NBA scouts like to say you can’t teach height. Of course, the same is true about instincts. Consider the case of Monta Ellis. A two-guard in a point guard’s body (some claim it’s the other way around), Monta stands 6–3, no better than average by NBA standards. But it’s his feel for the game that sets him apart. Few players move with the same swiftness and confidence or can attack the rim in more ways. Monta never had the chance to develop in college—he jumped directly from high school to the Golden State Warriors. By his second season, however, he ranked among the league’s most dynamic transition scorers. At an age when many young stars are just finding their games, Monta has little left to prove at the pro level—except that he can lead a winning team. This is his story…

GROWING UP

Monta Ellis was born on October 26, 1985 in Jackson, Mississippi. (Click here for a complete listing of today's sports birthdays.) His name (pronounced “Mon-Tay”) was short for Montana, his grandfather‘s name.

Monta was one of three brothers raised by his mom, Rosa. A single parent, she relied on her parents to help with the boys. The entire family lived in a house in the Georgetown section of Jackson, a poor neighborhood made up of tiny, one-story homes.  

Monta’s brother Antwain was the best basketball player in the neighborhood. He stood 6–8 and had a great all-around game. As a player, he compared favorably to Tracy McGrady.Monta learned from Antwain and idolized him.

In grade school, Monta watched his brother become the leader of the Lanier High School Bulldogs, ultimately leading them to a state championship in 1999. Monta served as the ball boy on that title-winning team, which was coached by Thomas Billups, the uncle of NBA star Chauncey Billups.

A year later, the Bulldogs were closing in on a second state championship when one of Antwain’s close friends and teammates was killed in a drug deal gone bad. He never recovered from this loss, and his passion for basketball seemed to die after that.

Monta, meanwhile, became more focused than ever on making it to the NBA. He watched Michael Jordan lead the Chicago Bulls to glory, and then marveled at the emergence of Kobe Bryant. He mimicked the moves of both players on the court.

Though not as tall as Antwain, Monta had unstoppable speed and a good shot. Just as important, he was making good choices. The Ellises lived in a dangerous neighborhood, and no place held more menace than the local playground. There was suually a good pick-up game going on, but there gangs and guns were often present as well. Monta steered clear. Instead, he practiced endless hours on his own, shooting at a makeshift rim his grandfather had nailed to a telephone pole.

When Monta enrolled at Lanier in 2001, he was the definition of a raw talent. Having played a minimal amount of organized ball—and having eschewed pick-up games most of his adolescent life—he did not have any concept of the team concept. Coach Billups, a legend after two-plus decades with the Bulldogs, knew he had a special player, and project, in the skinny freshman. He had watched him as an eighth grader totally outclass his competition. 

Billups had a reputation as a combustible coach. Some called him the “black Bobby Knight.” Monta was drawn to him. He sensed that Billups would help him move closer to his dream, and might also serve as a father figure.

Billups filled both roles well. In fact, he took Monta aside as a freshman and told him that he trusted him to run his team over the next four years. All he asked in return was for Monta to listen to him and learn. He said he would take the young star to the top. When upper classmen bristled at the idea of a freshman running a championship-caliber squad, Billups stood firmly behind Monta.

Over the next four years, the Bulldogs would go to the state championship game every spring. Lanier won in 2002, Monta’s freshman year, and again in 2005, when he was a senior. In between, Monta, who was already skilled at attacking the rim, learned how to read the court and play a gambling style of defense. He became adept at stealing passes and refined his mid-range jumper to the point where it was almost automatic. Besides Monta’s obvious speed and skills, what impressed college and pro scouts was his otherworldly composure.

In four seasons at Lanier, Monta averaged 28.7 points per game and was All-State every year, a feat that no one in Mississippi had ever accomplished before. In all, he scored over 4,000 points for the Bulldogs, leading them to 129 victories in 145 games.


 

 

 


Kobe Bryant, 2001 Heritage

     
 

Monta had a 72-point game against Greenwood High School as a senior. As a junior, he dropped 42 on Josh Smith and Oak Hill Academy—still the most points ever scored against the basketball factory by an opponent. One of Monta’s most memorable games came against South Gwinnett. He was guarded all night by Louis Williams, the Naismith Prep Player of the Year and a future draft pick of the Philadelphia 76ers. He burned Williams again and again, finishing with more than 40 points in a much anticipated head-to-head confrontation.

After averaging 38.4 points a game as a senior in 2005, Monta was named to the McDonald’s All-America Team. He was also honored as Co-Player of the Year with Greg Oden by Parade Magazine.

Not that Monta was a complete player. Between his career at Lanier and the summer ball he played for AAU teams, he spent so much time as his team’s number-one option that his point guard skills had barely evolved. That was an issue, as he did not have the body of a classic two-guard. Indeed, Monta weighed no more than 165 pounds and lacked the muscle to take a regular pounding from bigger opponents. Monta’s assists were often of the no-look or behind-the-back variety—more for show than for effect. Most of the time he dribbled until he got the shot he wanted, leaving wide-open teammates wondering why they had even bothered to show up. And when a teammate had the ball, his instinct was to stand and wait for a pass rather than move to an open spot on the floor. More than one scout described his game as “inefficient.”

The cure for these ills, of course, was to mature in a solid college program. Monta verbally committed to Mississippi State, but his academic record suggested he might have a hard time qualifying to play. For Monta, college was always Plan B. Plan A was to go straight to the NBA, and people had been telling him this was a near certainty since his sophomore year.

ON THE RISE 

As draft day approached, scouts agreed that some team would grab Monta as a “project”—a potential point guard if he developed the necessary skills. But no one was really sure how high he would go. He had been very impressive in workouts, and several clubs were intrigued. Some believed he might be selected in the Top 20. This projection proved to be ambitious. Monta stayed on the board until the second round, when the Warriors tabbd him with the 40th overall pick.

Golden State was already stacked with experienced and expensive guards, including Jason Richardson, Baron Davis and Derek Fisher. The plan was for Monta to sit and watch, and—under the wing of assistant coach Mario Elie—hopefully learn enough to force his way into the lineup within a season or two. This process was accelerated somewhat after Richardson and swingman Mike Dunleavey were injured in January. In the second half of the 2005-06 season, Monta saw more and more minutes off the bench, and he actually started three games.

By April, Monta was part of coach Mike Montgomery’s rotation, scoring in double figures in eight of the Warriors’ final 11 games. That boosted his season average to a modest, but encouraging, 6.8 points in roughly 18 minutes per contest. Golden State finished a disappointing 34–48 and out of the playoffs. Montgomery was replaced by Don Nelson.


Josh Smith, 2005 Topps 52 Style
     
 

The Warriors sensed the Monta was ready for more minutes and gave him a chance to reward their confidence in him over the offseason. However a sore knee kept him out of summer-league play, and he began the 2006-07 season as the third wheel behind Davis and Richardson.

That picture changed when both veterans went down with injuries. By season’s end, Monta was the team’s leader in points and minutes played. He averaged 16.5 points and 4.1 assists per game, and his 47.5% shooting from the field was tops among Golden State guards. After the season, he won the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award.

The Warriors swapped a lot of bodies during the year, and the final result was a 42–40 mark, which was good enough to snag a playoff berth. This was no small accomplishment. Golden State had not figured in the postseason since 1994—the second-longest dry spell in NBA history. Veterans Davis, Richardson and forward Stephen Davis were the go-to guys in a surprising first-round victory over the Dallas Mavericks. Davis attacked the Mavs relentlessly, and Jackson scored 13 straight points in the Game 6 finale. Monta saw firsthand what it took to win in the playoffs.

Golden State’s great run ended in the second around against Utah. The Jazz couldn’t stop Davis either, but they managed to contain the rest of the Warriors to win in five games. Monta averaged eight points a game.  

After the playoffs, the Warriors jettisoned Richardson. Their reasoning was sound. The team knew it would have to free up cash to lock up their two rising stars, Monta and Latvian center Andris Biedrins.

Monta confirmed the team’s faith in him by stepping into Richardson’s role as shooting guard in 2007–08. He played clutch ball all year as Golden State continued to improve. Teaming with Davis in the backcourt, Monta blossomed into a superb offensive contributor, averaging 20.2 points and 3.9 assists a game. He also showed his mettle as an offensive rebounder.

Monta’s 53.1% field goal shooting ranked among the best in the NBA among guards. In February of 2008, he became only the ninth guard in history to shoot 60 percent from the field during a month. After the final game of that streak, he was honored by assistant coach Sidney Moncrief, who happened to be one of the other eight players to accomplish this feat. Steve Nash, John Stockton and Earl Monroe were among the others on the list. 

Not surprisingly, many of Monta’s points came in transition. He was widely recognized as the league’s fastest player in the open court. His best game was a 39-point effort against New Jersey on January 28. In an odd quirk of fortune, this contest took place exactly one year after he hit his first NBA buzzer-beater, also against the Nets.


Baron Davis, 2008-09 Treasury
     
 

The Warriors boosted their record to 48–34. However, in the super-strong Western Conference, that left them on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. Even so, they decided to extend Monta’s contract, signing him to a deal that made him the highest paid player on the club.

Heading into the 2008–09 campaign, Warriors fans received some surprising bad news when the team announced that Monta needed surgery on his left ankle and would miss nearly half the year. Originally the injury was reported as having occurred in a summer pickup game, but later it became clear that Monta had hurt himself riding a moped. Though not a motorcycle, it did qualify as a dangerous activity, and GM Chris Mullin announced that the team would suspend its would-be leader 30 games—and reserve the right to void his contract if he did not fully heal.

Monta returned to the court in late January, but it was March before he returned to his previous form. He averaged close to 25 points a game after that, including a new career-high with 42 points in an April game against the Sacramento Kings. All told, Monta made 25 starts and averaged 19 points a game.

Without Monta (and Davis, who left via free agency), the Warriors amounted to little more than a disorganized hodge-podge. Biedrins and Jackson tried to hold it together with help from newcomers Jamal Crawford and Corey Maggette, but Golden State couldn’t even break 30 wins.

The good news in 2009–10 was that Monta was relatively healthy. He made 64 starts and posted a 25.5 scoring average, sixth best in the league. Monta also finished fourth in steals, with 143. The bad news was how the Warriors performed as a team. Nelson encouraged his players to push the ball up court, which they did, but converting fastbreaks into baskets sometimes proved problematic. Keeping opponents from scoring was an even bigger problem. The Warriors had one of the worst defenses in the league. Their rebounding effort most games was borderline atrocious as well.

Chemistry was definitely an issue. Monta shared point guard duties with Stephen Curry, a first-round pick out of Davidson who performed surprisingly well. Yet the two backcourt players were rarely on the same page. Those defending Monta were quick to point out that the Warriors had paid him $66 million and then drafted someone to take his job away. Whatever the problem, the result was a lot of exciting but frustrating losses, as the Warriors went 26–56. The best player on a losing club, Monta’s great season didn’t even earn him a spot as a reserve in the All-Star Game.

After the season, the Warriors went through a summer of changes. No one’s job, it seemed, was safe. The team was sold, putting Nelson in limbo. Forward Anthony Randolph, a potential superstar drafted in 2008, was dealt to the New York Knicks for veteran David Lee. The Warriors grabbed another rebounder, Ekbe Udoh, in the draft. There was more turnover, involving everyone from starter Maggette to backup guard Kelenna Azubuike.

The team tried unsuccessfully to acquire Amare Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony. Some speculated that the Warriors were trying to surround Monta and Curry with frontline muscle. Others suggested that perhaps Monta or Biedrins be traded to clear salary cap for more complimentary players. Everyone had a theory but no one really had any answers.


Monta Ellis, 2008 Co-Signers
     
 

One thing is certain. Golden State’s fortunes are likely to hinge on the performance of Monta—not just as a player, but as a leader.

MONTA THE PLAYER

If Monta isn’t the best transition scorer in the NBA, he is almost certainly the fastest and most creative. On any given night, half his points come on layups, dunks and wide-open jumpers. He is also good one-on-one, able to create a little space and then sky over a defender to take his shot. His medium-range jumper is excellent, and he has become adept at working the pick and roll.

Monta has been a scorer his entire life, so he has a good sense of when to start attacking the basket. He can shoot his team into a game, but sometimes he can shoot his team out of a game, too.

As a point guard, Monta is not a great passer or ballhandler, but he takes care of the basketball and is comfortable running an offense. His quickness is always a threat to the defense.  

As a defender, Monta is still learning some of the fundamentals and bites on too many fakes. But his lightning fast lateral movement keeps opponents contained and makes him very effective when playing the passing lanes.


Monta Ellis, autographed photo
     

 

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