The Evolution of Monta Ellis with the Indiana Pacers

Monta Ellis was never known as a leader or a passer, but with the Indiana Pacers, he has settled into a role doing both.

When the Indiana Pacers signed Monta Ellis to a four-year, $44 million deal this summer, the comments from fans were mostly positive. But there was also a considerable amount of skepticism. The entire fan base was not welcoming him with open arms.

Here are some of the more negative reactions from Twitter and the 8 Points, 9 Seconds comment section when the team acquired Monta Ellis.

  • “I would take Ed Davis and Rodney Stuckey for combined less money than Ellis, any day of the week.”
  • “Desperate move that gets us nowhere. But good move given we can’t go back and change the past.”
  • “Yay, Points. I HOPE it works, but I am not optimistic.”
  • “Great offensive skill but he can’t defend a coffee table … look for other teams to run the ball right at him.”

Despite such trepidation about the signing, I think it would be safe to say, as we near the halfway point of the season, that Monta Ellis has acquitted himself of these charges.

He has been unselfish on the offensive end, with a 21.3 usage rate, while scoring 13.2 points. Those who thought he was only a volume shooter have also been surprised by his ability to distribute, with even coach Frank Vogel implying that he might not be taking enough shots. The 13.4 shots he is taking per 36 minutes is the lowest total since his rookie season in 2005-06.

On the defensive end, he is second in steals with 1.8 a game behind Paul George’s 1.9. Even more importantly, the Pacers have the second-best defense in the league this year, with a 98.1 defensive rating — a testament to Ellis and other players’ adaptability as well as Frank Vogel’s abilities as a coach.

But what may be more surprising than the 30-year old Ellis continuing the evolution we’ve seen from him the past few seasons is how he’s become a leader for the Pacers, and not just on the court. Before the win against the Phoenix Suns, Frank Vogel discussed the expectations he had for Ellis when he joined the Pacers and how the veteran guard has adapted to Indiana’s plans.

“He came in here with the reputation of being a big-time scorer,” said Vogel, “and we’ve been overwhelmed with his ability to pass the basketball [and] to create. That’s what’s been most impressive to me, so I think we’re using him more in that regard rather than just asking him to go score.”

Few players change their stripes after so many seasons in the league. But at 30, Ellis is the team’s oldest player and his focus on setting up others has been valuable on a young team.

“I think it’s who he is,” said Vogel. “First of all, he’s got great will and determination to win. I think he recognizes that we’ve still got a fairly young team — a team where a lot of guys who are either young or in new roles. He’s helped a lot of these guys with his experience — sharing his experiences.”

For a guy often described as selfish — despite what we saw from him with the Dallas Mavericks last season — fans should be happy with how he’s settled in with the Pacers.

In fact, after the Dallas game, when Monta got a bit of revenge against the team he says didn’t want him anymore, Vogel was asked if he thought it might be a jumping off point for Ellis. But the coach said that he didn’t think Monta was inconsistent.

“I don’t think he’s been inconsistent for us,” said Vogel. “I really don’t. I think we’re a ball-movement team, and there have been some games where he’s had a ton of opportunity and some games he hasn’t. I think that’s where you see the numbers that way. I think he’s been very consistent for us and a reliable weapon.”

Vogel also agreed Ellis was coming into the team much like David West did. Though his numbers were down, he was fitting within the framework of the team and not forcing his style into the system no matter what.

“It is a good comparison,” said Vogel. “Monta is at a point in his career where scoring 25 points or 20 points isn’t the most important thing to him. What’s most important to him is winning every night. That’s a blessing and welcome thing for a head coach — to have a guy who is just going to go out and do whatever it takes to win a game. If he scores four points and we win, he’s happy. If we need [him] to go out and get 20, 25 points to help us win, that’s what he’s going to try and go out to do. I love that he’s all about winning right now.”

From all accounts, Monta is happy with this role.

It doesn’t hurt that the Pacers have been one of the Eastern Conference’s better teams, but I think the people who are surprised by Ellis’ contentment only knew the “Monta Ellis have it all” version of him.

It isn’t just on the court that Ellis has shown leadership.

In the locker room, he has earned respect and is vocal in support of his teammates. Most notably, he stayed in Ian Mahinmi’s ear when the center was struggling to make his free throws. Ellis has taken a natural leadership role, something Vogel said he did without being forced or asked. That’s not to say Monta is the most vocal presence, or the team’s alpha dog, but he isn’t sitting back passively either.

Ellis talked with Basketball Insiders recently and explained how he is adjusting to his role with the Pacers.

Ellis also gives Indiana another player who can make clutch plays, which was on display in last night’s road win over the Orlando Magic. The veteran guard scored 17 of his 19 points in the second half and sealed the contest by hitting six straight free throws in the final minute of the game.

“It’s all focus,” Ellis said. “I’ve been in that situation a lot. I’ve hit a lot of game-winning shots in my career, and I love those moments.”

While Ellis is obviously still dangerous when he gets hot, he’s had to adjust to being the second (and sometimes even third) option in Indiana. Ellis is averaging his fewest points per game and shot attempts per game since his rookie season in the NBA, but he says that his transition to the Pacers has been great because everyone in the organization seems to be focused on winning.

“I’ve been around [the NBA] for a long time; with this group of guys, everybody gets along, everybody wants to win and everybody is dialed in so that makes it so much easier [to make the transition to this team],” Ellis said. “It’s been easy and I’m very comfortable here.”

Mont Ellis has looked very comfortable passing the ball, as he leads the Indiana Pacers with 5 assists per game. Perhaps that has been the most surprising part for some if they had the idea that Ellis was a gunner. He has found a good balance of being aggressive as a shooter while keeping his eyes open for open teammates.

Going back to Vogel’s comments from the Suns game, it is obvious that Ellis taking over primary ball-handling duties has had an effect on George Hill, something Vogel also addressed.

“It has put him off the ball a heck of a lot more than we did last year — and probably more than I’m comfortable with,” said Vogel. “We hope to get them all involved, but [Hill] understands that Monta brings a lot to the table. George [Hill] is our leading 3-point shooter off the ball. It just makes sense, that’s the blessing and the curse of being with someone like George Hill who is equally effective off the ball as he is on it. We have the luxury of sliding him off the ball.”

And that’s why things have worked well, for the most part, this season for the Indiana Pacers. Unlike when George Hill was paired with Lance Stephenson, Hill is staying engaged off the ball, shooting 42.6% from 3-point range, and hitting 50% from the corners. Unsurprisingly, over 90% of his 3-pointers from the corners are coming off assists. Paul George has been the main assist man to Hill with 22, but Ellis is right behind with 18.

And that’s why Ellis’ role is working well for Indiana.

If George Hill wasn’t being the active participant he has been, the offense wouldn’t be ranked 16th, compared to the prior years when it was in the bottom third of the league. Ellis is getting what he needs without sacrificing too many of Paul George and George Hill’s chances. Both guards are settling into their roles, which says something about both players’ maturity as teammates.

The Indiana Pacers are still finding their rotation — Vogel said he still doesn’t have a set 9 or 10 man rotation — but Monta Ellis has adapted his game around his teammates to become one of the Pacers’ team leaders. Considering the reputation he had — earned or unearned — Indiana couldn’t ask for much more from Monta Ellis.