Portland Trail Blazers forward CJ Elleby is getting more playing time than was anticipated at the start of the season.
Lately, injuries and health and safety protocols have held starters and key reserves out, paving a spot in the rotation for Elleby. The second-year pro has filled in as a solid role player off the bench.
In his latest piece for The Athletic, Jason Quick detailed how Elleby’s close relationship with Portland veteran Norman Powell helped prepare him for this opportunity.
The friendship between Elleby and Powell, which blossomed last season, seemed unlikely given their differences — Elleby is more laid-back and Powell more intense. After Powell moved into the locker next to Elleby’s, the two became attached at the hip.
Soon, Elleby was asking Powell what it was like to be traded. And Powell was asking Elleby how the Blazers operated. Eventually, both discovered they had as many similarities as differences. Both carried a chip on their shoulder about being second-round picks. Both eschewed flashy jewelry and look-at-me social media. And both liked to work out. Check that, both loved to work out.
The next thing people around the team noticed, everywhere they looked, Norm and CJ were together. They trained together. Ate together. And went out on the town together, be it gambling in Las Vegas, or attending a playoff baseball game in San Francisco.
What started as a friendship soon evolved into a mentorship role for Powell. The nine-year player said he received invaluable guidance from veterans like DeMar DeRozan during his time in Toronto that helped him stay in the NBA. With Elleby, Powell is paying that guidance forward to the next generation.
“Being on a veteran team, a rookie can kind of get lost in the mix of knowing what you have to do,” Powell said. “The vets are preparing for the next game, or recovering, and it’s easy for a young guy to lose his way, lose his purpose. So I decided I was going to take him under my wing, help him navigate being a rookie. Plus, I’m all about the guys who want to work, who want to get better.”
Quick writes that the Blazers are now “beginning to reap the benefits” of Powell’s mentorship in the form of Elleby’s latest play on the court which has showcased his motor and toughness.
In the past month, as the Blazers have been shorthanded because of injuries and health and safety protocols, Elleby has become a reliable role player for Billups, never more so than on Jan. 10 in a win against Brooklyn, when Elleby had nine points, five rebounds and two assists in 17 minutes.
There has been a certain grit and definite toughness to Elleby’s performances. He has taken elbows and body blows as he has guarded the likes of Kevin Durant and LeBron James. He has slid on the floor in pursuit of loose balls. Scrapped for offensive rebounds.
Part of this grit and toughness was forged during an intense summer workout in Las Vegas which saw the two at odds with each other. Powell took it to Elleby during a one-on-one drill, playing mind games and attacking with no mercy. Elleby lost his temper to the point he had tears in his eyes and nearly left the gym. The vet used the moment as another lesson. He opened up about early difficulties in his career like when he was demoted to the D-League (now the G-League) in 2015 and how to get through those moments.
“I told him it’s good to be emotional, but I said he has to control that,” Powell said. “You gotta be able to control, learn and adjust on the fly. Because things are going to happen. In the NBA, you are going to go through tough spots, tough times when things aren’t going your way even though you are working hard. But you can’t just get up and quit because things aren’t going your way. You gotta figure out. I had to.”
Quick writes that Elleby soaked the lesson in. He understood how to be a better player from the experience, but also that his teammate had his back, even during moments of tough love.
“Looking back now, and even then, closely after it happened, I understood,” Elleby said. “It was a test. It was putting me in a challenging position. So for me, it was a tough day. I got challenged. And really, I had to check myself. The trainer and Norm checked me and let me know that what I was doing wasn’t the most beneficial. But also, they let me know that everything is a learning experience and that they weren’t going anywhere.”