It was hard not to get emotional at the sight of former Long Beach State player James Ennis near tears of joy. With a sheepish smile atop his bright pink polo shirt and the phone pressed to his ear, Ennis learned he would be selected with the 50th pick in the 2013 NBA Draft last week. Hugs went all around the living room of his childhood Ventura home, as the 6’7” forward who wasn’t heavily recruited will have a chance to prove himself among the best basketball players in the world. It was a touching moment of celebration and triumph, and back in Long Beach, there is hope that it may become a recurring scene.
The drafting of James Ennis – selected by the Atlanta Hawks, and traded to the Miami Heat – is a major victory for a Long Beach State program that has struggled to produce NBA talent. It isn’t every day that a player jumps from the Black & Gold to a locker room with the likes of LeBron James. In fact, it isn’t every year, or even every ten years.
Ennis is the first Long Beach State alum to be selected in the NBA Draft, at all, since 1998. Back then, it was 7’1” British center Andrew Betts; ironically, also taken with the 50th overall pick. Betts would never see the floor in an NBA game, however, and there hasn’t been a 49er with the chance to make a team through the draft since. In fact, guard Juaquin Hawkins is the only player to come into the league in the entire 2000’s. Long Beach State players have had a better chance of winning American Idol than making the NBA in the last decade.
It wasn’t always that way. Nine players from Long Beach State saw playing time in the 1970’s, highlighted by Ed Ratleff being selected No. 6 overall in the 1974 Draft, and Glenn McDonald helping the Boston Celtics win the 1976 NBA Title. Leonard Gray played in over 200 games from 1975-77, and is still the only Long Beach State alum to average over 10 points per game for his career. Five 49ers came in during the 1980’s, and two-time Three Point Shootout champion Craig Hodges is still known as one of the greatest long-range snipers of all time.
The ‘90’s were solid, too, launching the two most accomplished careers of any Long Beach State products when Lucious Harris (No. 28) and Bryon Russell (No. 45) were both selected in the 1993 NBA Draft. Harris played exactly 800 games, and was a key factor in two runs to the NBA Finals with the New Jersey Nets. Improbably, though, Russell boasts the most impressive resume. No 49er has played in more NBA games (841), hit more threes (685), grabbed more rebounds (2,914) or scored more points (6,663). They were also the last two 49ers to see a minute of NBA basketball, retiring in 2005 and 2006.
But most of those players are products of a style of basketball that doesn't catch the eye of scouts these days. It’s not enough to be able to shoot, pass, dribble and defend at a high level. You need to be dynamic; you need to be transcendent – a big man who can stretch the floor or a point guard that jumps out of the gym. There are no clearly defined positions in the League anymore, only incredible athletes at every position, so NBA teams are rarely willing to make an investment in role players – no matter how dependable or consistent or experienced they are. Harris and Russell likely wouldn’t get a second look, which is why there hasn’t been a Long Beach State player in the NBA in seven seasons, and why the selection of Ennis is so significant.
Teams can gamble with second round picks, but the Miami Heat didn’t acquire Ennis as a shot in the dark. The Heat actively scouted him even before his first season with Long Beach in 2011-12, then went out of their way to trade up for him. Normally, this would be like passing up a Michelin-starred meal to eat a Hot Pocket. But Ennis isn’t a normal talent.
The NBA Draft is all about potential, about finding a player that can grow and be molded. At 22, Ennis is rather old for a raw talent whose new team sites his “upside” as a major factor in his acquisition. Anyone who saw him soar through the air in a yellow Beach jersey these last two seasons, though, can attest to his incredible athleticism and freakish length.
You can’t teach those two attributes, which have led some analysts to compare him to Jimmy Butler of the Chicago Bulls. Over-eager Internet commenters have compared him to Kevin Durant. That may be incredibly optimistic, but tell me the next time you expect to hear a Long Beach State grad compared to a three-time NBA scoring champion.
In his senior year, Ennis showed dynamic court vision and defensive intensity that made him an absolute terror for opponents. At times, he was an absolute magician with the ball, controlling the ball like a yo-yo attached to his elastic arms, though he needs work before he’ll be able to consistently create his own shot at the NBA level. At the end of the day, Ennis has a chance to be very good, and that’s more than any 49er in the last 20 years can say.
He’ll have plenty of time. The Heat are involved in two summer leagues and Ennis will feature heavily in both. They also have five players at Ennis’ position, but exactly none are under contract at the end of next season. He will likely be sent to the D-League in 2013-14, to develop his skills while a roster spot opens up. By this time next year, we could be talking about Ennis as an extremely important part of an NBA champion roster.
When the Heat acquired Ennis, they lent affirmation to the Long Beach State program, potential recruits, and the 49er faithful that top-level basketball can be attracted and developed here. Good things have come out of the Pyramid before, and the 50th pick in the 2013 NBA Draft is a sign that many more good things could be on the way.