Ellington learns his lessons, toughening Carolina defense

Posted: March 23, 2007

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Wayne Ellington was like so many other high school all-Americans when he was tearing up the Inter-Ac League for Episcopal Academy: He was so much more talented than most of his opponents that he rarely had to break a sweat playing defense.

Reality set in for the 6-foot-4 guard when he showed up at North Carolina as part of perhaps the best freshman class in the nation.

"Basically, if you don't play defense, you're not going to get on the floor, so I had to start defending or I'd find myself on the bench," Ellington said yesterday before the top-seeded Tar Heels (30-6) tuned up for tonight's East Regional semifinal against fifth-seeded Southern Cal (25-11) at the Continental Airlines Arena.

"At this level, everybody's talented," he said. "So it was more about making a commitment to defense and getting into the mind-set that I have to stop the other guy."

North Carolina coach Roy Williams said recently that Ellington had made more improvement on defense from the start of the season than anyone else on the team, which is merely another reason Ellington has been just about everything he was expected to be when he was among the most heavily recruited guards in the country.

With such fervor for defense, Ellington is about as complete a player as a freshman can be. With shooting mechanics that Williams has raved about, Ellington leads the Tar Heels with 65 three-point baskets and is shooting a healthy 38.2 percent from behind the arc.

"I always shot the ball the same way, but I wasn't always a good shooter," he said. The Wynnewood native can slash his way to the basket, rebound, find the open teammate, and take care of the ball. He was named to the Atlantic Coast Conference's first all-tournament team because of his accurate three-point shooting and stellar defense against Florida State.

Ellington will likely still be wearing Carolina blue next season rather than opt for the NBA draft. He has said he intends to stay, and, according to an NBA scout who asked to remain anonymous, would be wise to do so.

"I haven't heard any talk about him coming out," the scout said. "He's very talented and he's having a very nice year for a freshman. He's quicker and more athletic than we thought, but he still has a way to go, and I don't think right now his resume would indicate he's a first-round pick."

Nonetheless, Ellington is having a ball playing for a coach who wants his guys to motor up and down the floor as if their sneakers were turbocharged, and to bury opponents under an avalanche of baskets.

The high speed at which the Tar Heels love to play was also an adjustment for Ellington, who must have thought he was trying out for a track team when preseason drills began.

"We had to run certain distances in certain times," he recalled. "It was a real challenge."

The payoff comes when Ellington and his teammates see their opponents wilt late in games, succumbing to Williams' 10-man rotation. The Tar Heels are averaging 86.1 points a game and have four players averaging in double figures. Ellington ranks third at 11.9. None of them is averaging 30 minutes a game - Ellington is at 23.8.

"It's not just running up and down the floor," Ellington said. "Our bench is so deep and talented that a lot of teams can't keep up with us by the end of the game."

USC frequently plays four guards who have been largely responsible for holding the shooting of its first two tournament opponents - Arkansas and Texas - under 40 percent.

Ellington wasn't at Chapel Hill when USC handed the Tar Heels a 74-59 beating last season, but has heard about it. It's the most one-sided loss for Williams in his four seasons at Carolina.

"Some guys who were here did bring it up," Ellington said. "So we're going to come out with a chip on our shoulders knowing what they did last year."

Contact staff writer Ray Parrillo at 215-854-2743 or rparrillo@phillynews.com.


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