The day before hosting tryouts, the College Park Skyhawks called Ellison’s representation and wanted him to attend. Ellison, who was at the airport and about to leave for the Czech Republic, never boarded his flight. He made quite the impression the next day. He signed with the Skyhawks in October.
“His presence and abilities really showed at the tryouts,” general manager Tori Miller said. “It was probably the most competitive tryouts because of him. He just raised the energy and level for the whole event.”
That’s Ellison’s reputation: high-energy player. He said his father, the famously coined “Never Nervous Pervis,” instilled that value. Pervis was a national champion with Louisville in 1986 before the Kings selected him No. 1 three years later. Pervis’ career was spoiled by injuries, but he still played 11 seasons in the NBA.
“(Pervis) played a level that I always dreamed about,” Malik said. “I think I gained his work ethic. When I was a kid, I would be at my friend’s house, and I would have to make sacrifices. If I slept over, I would have to wake up at 6 a.m. just to go work out with dad. It was stuff like that instilled in me that translated the older I got. On the court, I feel like I got his energy. He always told me that is the one thing you can control, your energy and attitude.”
The younger Ellison, 25, never was a take-over-the-game superstar in college. He wasn’t a decorated prospect, largely because he lacked range. But as he showed at each stop, he’s capable of affecting the game in multiple ways. That goes back to his energy level.
“He’s a natural high-energy guy,” Pitt coach Jeff Capel said in 2018. “He has that quick twitch. He’s a really good athlete. He can be a versatile defender. He can be versatile on the offensive end, but we need his competitive his spirit all the time.”
Fourteen games into his G League career, Ellison received the call. When the NBA was flooded with positive COVID-19 tests, the Hawks were among those decimated. The league demanded the show go on, which opened the door for players to receive opportunities they otherwise wouldn’t have.
Ellison signed a 10-day contract with the Hawks on Christmas. But once again, circumstances turned. Three days later, he entered the NBA’s COVID protocols. The Hawks didn’t renew his 10-day deal, and he returned to the Skyhawks without recording his NBA debut.
To receive another such opportunity, Ellison must position himself as the best option when that door opens again. Skyhawks coach Steve Gansey feels Ellison knows his role and has emphasized the skills that could not only help him reach the NBA but help him carve out a career there.
“He’s been getting after it on the defensive end,” Gansey said. “He’s one of our top defenders. If you don’t defend, you won’t get an opportunity to play in the NBA. These NBA teams have their scorers. They need players that will come in, know they’re role and defend. That’s one thing Malik has shown this season. He has shown to understand guys tendencies and sit down and guard.”
His size (6-foot-6, 215 pounds) and defensive prowess gives Ellison a foundation, but his lack of perimeter offense remains an issue, especially in today’s basketball landscape. He’s made strides in that area, though he’s still attempting only 1.3 three-point attempts per contest in the G League.
“He’s really improved his jump shot,” Gansey said. “He’s been expanding his range to that 3-point line and corner. He’s a specimen physically. He can attack the basket. He can take a hit, some charges, and has sacrificed his body nightly. You appreciate that as a head coach.”
Ellison averages 9.0 points, 4.8 rebounds and one assist per contest (28.5 minutes) while playing steady defense for the SkyHawks. Not eye-popping numbers, but Ellison is working to prove he can serve a role in the NBA. Every team needs high-motor perimeter defenders.
Perhaps Ellison gets more than a three-day taste of the NBA in the nearer future. Ellison has dedicated his daily life to pursuing that unguaranteed opening.
“It’s just been a grind being consistent,” he said. “I’ve been trying to control what I can control. Just getting more playing time and opportunities have helped me.”
Staff writer Anfernee Patterson contributed to this article.