PITTSBURGH — When you ask Pitt head coach Kevin Stallings about the ways that his team will be better in the 2018-19 season than it has been in the 2017-18 season, he mentions, of course, that his seven freshmen and nine first-time Division I players will be a year older and a year more experienced.
He also mentions that Pitt will return senior power forward Ryan Luther, whose absence has hampered Pitt’s efforts inside all season. And also that Pitt will add a talented freshman in Bryce Golden and add depth to the backcourt with junior college Danya Kingsby.
Luther is a relatively known commodity around these parts and was averaging a double-double when he was injured. Despite Stallings’ assurances, as Pitt fans have seen this season, freshmen and first-time Division I players are rarely a sure thing.
But Pitt has a third type of player waiting in the wings for the 2018-19 season in guard Malik Ellison. Ellison, a transfer from St. John’s is sitting out this season due to NCAA transfer rules. But he’s been one of Pitt’s best players in practice and he’ll bring something to the table that Pitt has been missing: a player that can take the ball into the paint and create a scoring opportunity, whether it’s for him or someone else.
Ellison averaged .34 points per minute as a sophomore as St. John’s in 2016-17, which is fairly comparable to the numbers that similarly-sized Shamiel Stevenson has put up this year. But Ellison’s handle on the ball is a significant advantage. Stevenson has 56 turnovers compared to 27 assists, while Ellison had 59 turnovers and 84 assists in his whole last season at St. John’s.
His .10 assists per minute would be second on the Panthers only to point guard Marcus Carr. Since Luther left, Pitt’s offense has desperately needed another player to move the ball around and produce offense. With Ellison and Luther back in the fold, they may have two.
“I like to get everybody involved,” Ellison said to Pittsburgh Sports Now. “It’s not about scoring with me, it’s about just doing whatever I’ve got to do to help the team win. That’s the kind of guy I am, just energy and making plays.”
The ability to make a difference in 2018-19 has been the light at the end of the tunnel for Ellison, who said that sitting out a year — already a tough proposition — has been made even harder by the team’s struggles on the court.
“When you really live through the moment, you start to realize how much you really miss basketball,” he said. “Getting it taken away for a whole year has been hard. It’s been a struggle — especially with our team struggling. I’m just trying to use this year as a learning year and get better for next year.
“It’s definitely tough. Obviously, when you sit out, it’s a hard year. You want to play so bad. You see the different areas that you could help the team. That’s tough. But I’m happy for the guys. They’re out there getting good experience this year. You’ve gotta be patient. You’ve gotta trust the process. Next year, in the future, we’re gonna be good.”
Despite an 0-11 start to ACC play, Ellison and his teammates see the potential for a big rebound in the future.
“It’s gonna be special, man,” he said. “We’ve got a great coaching staff. We’ve got great facilities. We’ve got great guys, too. Everybody is here for one goal and that’s to win.”
That belief might be hard for fans to see, especially after games like Saturday’s 31-point loss to North Carolina. But Ellison feels that the Panthers are poised for future success.
“With guys like me and Ryan coming in next year, older guys that have experience, that’s going to really help and then everybody else just having a year under their belt so that next year, they’re going to be more experienced and more mature, we’re going to get this thing going.”