Perry Ellis arrived at Kansas in the summer of 2012 after a decorated career at Wichita Heights, where he was a four-time Kansas Gatorade Player of the Year and talked about in the same breath as other City League legends and former Kansas standouts as Ricky Ross and Darnell Valentine.
The 6-8 forward called “it an honor” to be mentioned with Ross and Valentine.
“I’m just trying to follow in their footsteps,” Ellis said. “They were great players in Wichita and did big things and I’m just trying to follow behind them.”
Four years later after his career ended in a heartbreaking 64-59 loss to Villanova Saturday night in the Elite Eight at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, Kentucky, it’s safe to say that Ellis certainly followed behind them in amazing fashion and will go down with Valentine as one of Kansas’ all-time greats.
Ellis started 109 of 145 games and finished his storied career ranked No. 8 all time at Kansas in scoring (1,798 points) and No. 12 in rebounding (835 boards). Ellis, who was just 15 rebounds shy of cracking the top-10 list in all-time rebounds, is one of just five players to rank in the top 12 in both career scoring and rebounding charts with superstars Danny Manning, Raef LaFrentz, Nick Collison and Clyde Lovellette.
He saved his best season for last, averaging a career-high 16.9 points and 5.8 rebounds in 30.3 minutes per game, while shooting 53.1 percent from the field, 43.8 percent from beyond the arc, and 78.5 percent at the free throw line. Ellis elevated his play during the Big 12 schedule, averaging 17.8 points and scored at least 20 points in seven of his past eight games entering the Elite Eight.
He averaged 23 points during three NCAA Tournament games, including a season-high 27 points against Maryland in the Sweet 16, before struggling mightily in his swan song against Villanova with a season-low four points.
Ellis went scoreless in the first half and ended the game shooting just 1-of-5 from the field and 2-of-3 at the charity stripe, while committing four turnovers. He was the sharp focus of Villanova’s defensive game plan, and Ellis could never break free.
“I feel like they did a great job of just trying to swarm me at times and just somebody was always there,” Ellis said. “I could have demanded the ball more at times, you know, but...”
Kansas coach Bill Self talked about Ellis’ rough night.
“Perry really never engaged himself in the game the first half,” Self said. “They took away the pick and pop with him when they played man, because the way they rotated, so he didn't catch the ball naked at the top like we've been scoring quite a bit during the tournament.
“And they made him make the extra pass, and we missed some shots when we were wide open making the extra pass. But I think you should give Villanova credit. But I don't think that Perry was as aggressive demanding the ball as what he has been at certain times.
“You get two fouls quick, and things like that, and I think that kind of messed with his head a little bit also.”
Despite Ellis’ off night, he should be greatly commended for all he accomplished on and off the court at Kansas. A two-time Academic All-Big 12 First Team selection, a NABC Good Works Team nominee, and a Senior Class Award Finalist (1 of 10), Ellis also became an All-American his senior season and was a two-time All-Big 12 pick on the hardwood.
Ellis, a true winner and serious student who will walk down Campanile Hill in May with a degree in sports management and a minor in business, was very active in the community, a mentor and leader to kids, a great Jayhawk ambassador, and the kind of young man you’d want your son to be.
Never one for much words, Ellis even became more talkative as his KU career progressed. An extremely shy person when he came at Kansas, Ellis used to be petrified giving a speech in class to 15 students. But there he was on Senior Day after KU’s victory over Iowa State in Allen Fieldhouse on March 5, giving his speech while smiling and cracking jokes to 16,300 fans and feeling so comfortable in his own skin.
Self marveled over how far he’s come.
“It just shows you how much he’s matured,” Self said after that game. “(To have) total command (during his speech), it’s pretty amazing to watch.”
Indeed, it is.
Ellis called his experience at KU a life-changing one.
“I feel like I’ve grown so much as a person where I know how to be successful later in life no matter playing basketball or whatever I’m doing,” Ellis said. “It’s (KU) really taught me to not take any days for granted.”
Self, who was at Ellis’ first high school game his freshman year, never took anything for granted when pursuing this former high school phenom, who won four straight state championships, helped set a Heights’ state-record 62-game winning streak, and finished his legendary career as the conference’s all-time leading scorer (2,231 points), broken by former KU teammate Conner Frankamp a year later.
Self spoke about the recruitment process a day before the Elite Eight.
“We probably spent as much time on Perry, recruiting him, as anybody just because we were so aware of him at an early age and a young age,” Self said. “And (former assistant coach) Danny Manning was our point man in his recruitment for the most part.
“But he was an easy guy to recruit because he wasn't seeking attention. Just like he is now, he's not seeking attention. So he was a fun guy to recruit because it wasn't like you had to talk to him every day, to be honest with you, in order to let him know that you love him a lot, which you have to do with a lot of recruits. If you told him that maybe on Monday, then by Friday he would still believe that there was probably still some love involved, which is a little different for some recruits.
“He was an easy recruit, great family and certainly coaching him, it's been a real treat because -- and it has been for all our guys, because just watching how he's matured off the court so much, in my opinion, which has really spearheaded his development on the court.
“And just see how he's kind of grown not only into a great player, but really an outstanding young man as well.”
Self said nothing about the Elite Eight game will take away from Ellis’ exceptional legacy at Kansas and how much he meant to the program.
“No, no, no. He's a stud,” Self said. “He got a couple of easy looks early and missed them both and kind of probably shied away from being quite as aggressive after that.
“We've ridden Perry pretty hard over the last three years, and he's almost always delivered for us. And so it doesn't take anything away at all. It would have been really nice to see our seniors get to a Final Four because we haven't with this group. But certainly, in my mind, he's been a stud and one of the all-time greats regardless of the outcome of this game.”
After the Villanova loss, Ellis reflected briefly about his career while relaying what ‘Nova coach Jay Wright said to him after the game.
“He just told me I’m a great player and just keep my head up,” Ellis said. “Just knowing it's over now, how much I've grown, I've grown so much. I'm just so thankful for everybody. Teammates, coaches and everybody. That’s helped me become who I am today.
“Just miss family being able to come to games, the fans, my teammates, just missing -- never going to be practicing again with these guys," Ellis added. "My last time. I just thank God for being able to be in this position. ... My last time taking off this jersey. Never going to put it on again. Just honored to be able to even play.”
Exactly three weeks earlier on that early March day, after he played his final home game in Allen Fieldhouse and scored 22 points with seven rebounds, I asked Ellis how he’d like to be remembered.
“As a player that tried to do the best he could day in and day out and tried to be a great role model,” Ellis softly replied.