Family ties helped Marquette land Henry Ellenson

He is 6-foot-11, yet can handle the ball like a point guard.

He's averaging nearly a double-double and isn't bad at distributing the ball, either.

NBA scouts are salivating over him, already slotting him as a lottery pick.

No, his name is not Ben Simmons.

It's Henry Ellenson, and if you've never heard of him, well, that's OK. You're not alone.

Ellenson is a freshman at Marquette, which frankly has more basketball history than LSU but isn't a big, sexy hoops brand-named school. The Golden Eagles are in the still-trying-to-redefine-itself Big East as well as recreating their own program under Steve Wojciechowski.

So what's Ellenson, rated the No. 5 player in his class by ESPN.com, doing at Marquette?

It's not unlike Simmons' reason to attend LSU, where his godfather is an assistant coach.

It's about family.

"People were like, 'did you look at other schools?" Ellenson said. "Well yeah, but Marquette has my brother.''

Wally Ellenson is a redshirt junior at Marquette, a transfer to the Golden Eagles by way of Minnesota. Used as a sub, he's averaging only 10.4 minutes to his baby brother's 30.7, but he could very well be Marquette's most valuable player.

This is not 1977, and constructing a basketball power at Marquette is not as easy as it was for Al McGuire. The Big East is a viable, basketball-first alternative for small, Catholic schools such as Marquette, but the challenges of going against the boundless coffers of the football schools remains daunting.

Signing Ellenson, who narrowed his list to Marquette, Kentucky and Michigan State, was a major coup.

"He's a foundation piece for our program,'' Wojciechowski said of the freshman, who is currently averaging 16.5 points and nine rebounds. "Marquette had success well before I got here, but in terms of my stamp on the program, to have someone who could have gone anywhere in the country come here says a lot.''

Wojciechowski, who brought Wally in as a transfer when Henry was a rising high school senior, is quick to say he did not take one to lure the other -- "We wanted to build our program and he was a guy who played at a high-level conference.'' -- but there's no denying the big brother's influence. It's not about what Wally said or did. In fact, he was almost overly cautious about selling Marquette, wanting to ensure Henry made a decision that was right for him.

But he was there in the gym, just like he has always been.

They used to divide the family up by eye color. Henry would partner with his blue-eyed brethren -- Wally and dad, John.

Ellwood, kid sister, Ella, and mom, Holly, made up the brown-eyed side.

And then they'd head to their favorite place, the gym.

Technically Rice Lake High School belongs to everyone in town. It has the only gym in Rice Lake, a small town of just about 8,000 in northwestern Wisconsin. But the Ellenson family long ago made it their personal hardcourt. Holly is a phys ed teacher at the school, which also means she has the keys to the gym ... or in Ellenson family lingo, the keys to the kingdom.

The family games were fairly docile -- "No,'' Henry said, "I didn't post up my mom. I worked on my jump shot against her.'' -- but eventually Holly and John would leave, followed by Ella, leaving the three boys alone. At first they didn't set a goal; they just played until someone called it quits. But that usually meant the game ended only after someone threw a ball or an elbow at someone else, so eventually they set a limit.

Henry usually played mediator. He, in fact, decided games needed an end point.

"On the court, he's a big-time competitor, but when it came to his brothers going after each other, he didn't want that so much,'' Wally said.

The MMA pickup games had their merit. All three boys are college players -- Ellwood is a sophomore at Valley City State University, an NAIA school in North Dakota (Ella plays high school ball), but the payoff was especially huge for Henry. Along with schooling him in the private family sessions, the boys allowed their baby brother to tag along when they played with their friends.

Besides being younger, Henry also was considerably smaller, so he had to get creative. The jumper that seems so natural, the fluidity with which he's able to handle the ball, that's all a byproduct of maneuvering around and through bigger bodies.

"I'm not going to post them up in the fifth grade when they're in eighth,'' Henry said. "So I had to learn to shoot over them and rely more on my jump shot and ballhandling.''

By the time he reached high school, Henry was a 6-8 point guard, the biggest kid on the floor, yet savvy enough with the ball to be in charge.

He kept growing and getting better. He averaged 27 points and 13 boards as a junior, which certainly caught the eye of a few college coaches. All of the usual suspects came calling -- Duke, North Carolina, Indiana, Wisconsin and so forth -- but he eventually narrowed his list to Michigan State, Kentucky and Marquette.

That put Wally in an admittedly tricky situation. His brother understandably wanted guidance and advice as he went through the recruiting process, and having gone through it himself, Wally was the perfect sounding board. He helped Henry sift through the weeds, guiding him on the difference between "what's real and what's fake,'' and when asked, he offered the inside scoop on Marquette.

Yet at the same time, he didn't want Henry to simply choose Marquette because of him.

"It was his decision,'' Wally said. "I didn't want to be a huge influence.''

Indirectly, though, there was no getting around it.

Henry wasn't solely attracted to Marquette because of Wally. The competitor in him loved the idea of being the center of attention (literally and figuratively), of shouldering the responsibilities for a team that is trying to grow. Life would have been easier, much easier, at a place that's already established and already included a host of top players, but schooled in the hard knocks by his brothers, Henry wasn't really interested in easy.

"We talked to him about why not start learning the habits and dealing with the responsibilities of being a great player in college?'' Wojciechowski said. "He wants to be a guy who can go to the NBA and make a mark, change a culture. You don't put a kid in a position that he couldn't handle, but Henry embraces responsibility. He really wanted that.'' Plus there was the bonus: big brother.

Who is the best shooter in the family?

"That would be me,'' Wally said.

Best rebounder?

"Me, too,'' he adds. "Really any statistic you want to throw out, it's me.''

Henry said, "Um, no. I would have to disagree.''

He will give his brother props in the high jump. He sort of has to. Wally is annoyingly good at it, like the kind of annoying where he doesn't even devote most of his attention to it and sets records.

A four-time All-American, Wally also was national runner-up in 2014 while at Minnesota and then promptly rewrote Marquette's record books in his first meet at the school, clearing 7 feet, 5.75 inches.

"I'd be with him at the track and I'm 6-11, but I look at the bar and I'm like, 'Dude, what are you doing?'' Henry said. "But it's like nothing for him.''

Wally intends to milk the attention for all he can. He knows he'll have to surrender familial bragging rights soon enough. If the scouts are right, Henry will have to make his mark on Marquette in short order. He's not likely to be back next year.

The perfect stretch 4 for the NBA, he's already climbing early draft boards. Henry admits he wishes he received a little more attention -- "It would be nice to have more people throwing your name around,'' he said -- and reveled in his showcase moment last month when the Golden Eagles played LSU in Brooklyn. With 21 points and 20 rebounds, Simmons stole the headlines, but Henry, sidelined with foul trouble for much of the first half, recorded his own double-double (16 and 11) and more important, the win.

His favorite game, though, might have been his first one in a Marquette uniform. The game didn't even count; it was an exhibition.

There were three Ellensons on the floor all at once: Henry had 16 points and 17 rebounds while Wally added eight and three for Marquette. On the other side, Ellwood had five points and four rebounds for Valley City State.

Best of all, nobody even got in a fight.