBA draft after that season but did not hear his name called on draft night. He had to earn his way onto the Kings roster with a strong summer league showing. He was rewarded with a two-way contract meaning he’d split his rookie season between the Kings and their G League affiliate the Stockton Kings.
While Keon Ellis has spent most of his rookie year in the G League, he’s played in 13 games for the Kings. He’s received a lot of behind the scenes mentorship from the Kings stars such as De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis. One the main things that’s stood out to Ellis about Fox, a fellow SEC guard, is his ability to remain calm no matter what happens on the court.
“Just his poise throughout the game, like when things happen and whatnot he doesn’t get too up or too down. He’s always there at every practice showing up and working hard,” Ellis said. “Every guy on the team is, Domas and all the stars we have, all the way from the top to the bottom of the roster, everybody is locked in. Just seeing that as a young guy, I think that’s just what I need.”
In the NBA, Ellis’ best projection is probably as a 3&D wing but he has the ability to be a combo guard as well. He’s had the ball in his hands a lot, being trusted to make plays while in the G League. In 23 games with the Stockton Kings he has averaged 16.8 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.3 assists with shooting splits of 51.7 percent from the field, 43.6 percent from three-point range and 78.4 percent from the free-throw line.
Over the past few years, the G League has grown in terms of NBA teams using it as a true development system. What used to be seen as a type of punishment is now welcomed by players, especially young players as a means to get live reps when minutes aren’t readily available with their NBA team.
Behind Ellis, the Stockton Kings have risen to the top of the G League Western Conference standings and earned a bye in the first round of the playoffs. According to Ellis, it’s been a solid situation for him to learn and grow.
“It’s been good, the things that you learn up top you can bring it to the G League,” Ellis said. “You’re getting reps so you can keep your game sharp. It’s definitely been good and we’re winning so that’s always a plus.”
At the end of the day though, there’s no real substitute from learning on the fly from stars like De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis. The G League Finals are set to wrap up no later than Apr. 16. The first round of the NBA playoffs are scheduled to begin Apr. 15. Even if the Stockton Kings make it as far as the Finals, Ellis should be back in time to rejoin the Kings for a postseason run.
With De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis leading the way, the Kings have their sights set on more than just simply making the playoffs. Ellis probably won’t see much playing time during the postseason but simply being there and soaking it all up is an experience in itself.
“It’s been good, just learning on both stages whether I’m in the G or with my NBA team,” Ellis said. “Just taking it in and learning regardless of where I’m at. I’m just enjoying the experience.”