Through the first three games of the season, James Ennis was struggling. His jump shot, which was a point of emphasis for Ennis over the summer, wasn’t falling and wasn’t looking particularly good.
It seemed to be leaking into the other parts of Ennis’ game. That led to him playing a season-low eight minutes in Atlanta on Oct. 28. Ennis wasn’t happy about that and was determined to not let that happen again.
Fast forward to Friday night and Ennis’ recent stretch of strong play culminated in a 20-point performance in the shorthanded Sixers’ 101-95 comeback win over the Knicks at Madison Square Garden (see observations).
The hard work he’d put in during the offseason appears to be paying off.
“It's a relief,” Ennis said to reporters postgame when asked how it felt. “It's worth it. But yeah, I'm just happy to have good teammates who found me tonight. Without them, those shots would've never happened.”
Ennis is as selfless as they come.
It seems like a distant memory, but it wasn’t that long ago that Ennis was in a fight for minutes with Jonathon Simmons after both players came over at the trade deadline last season. Ennis, shrewdly acquired in a second-round pick swap with Houston, won that “tournament” and was a productive part of the Sixers’ rotation into the postseason.
When he hit the open market this summer, he had other suitors who offered more money. The well-traveled veteran liked his opportunity to play alongside the likes of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons and compete for a title better. He signed a two-year deal for the veteran minimum with a player option in Year 2 to be back here.
And the team brought him back to be a key cog off their bench. After a slow start, he’s been just that. Since the aforementioned game against the Hawks, Ennis is shooting 41.4 percent from three. In his last nine games, he’s shot a scintillating 52 percent from distance (13 of 25).
The 20 points Friday were the most since the 29-year-old dropped 21 as a Piston in March of 2018. He also came up clutch, going 9 of 9 — including 7 of 7 in the fourth — from the line, a career high in makes and attempts.
All of that, and he continued to play an aggressive brand of defense.
“I thought he was good on both sides of the ball,” Brett Brown said. “We struggled from the three ... in the first half. But James' ability to swing, swing and then knock stuff down in the corners, which he was the recipient of a few times, certainly helps the scoreboard. And when you have somebody as dominant as Joel Embiid, you post him. We've experienced a lot of doubles — we've been trying to work on our post spacing a lot. I think tonight we reap the benefit of a lot of that effort that the guys have put in. But James, especially at the end of stuff like that, was recognized.”
The shot has been going down lately, but Ennis is better known for bringing energy and his elite athleticism off the bench.
For a player that stands at 6-foot-6, Ennis’ best skill is his ability to hit the offensive glass. He’s third on the team in offensive rebounding percentage, behind only centers Embiid and Kyle O’Quinn.
“He’s a hard worker,” Simmons said. “He causes a lot of havoc down low when the ball goes up, and people probably don’t notice it — people that play the game would notice it. But that’s one of the things that James is elite at.”
Add making shots to that mix and Ennis can be “the ideal bench player,” as Brown called him after the Sixers’ win over New York a little over a week ago.
With Josh Richardson and Al Horford out, the Sixers needed every bit of Ennis’ performance.
A man of few words, Ennis wasn’t worried about having to step up in the absence of his teammates. He plays the same way every time he gets on the court.
“I just do what I do,” Ennis said. “I just want to come in and play hard. I want to win. Every time I step on the floor I give it my all.”
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