Malik Ellison, a 6’6 wing in his senior season who has featured prominently on two high-major squads in extreme rebuilding modes, is closing the circle on his college career with the Hartford Hawks — a place where he can lead on and off the court.
The transfer has made a difference for Hartford, where coach John Gallagher hopes to break through to the NCAA Tournament, and for Ellison. The Hawks have two three-game winning streaks and are 8-4 since Ellison recovered from an injury and set foot on the floor.
The addition of Ellison, who played St. John’s for two seasons and at Pittsburgh last season, has elevated the Hawks from a team that looked destined for a bottom-two finish in the America East to a squad that can compete in the top half and earn a home playoff game.
Ellison has averaged 17 points and 10 rebounds, plus over a block per game. In tempo neutral numbers, he is used on nearly 29 percent of the team’s possessions, grabbing 23 percent of available defensive rebounds and nine percent of offensive rebounds; his offensive rating is 95.4. That 29 percent usage is far above his previous career high – 24 percent of possessions on an eight-win St. John’s team that struggled badly to score.
And since his arrival, Hartford’s defense has been third-best (by points per 100 possessions) in the America East.
At Hartford, Ellison has less worry that a highly rated freshman or transfer is going to cut into his time on the floor.
“When I announced I was transferring from Pitt,” Ellison said, “I had numerous schools contacting me from the high-major level. I told my dad and I told my mom and my stepdad that for this decision, being my third time, I wanted to go somewhere where I could have freedom, not look over my shoulder when I’m playing. Just go out there and be myself.”
His childhood friend and teammate Traci Carter had recently committed to Hartford as a grad transfer, after playing at Marquette and LaSalle. Carter reached out to his friend.
“He called me and said, ‘I know what you’re looking for in a school for your last year of college, and I think this is a good opportunity for you.’”
“I saw that they had a guy last year, JR Lynch”, Ellison said. “We grew up playing against each other in AAU, he’s from Jersey, I’m from Jersey. I talked to him and he just told me, ‘look, we’ve got five, six seniors leaving who played the majority of minutes. You and Traci can come in here, play right away, play a lot of minutes, and you guys are going to have to lead this team.’”
“I was just blown away from the first meeting I had with Coach Gal. Great energy, I could tell that loyalty was his biggest thing. And I know that he would challenge me every day to be the best version of myself. And that was the result, why I decided to come to Hartford.”
Last season’s senior-laden Hawks team was good enough for a top-four finish in the America East and a home win in the league tournament. That ceiling, and the two-year span that ended with that class, looked like an ending.
This year’s team — at the bottom of the NCAA in minutes returning — has been a surprise, thanks to Ellison and Carter.
They have brought experience. They have brought knowledge from other coaching staffs.
But to hear Gallagher tell it, what Ellison has brought is game-changing talent, the ability to be what the coach considers a “top one, two” player in the America East on a nightly basis — a human cheat code late in games.
“[Ellison is] a handful,” Gallagher said after the win over Albany, a game where Ellison’s second-half effort held the Great Danes to a season-low in points. “He can really pass. He also has a great spinning ability, agility, and his touch around the rim is unbelievable given how athletic he is.”
It’s still January, with a lot of basketball to play. The America East is stocked with experienced coaches — only two of the nine coaches have been with their programs fewer than four years. The league will adjust, find ways of keeping Ellison out of the paint and forcing him to shoot from distance, where his three-point shot has not fallen (1-10 on the season, 3-18 last year at Pitt).
But as a rebuild, Hartford has found a one-year gap from senior-laden to all-new, a solution as their freshmen develop.
And they have a legitimate shot to be a dark horse in a league where Vermont is a clear favorite, but the other squads are vulnerable.
“I have so much confidence in this team, but it’s not gonna be easy [to win the league],” Ellison said. “We gotta approach each and every day with the same mentality that we did before this game.”