Growing up in the South, the game of basketball meant everything to Alabama guard Keon Ellis. The sport can be a distraction, helping kids stay out of the streets and away from trouble. He was dedicated to his craft and didn’t want to end up back home thinking what he could’ve been. Seeing how hard his family supported him, it’s important for Ellis to give his all.
Ellis, a native of Eustis, Florida, grew up 30 miles from Orlando. The state of Florida has some of the best basketball talent in the entire country, specifically at the High School level. Ellis led Leesburg to back-to-back 6A titles, gaining all-state honors. He signed with Gardner-Webb that winter, later facing a tough decision.
“I was in the middle of deciding if I wanted to retake classes to get my grades up or just going JUCO, allowing myself to kind of restart the recruitment process. I decided to just go JUCO because Gardner Webb wasn’t really where I wanted to go. I only committed because that was the only school still talking to me, knowing my grade situation,” Ellis said.
He took a chance by betting on himself. Ellis could’ve easily walked into a spot on a D1 roster, but instead waited for the right opportunity to arise.
“I felt like I was settling and I knew I could get better offers if I went to Junior College,” Ellis said.
Florida Southwestern State has produced plenty of Division One talent and dominated the JUCO ranks. Head Coach Eric Murphy created a relationship with Ellis through the recruiting process.
“We had several conversations over the phone, I went to go see him at his high school and he came down on a visit. We talked a lot about basketball and how our program can develop him,” Murphy said.
Ellis held many options after becoming ineligible at the D1 level, including prep schools and top JUCO programs before choosing FSW.
"Our facilities and program speak for itself. I tried to sell him on how we would develop him as a person and player,” Murphy said.
Keon took major strides in his two seasons at FSW, becoming more mature on & off the court, improving his effort level in practice from Day 1. If anyone has seen the Netflix docu-series ”Last Chance U,” you will understand the growth it takes for some JUCO athletes, they often didn’t take school seriously prior to College.
During his freshman season, Ellis played behind All-Conference guard Charles Manning. The 6’5” wingman provided rotational minutes for LSU before entering the transfer portal this week. After waiting his turn, Ellis took advantage of his increased role at FSW — improving volume and consistency. That’s when high-major schools started to express interest.
“He always had interest, including in his freshman year. Keon had a couple games where he scored 20+ points, but high-major schools did not start calling until he scored 36 points and hit 8 threes in a game in December. Then, they really started calling when he scored 41 points on 22 shots,” Murphy said.
Ellis broke the school’s single-game scoring record against St. Petersburg College in that 40+ point performance. A remarkable 69% true-shooting.
“My mentality going into the season was stepping in behind Charles, who set the bar pretty high, bringing the scoring punch that we were losing. I just tried to do it to the best of my ability and help my team win every game,” Ellis said.
Alabama assistant coach Bryan Hodgson did a phenomenal job pitching recruits while the team struggled on the court, helping Alabama finish with a Top-12 class in 2020. That’s a testament to his drive and determination. If you haven’t heard his story – I highly recommend reading this piece from Mike Rodak, of AL.com.
“When Coach B first texted me, I was shocked to see Alabama, but I was really happy to have the thought of possibly attending the University and playing for them. The first interaction was all smiles. We were happy to see each other,” Ellis said.
“I have known Bryan Hodgson since his days at the Junior College level. Coach Oats and Bryan recruited one of our players from the program when they were at Buffalo. They were great to deal with and recruited Keon the hardest. Coach Oats had a vision and plan for him,” Murphy said.
Despite living almost 500 miles from Tuscaloosa, Ellis grew up cheering for Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide.
“I just liked watching some of the guys like Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson, Eddie Lacy, and the rest of the team,” Ellis said.
Alabama started to become heavily involved early into 2020. Offering Ellis in February and landing him two-months later.
Shortly after, Crimson Crossover analyst, Matthew Landry, began dissecting his film and came away impressed from the jump.
“The first thing that really popped out at me was his feel for the game on both sides of the floor. He seemed to always be in the right position on defense and the word that came to mind was that he was a “disrupter” on that end. When it was fed down low, he was great at digging and making life hard on a post player. He was great at jumping passing lanes to get out and run in transition. He was phenomenal on-ball. Then you get into his offense where he was a high level 3-point shooter. So, I look at him and see that this is a very complete player from an eval standpoint,” Landry said.
Coach Oats has explored the JUCO ranks in years past, signing a player from the JUCO level in all three recruiting classes at Alabama. While at Buffalo, Jeremy Harris was a notable land for the Bulls. The All-MAC guard from Gulf Coast State C.C. averaged 14.8 points across two-seasons.
"We’ve been burned before (Armond Davis) with overhyped JUCO guys. Keon seemed different, though. I was very high on him and was thrilled when Alabama landed his commitment. Fast forward to the preseason and intel I kept getting throughout workouts, practices and scrimmages was that Keon Ellis is really popping,” Landry said.
Ellis struggled to begin the season, but momentum picked up after the single-digit loss to Western Kentucky. Even during those struggles, he was arguably the best point-of-attack defender outside of Herb Jones. If you look into the analytics, Keon has the lowest USG% of rotation contributors, meaning he’s been low maintenance – only taking shots in the flow of the offense.
"Sitting behind Charles, I just watched and learned when I had the chance to see how things are done and how I can get better. That’s kind of the same thing I’m doing now, I’m playing behind players who already know the system, so when I first came in, I was just learning how things operate. I think that JUCO preparation helped because it’s the same here, it’s just another level of speed that I’m getting used to,” Ellis said.
“He’s phenomenal on defense and he’s one of our best shooters. So, it seems like it’s really translating, right? He had a slower start to the year than I hoped for, but he’s getting caught up to the speed of D1 basketball and playing some tough teams. He was great on defense still, but seemed very nervous and timid with the ball in his hands which worried me moving forward,” Landry said.
Point Guard, Jahvon Quinerly, was out against Florida leaving Alabama with less depth at the guard position. Ellis filled that void, scoring a game-high 16 points on 6 attempts in 24 minutes of play. Rivals’ BamaInsider analyst, Mathey Gibson, touched on his performance:
“If Alabama continues this success, Ellis will be a huge reason why. His budding offensive game and premier defensive ability provide a spark seemingly every time he’s out there. Offensively, it’s been about confidence. I think he’s found that confidence, and we’re seeing the results on the court. The more comfortable Ellis gets, the better Alabama becomes as a team.”
Draft analyst Simon Rath quote-tweeted on Friday with the caption, ”Future NBA Player,” referring to Ellis and his two-way impact. Keon took risks to put himself in the best position, indicating his preparation for any challenges that face him head on.
“How hard he plays and practices was night and day. He has always had talent but it says a lot about him and that he’s showed growth and maturity in how hard he plays and practices,” Murphy said.
Jimmy Butler, Mitch Richmond, Dennis Rodman, Bob McAdoo, and Shawn Marion. You can correlate levels of adversity that needed to be overcome between these five NBA all-stars, as the Junior College level is a stepping-stone for talented athletes. The reasons one would spend time at this level varies. People face different challenges and overcome different circumstances along the road. No path is identical – every story is made to be written.