No one has coached Monta Ellis in the NBA longer than Don Nelson.
And no coach — perhaps outside of the Dallas Mavericks’ Rick Carlisle — has grown a greater appreciation for Ellis’ game than Nelson, who coached Ellis with the Golden State Warriors from 2006-10.
In Nelson’s eyes, Ellis is playing his most prolific basketball since leaping from high school in Jackson, Miss., to the second round of the 2005 NBA Draft. In his senior year at Lanier High, Ellis and Greg Oden shared Parade Magazine’s national prep Player of the Year honor.
“This is the best Monta Ellis I’ve ever seen,” Nelson said. “I’ve enjoyed watching him more this year than any other year whether I coached him or watched him play.
“He gets other people involved, he works hard, he’s got a great attitude, he’s just got the whole package going for him, and he’s still young. Dallas is going to have a really great player for a long, long time.”
Ellis, 28, signed a three-year, $25 million free-agent contract with the Mavericks last summer hoping to jump-start a career that revealed very respectable statistics that seemed to have gone unappreciated.
Nelson thought Ellis was a selfish, immature player when he coached him with the Warriors.
“When I had him, he was young — [in his second year] out of high school — he played single-minded and he was a pain to coach,” Nelson said. “He was a great scorer. All he wanted to do was score, and shoot.
“Now, finally he’s making plays — he’s a helluva player right now — and I always thought he could make plays. I thought he had the ability, if he wanted to. He could have been a helluva point guard.”
Interestingly, the playmaking part of Ellis’ game, which Nelson says he so resisted before, is where Ellis is flourishing with the Mavericks.
On top of his 20.7 scoring average, which includes three games of 30 or more, Ellis leads the Mavericks with 5.9 assists a game, and has had at least eight handouts nine times.
Early-season turnover troubles have started to subside. Ellis’ string of nine consecutive games with three or fewer turnovers hit a bump in recent road games at Phoenix and Houston, when he totaled nine.
Ellis now seems on a path to accomplishing what Nelson was looking for seven years ago. But there are miles to go.
“I’m still tying to find where guys like the ball,” Ellis said. “It’s just me being aggressive and making the right plays.
“With my ability to attack the basket and create for myself and create for others, I think that’s going to be great for us. We’ve still got a lot to work on because teams are going to try to defend us differently.”
Dirk Nowitzki has enjoyed sharing the scoring spotlight with his creative partner.
“He’s been fantastic,” Nowitzki said. “We knew before he got here he could score and get to the basket. But his all-around game has been really impressive.
“His passing, he gets to the basket, those [drop-off] passes to the bigs or out to the shooters, and he’s defending well. ... He’s playing hard, he’s fighting over picks and he’s been impressive.”
For his part, Carlisle has marveled as Ellis has adjusted to a new style.
“He’s just been very consistent really at both ends of the floor,” Carlisle said. “He’s got a good feel for scoring and playmaking, and which one is needed at which time.”
If there were ever questions of Ellis being selfish offensively or treating defense as an afterthought, they’ve been quieted. He’s been the opposite with the Mavericks, a willing passer, versatile scorer and good for better than two steals a game this month.
“He’s done a solid job on defense,” Carlisle said. “When a guy comes to us you try to clean the slate and say, ‘Hey, we’re starting from here.’ Not too much into what’s happened in the past because you never know what the major emphasis has been at other places.”
At age 21, he was voted the league’s most improved player. That was in 2007, Nelson’s first season with the Warriors. Ellis shot 48 percent from the floor and averaged 16.5 points. In the nine seasons since, he has averaged 21.4 points.
While the jury is out on Ellis developing into the type of A-list free agent that the Mavs have been openly courting, early returns are encouraging.
And, says Nelson, giving Nowitzki an explosive sidekick like Ellis could help turn Dallas into more than just a Who’s Who interview destination.
“I know they’ve tried and missed out on a few [free agents], but that’s always surprised me,” Nelson said. “I thought they would get a big-time star player who would want to come there. But, hey, now Monta’s there.
“He signed there for a reason, so maybe that’s a trend now that they can pick up another one or two. He’s just a perfect pickup for Dallas.”