Basketball is the driving force of the Ellenson family. John and Holly Ellenson were both college basketball players. They now have four kids: three sons playing college basketball and a daughter, Ella, who is junior in high school and is drawing high-major college interest in their hometown of Rice Lake, Wisconsin.
Monday night was special for the Ellenson family as Wally, a junior transfer from Minnesota, and Henry, a highly-regarded freshman, made their debut at Marquette against middle brother, Ellwood, and NAIA Valley City State.
The 98-57 exhibition win for the Golden Eagles will, in all likelihood, be the last time all three Ellenson brothers share the court at the same time.
“With all the brothers playing here tonight,” Henry told reporters after the game, “it’s definitely a day I’ll never forget.”
Henry is Marquette’s first McDonald’s All-American since 1982. Head coach Steve Wojciechowski knew that family mattered to the Ellensons when he started recruiting him. Wally’s addition, and Monday’s exhibition, were all a part of his plan to accelerate the Golden Eagles’ return to relevance.
After a long and successful stint as an assistant coach at Duke, Wojciechowski took the head coaching job at Marquette on April 1, 2014. The first-time head coach almost immediately set his sights north to in-state big man Henry Ellenson.
Traveling 300-plus miles from Milwaukee to Rice Lake, Wisconsin, Wojciechowski first watched Henry Ellenson play in an open gym at Rice Lake High School that spring. As a consensus top-100 national prospect and the younger brother of two college basketball players, Wojciechowski knew Ellenson was talented and had the bloodlines but what he saw in the open gym still caught him off-guard.
“I watched Henry work out at 5:30 in the morning before school started. And he’s in there at 6-foot-11, doing ball-handling drills, and working himself out with the help of his sister. That kind of drive for a young player is not normal,” Wojciechowski recalled to NBCSports.com.
“Coach got to see me work out and he got to see my sister (Ella) work out that day,” Ellenson said with a laugh. “I think he got a sense of how my family is.”
Watching the open gym, the man commonly known in basketball circles as Coach Wojo, knew that he would be handling everything Ellenson on his own. Most head coaches delegate recruiting calls and responsibilities to assistant coaches. Wojciechowski made it a point to be the lead recruiter of Henry and his tight-knit family.
Henry describes his family as a “big basketball family” and the four Ellenson children come from parents who both played college hoops. John Ellenson played at Marquette and Wisconsin before playing for one year overseas while Holly Ellenson played college basketball at Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
Holly eventually became the girls basketball coach and a physical education teacher at Rice Lake High School. Four days after Henry was born, he was brought to his first basketball game, as Holly coached a road game 48 hours after leaving the hospital.
With a spare set of keys to the local high school gym, the three Ellenson boys were constantly playing basketball while growing up. As the youngest of the three brothers, Henry had to use his skill to match up with his more physically imposing older brothers until he hit his growth spurt. The 6-foot-6 Wally started his career at Minnesota as a dual-sport athlete also competing in high jump and 6-foot-8 Ellwood began his basketball career at Division II Bemidji State. As his older brothers left the house, Henry eventually grew to 6-foot-10 by the middle of high school.
With an ability to hit 3-pointers or handle the ball in the open floor like a guard, Henry elevated to a national recruit and he was eventually selected for the gold-medal winning USA Basketball U17 FIBA World Championship team last summer.
Blueblood college basketball programs like Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina and UCLA came calling, but Henry was most impressed that the head coach of the in-state school kept aggressively pursuing him without the aid of assistant coaches.
“Coach [Wojo] was the only head coach that called me every time and that made a big impression on me,” Henry said.
The recruiting of the Ellenson family turned up another level once Wally transferred into the Marquette men’s basketball program from Minnesota.
Having his older brother commit to Marquette certainly helped in recruiting, but Henry was most sold on his future coach’s vision of how he would use the versatile big man. Henry sees himself as a basketball player and he doesn’t like to label his game by a position on the floor. UCLA tried to sell Henry on being the next Kevin Love and other schools also compared him to past elite big men. Wojciechowski just wanted Henry to be himself and play his game.
“The playing style was huge,” Henry said of his reasons for picking the Golden Eagles. “I get to play all over the floor. I can handle a bit and shoot. I get a lot of freedom that I wouldn’t get in some other places.”
Marquette fans are hoping that kind of freedom allows Henry to have a huge season in what could be his only campaign in college basketball. Ellenson enters the Big East program with a substantial amount of local buzz.
Henry is also anxious to show off his skills on a national level after missing the spring senior all-star game circuit. A broken fifth metacarpal in his left, non-shooting, hand suffered in a state semifinal win for Rice Lake caused Henry to miss the Wisconsin state championship game as well as prestigious events like the McDonald’s All-American Game, Jordan Brand Classic and Nike Hoop Summit.
Without its star big man, Rice Lake lost in the state championship game and Ellenson had to sit on the sidelines and watch the next few weeks while his five-star peers locked horns in front of national recruiting analysts and NBA scouts.
“It was tough to sit out and watch knowing what I can do out there,” Ellenson said.
Once he recovered from the hand injury towards the end of spring, Henry worked hard to prepare for the college basketball season. Marquette saw a glimpse of what Henry was capable of during their overseas exhibition trip to Italy this August. In the first three games of a 4-0 exhibition trip, Ellenson averaged 23.6 points and 8 rebounds per game. He was also dominant in the exhibition win over Ellwood and Valley City State, as Henry had a double-double by halftime and finished with 16 points, 17 rebounds, five assists and two blocks in 27 minutes of action.
Wojciechowski has also been pleasantly surprised to see how open his new star has been to coaching and taking criticism since Henry joined the program.
“Until you get a player on a day-to-day basis, you don’t know how they’ll respond to coaching. Can you tell him the truth, even if the truth is hard?” Wojciechowski said. “Henry embraces that. He’s a guy, like most great players, who wants to be told how he can get better. And I admire that about him.”
Marquette is certainly hoping Henry and a talented freshman class can be as good as advertised. The program is trying to make the NCAA tournament after last season’s injury-riddled campaign. Henry being paired with 6-foot-10 big man Luke Fischer will be a tough combination for any team to stop.
“We can feed off of each other,” Ellenson said of Fischer. “Most teams don’t have two guys that size, but if they do, I can step out and open up some space for him inside.”
It will also be a fun season at Marquette for Henry because he gets to play with Wally, who sat out last basketball season due to NCAA transfer restrictions.
Now back with Wally for the first time since high school, Henry gets to team up with the elbow-throwing older sibling who used to beat him up during games of one-on-one-on-one. Henry is the star basketball player now, but Wally has aspirations of being an Olympic athlete in the high jump after starting his outdoor track career as a three-time, first-team All-American at both Minnesota and Marquette.
Basketball has always been the bond between the Ellenson brothers and the Golden Eagles are hoping to use their competitive fire as a key ingredient for this season. Although only a true freshman, Henry is going to be the focus of attention for opponent’s scouting reports and he’ll be asked to be a team leader this season.
“We’re going to need him to set an example as the team’s best player,” Wojciechowski said. “When you’re that good, you have to be a leader and I think he’ll embrace those challenges.”