One on One with Chris Dortch: Bruce Ellington
As a freshman point guard, South Carolina’s Bruce Ellington has taken the Southeastern Conference by storm, drawn favorable comparisons to great players that came before him and become the primary focus of opposing teams’ defensive game plans. Yet still the question persists:
When are you going to play football?
If he’s heard it once, he’s heard it 200 times from well-intentioned students on campus. Message boards are filled with “Will Bruce play football?” posts. A recent article in a South Carolina newspaper cited unnamed sources that suggested Ellington is considering joining the football team in the spring.
Why all the speculation?
That’s an easy one. Ellington was a South Carolina Lowcountry legend in football, leading Berkeley High School to a 14-1 record and the Division II-AAAA state championship in 2009 while racking up 2,878 yards and accounting for 40 touchdowns. He played quarterback that season, but the year before he accounted for 1,711 all-purpose yards as a running back.
Ellington, a quick and elusive runner, had his pick of ACC or SEC schools and could have played any position he wanted.
“Running back, slot receiver, kick returner, punt returner,” Ellington said. “Georgia Tech recruited me as a quarterback. A couple of schools wanted me to run the Wildcat package for them.”
At 5-foot-10 and 195 pounds, Ellington could have been a killer as a slot receiver, an option quarterback, whatever. But as much as Ellington enjoyed played football, the lure of basketball was too strong.
“Bruce loves football more than any other kid I’ve coached,” Berkeley coach Jerry Brown told The State newspaper. “He must really, really love basketball.”
“I do love football,” Ellington said. “But I just had a passion for basketball.”
Basketball sunk its teeth into Ellington at an early age. His mother signed him up for a youth league when he was in the fourth grade. As luck would have it, Ellington was paired with an oversized teammate who knew how to throw outlet passes like Kevin Love.
“He was huge,” Ellington said, laughing at the recollection. “He’d get every rebound and just throw the ball down court. He knew I’d go get it.”
Growing up in football mad South Carolina, Ellington didn’t have a choice but to play that sport, too. He also ran track, and, as a senior at Berkeley, played baseball. His claim to fame in that sport was a game in which he stole home (why isn’t that surprising?)
Ellington’s participation in other sports took him away from basketball for months at a time, which meant he didn’t play the summer AAU circuit until just before his senior year. Fortunately for South Carolina, before Ellington’s debut on the AAU scene, assistant coach Neill Barry had been tipped off to Ellington by a high school coach he knew in the Charleston area. Barry quickly arranged for Gamecock coach Darrin Horn to go see Ellington play.
“The first time was an open gym in the spring [of 2009],” Horn said. “I knew right away he was an elite level athlete and talent.”
“We jumped on him after coach went to see him,” Berry said. “We got him up to our team camp and just fell in love with him. You could tell the talent was there, but he was also a competitor. To play that way in a summer game with your high school team, with such fire and passion, you could tell he was something special.”
“That’s what we told him, that he was special,” Horn said. “You could be as good as there is in the sport of basketball. He just needed to hear one person tell him. You got the feeling nobody had told him he could be special in basketball.”
That little bit of head start in recruiting was all South Carolina needed. Without it, Ellington probably would have gone elsewhere, because AAU competition helped him showcase his skills to a much wider audience of power conference schools.
“After he hit the scene that summer, he just blew up,” Berry said.
South Carolina had another advantage, too—playing time. All-SEC point guard Devan Downey was heading into his senior season and would have to be replaced. If Horn and his staff were right about Ellington, he would be able to step right into Downey’s spot in the starting lineup.
Ellington quickly demonstrated he was up to that task. In just his second game, he scored 22 points and handed out five assists against Michigan State. Three games later he came up with a 20-point, eight-assist effort in a double-overtime win at Western Kentucky, a game where the legend of Bruce Almighty was born.
“He flat out won the game at Western Kentucky by making three huge threes,” Horn said. “Against Clemson he rose up and hit two big ones that ended it. He’s made a bunch of shots that sealed the game or stretched leads at the right time. As a freshman he’s hit more big shots than some guys will even attempt [in their career].”
It was more of the same once SEC play began. Against Vanderbilt, Ellington tossed in six three-pointers and scored 22 points in a Gamecock win. At Florida, Ellington scored 23, including eight in the final 2:55 in a 72-69 victory.
A few days later, Florida coach Billy Donovan didn’t hesitate to compare Ellington and Downey.
“Devan Downey was one of those really unique players that’s come into this league,” Donovan said. “But I think Ellington will end up being a better player.
“Downey had to score so much last year, but I always felt like he was a guy that rested on defense; he was always conserving energy to play on the offensive end of the floor. Ellington to me is a much, much more complete player, offensively and defensively. He’s got a great command of his game and great presence for a young kid.”
Already, Ellington has had to overcome being the center of defensive attention as teams try unique ways to slow him down. In the rematch against Vanderbilt, Commodore coach Kevin Stallings told his best defensive player, 6-7 Jeffrey Taylor, that his most important assignment of the season to that point was checking Ellington. Not wanting a repeat of the game at Columbia, Taylor dug in and limited Ellington to 13 points in a 78-60 Commodore win.
“The key to the game was Jeffery Taylor’s defense on Ellington,” Stallings said.
Despite having to square off against every opponent’s best perimeter defender, Ellington shows up all over SEC statistics. He’s 12th in scoring (14.4 ppg), 10th in assists (3.4 apg), and 15th in three-point percentage (.370). The Gamecocks haven’t had a chance to miss Downey, but nothing Ellington’s done has surprised Horn. He expected such immediate contributions since the first day he laid eyes on Ellington nearly two years ago.
“Yeah, we kinda did, to be honest with you,” Horn said. “We were convinced Bruce was the ultimate competitor and winner. Whatever that ‘it’ quality is, he’s got it, big time. With that, plus his talent level, we thought he could come in and do what he’s been doing.”
Berry has a more tangible explanation for the damage Ellington has unleashed so far.
“There aren’t that many people in the country that are that fast and that strong,” Berry said. “There are a lot of quick guards, but Bruce is quick, and he’s 195 pounds. You don’t find that combination that much.”
Ellington has cultivated his strength. In the fall, he maxed out in the weight room with a 515-pound squat and a 315-pound bench press. He’s also been a tireless worker in the gym, often spending his own time refining every aspect of his game. “Now that I’ve learned what to focus on to become a better basketball player,” Ellington said.
There’s one more thing about Ellington that makes him special.
“The thing about Bruce that’s amazing is that, for as good an athlete as he is, as good a basketball player, he’s that much better a person,” Berry said. “He’s a great kid to coach. His teammates love him. Anyone who comes into contact with him comes away with a smile on their face.”
Well, maybe not everyone. Ellington gets asked all the time whether he’ll turn out to give USC football coach Steve Spurrier’s team a hand this spring (what, like Marcus Lattimore isn’t good enough?). Regardless of how many times he hears the question, Ellington is polite, but insistent. He found his calling many years ago—in the fourth grade, to be exact. It’s just taken him this long to be able to give basketball the time it deserves.
“It doesn’t bother me that people come up and ask me about football,” Ellington said. “But I just want them to realize that I’m playing basketball now, and that’s my focus.”