Monta Ellis is a walking contradiction, an oxymoron in the flesh.
His game is explosive and captivating, yet his demeanor is tranquil and reserved. His build is slight, fragile looking. Yet he's proved tough and durable.
But there is something more curious yet about Ellis, who faces his biggest challenge this coming season in replacing Baron Davis as the Warriors' starting point guard. He has natural abilities most basketball players dream about, but he also has an incredible work ethic.
"Monta is quietly confident, and it comes from getting his work done and not talking about it," said Warriors executive vice president of basketball operations Chris Mullin, who drafted Ellis No. 40 overall in 2005.
"He shows up in the best shape. You don't keep improving as he has just because. He works at it."
There are plenty of athletes who overcame a lack of talent by working harder than everyone else. There are plenty of athletes who are good enough to thrive with putting in the practice time. But not many combine special talent with a persistent grind to get better, as does Ellis. As a result, his three-year career has already produced a spectacular ascension from high-school hopeful to franchise figure. That's why he was given a six-year, $66 million contract and the reins to the Warriors franchise last month after Davis opted out of his contract and signed with the Los Angeles Clippers.
Members of the organization are showing no concern about putting so much responsibility on Ellis' 22-year-old shoulders. Instead of spending the summer swimming in his newly acquired wealth, Ellis is already preparing to meet expectations. He is doggedly working on his ball handling this offseason and has plans to improve his endurance and strength by working out with trainer Virgil Hunter, boxing coach of undefeated super middleweight Andre Ward of Oakland.
"There's no workout like a boxing workout," said Ward, who is training for his December fight at Oracle Arena against Brian Vera. "It surprised me a little bit because there was no hesitation (when he was approached with the idea). "... The scary part about him is he's going to get better. When hard work and talent come together, great things happen."
Ellis' freakish abilities on the court are unmistakable. He is not afraid to discuss them.
"I'm going to tell you an ability I have that most players don't have," Ellis said during his meeting with Bay Area media late last month. "That's speed. That's it. I mean, that's how I stand out from other guys — speed. You have guys in the league that have speed. But they don't have the abilities I have."
More specifically, he has unique quickness in lateral movement and reaction. He gets off the ground like a flea — fast and high — and has superb body control while in the air. He has a natural feel for the game you can't teach — he knows how and when to change gears and how to anticipate the help defense.
Still, it's his work ethic that has set Ellis apart. That's what's helped him overcome his knee ailments. One of the reasons Ellis slipped in the draft was concern over surgery on his left knee (which he didn't rehab right while in high school). He wasn't able to work out for teams at his best.
During Ellis' first year with the Warriors, while he rode the bench under then-coach Mike Montgomery, Ellis worked on strengthening his knee three or four days a week, close to an hour a day, in addition to normal practice. These days his knee is not an issue.
His hard work helped him improve his strength.
"When he came to us, he was 160-165 pounds soaking wet," Warriors director of athletic development Mark Grabow said. "Now he's about 185 pounds and still about 5 or 6 percent body fat. He was able to put the right kind of weight on and increase his strength."
Credit Ellis' work ethic for his ability to dribble left and nail a midrange jumper with consistency. During his second and third seasons, he worked on both daily, with the results showing last season, when he averaged 20.2 points on 53 percent shooting.
"The way Monta practices," assistant coach Keith Smart said, "Monta goes at guys like he's playing for the world championships."
Of course, his new contract and increased responsibility certainly ups the expectations. Questions abound about Ellis' ability to play point guard at the NBA level, which he has little experience doing. Doubts persist about his ability to be as prolific a scorer as he was playing alongside point guard Baron Davis. There are worries about his ability to defend, especially against the pick-and-roll and bigger point guards, which gave him plenty problems last season.
But Mullin doesn't blink when confronted with these concerns.
"Anytime he's faced with any type of adversity or someone questioning his ability, he uses that as a motivating factor and turns it into a positive," Mullin said. "From where he was drafted to not playing much his rookie year, he's been faced with things already and has taken them head on. He's one of those motivated, mentally tough kind of guys. I have a lot of confidence in him."
Contact Marcus Thompson II at firstname.lastname@example.org.