By Dylan Barmmer
It has been a fascinating and intriguing journey for James Ennis. With quite a few miles traveled along the way.
Over the past three years, the ultra-athletic, cat-quick Ennis has gone from under-the-radar college star at Long Beach State to champion and league MVP candidate in Australia to his current role – an intriguing and versatile component of the HEAT’s rotation.
Now that he’s been with the HEAT for several months, coaches, teammates and fans alike are beginning to see more and more of what made the dynamic 24-year-old swingman so successful in previous programs.
The 6-foot-7, 208-pound Ennis grew up in Ventura, California, and went on to basketball stardom at Ventura High School before splitting his first two college seasons between Oxnard College (2009-10) and Ventura College (2010-11). Ennis moved on to Long Beach State in 2011, and found great success in two seasons as a starter for the 49ers.
As a junior in the 2011-2012 season, Ennis averaged 10.0 points and 4.1 rebounds per game and helped lead the 49ers to the Big West Conference title. The explosive Ennis also garnered All-Big West Conference honors in his first season at Long Beach State.
As a senior in the 2012-13 season, Ennis really came into his own, averaging 16.5 points and 6.7 rebounds per game while leading the 49ers to a second consecutive Big West Conference title. Ennis was also named Big West Player of the Year and an Associated Press Honorable Mention All-American.
That season gave Ennis added buzz among NBA personnel people. The Atlanta Hawks selected Ennis in the second round of the 2013 NBA Draft, tabbing him with the 50th overall pick. His draft rights were then immediately traded to the HEAT – but Ennis would spend his first professional basketball season not only miles away from Miami, but far away from the NBA as he signed with the Perth Wildcats of Australia’s National Basketball League prior to their 2013-14 season.
Ennis wasted no time starring in and at times dominating the NBL, averaging 21.2 points, 7.2 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.4 steals in 31.7 minutes a game over 33 games. Ennis started all but one of those games for the Wildcats at the small forward spot, and shot 46.6 percent from the field, including 35.5 percent from behind the three-point arc.
More importantly, Ennis helped lead the Wildcats to victory in the 2014 NBL Championship. He finished third in NBL MVP voting, and won a handful of other league honors, including Forward of the Year and Import Player of the Year. He was also named All-NBL First Team and awarded the Gordon Ellis Medal as the Wildcats’ team MVP.
Not satisfied with dominating the competition in Australia, Ennis then immediately moved on to Puerto Rico, where he averaged 16.6 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.0 blocks in 33.6 minutes over 12 games for Piratas de Quebradillas. Ennis started all 12 of those games for Piratas, shooting 47 percent from the field.
In June of 2014, Ennis left Puerto Rico to return to the continental U.S. – and pursue his ultimate dream of an NBA career. Playing for the HEAT’s entry in the NBA Summer League for the second straight summer, Ennis dazzled with his leaping ability, quick hands, ferocious dunking and accurate outside shooting, prompting the HEAT to officially sign Ennis to an NBA contract on July 15, 2014.
Ennis got his first taste of NBA action in the HEAT’s 2014-15 season opener, scoring five points and grabbing two rebounds in 15 minutes of action as the HEAT posted a 107-95 win over the Washington Wizards on Oct. 29, 2014. Ennis’ most talked-about moment in his debut was a thunderous fourth-quarter dunk over former HEAT swingman Rasual Butler – an explosive and vicious jam that made numerous highlight reels.
With an array of injuries slowing starters Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Luol Deng, and key reserve Chris Andersen also battling assorted ailments, Ennis factored heavily into coach Erik Spoelstra’s rotation from mid-November through late-December. Given the opportunity to showcase his still-expanding skill set, Ennis flashed moments of excellence and suggested he could serve as a powerful sparkplug off the HEAT bench in the months and years to come.
Over a 20-game stretch from Nov. 16 through Dec. 23, Ennis saw 12 minutes or more of game action 14 times – including 22 minutes or more in six of those 20 games. He scored seven or more points in seven of those 20 games, including a 10-point outing in a 95-83 win at Brooklyn on Nov. 17 and a career-high 16-point outburst in a 100-84 victory over Boston on Dec. 21. Ennis also showcased his rebounding abilities during this run of games, pulling down a career-high eight rebounds in that win over the Celtics and posting an eight-point, eight-rebound performance in a 114-97 loss to Golden State on Nov. 25.
Ennis fell out of the HEAT playing rotation over the final week of 2014, but nagging leg injuries to Wade and Deng provided the high-energy reserve with additional opportunities in much of January. Given the chance to provide and produce more, Ennis once again delivered.
Ennis logged at least 15 minutes of floor time for the HEAT six times in January and scored seven or more points in three different games. Overall, he appeared in 10 games in the first month of 2015, averaging 4.4 points, 2.6 rebounds, 0.7 assists and 0.5 steals over 17.1 minutes per game. Ennis’ finest January performance came in a 93-72 loss to the Dallas Mavericks on Jan. 30, when he scored 15 points and hauled in four rebounds in 32 minutes of action. Ennis nailed 6-of-12 shots in that game, including 3-of-5 from long-range. His most emphatic basket came on a sensational, powerful alley-oop dunk on a pass from Mario Chalmers, and the tomahawk jam ignited the AmericanAirlines Arena crowd.
Two days later in Boston, Ennis again showed strong against the Celtics, recording eight points, three rebounds and a steal in an important 83-75 road win on Feb. 1. Ennis played 24 high-energy minutes in that game, and connected on 3-of-6 shots from the field. He also hit both of his free throw attempts, and his scoring output off the HEAT bench ended up being the difference in the eight-point victory.
Ennis would go on to appear in seven more games in February, and averaged 3.8 points and 3.0 rebounds in 16.3 minutes per game for the month. The HEAT went 4-4 in the eight games Ennis appeared in during the month. When the HEAT signed gritty veteran Henry Walker towards the end of February, the still-learning Ennis faced an even tougher climb back into Spoelstra’s regular rotation.
Ennis has appeared in just six games in March, but he’s made a major impact in all but one of those games (and he only played one minute in that one). With the HEAT battling for a playoff spot down the season’s stretch and Wade, Deng, Andersen and Hassan Whiteside all missing varying amounts of time due to injuries, Ennis has done a little bit of everything when presented with the opportunity to again showcase his skills. And he’s done it while being asked to sit out eight consecutive games in between those opportunities.
Ennis appeared in three of the HEAT’s first four games in March, posting an 11-point, five-rebound performance during a tough 99-97 loss at Washington on March 6. Then came the eight consecutive stints on the sidelines, before Ennis reemerged as a strong cog off the HEAT bench over the past three games.
Ennis has delivered on Spoelstra’s decision to once again re-insert him into the rotation, scoring at least six points in each of those three games and pulling down six rebounds in two of them. His six-point, six-rebound, two-block performance helped key a crucial 93-86 victory over the Celtics on March 25, and on March 29, Ennis tied his career-high with 16 points and pulled down six rebounds in a 109-102 win over the Detroit Pistons.
Ennis has averaged 7.7 points and 3.3 rebounds in 17.7 minutes per game in his six March appearances. He’s also shot a sizzling 56.5 percent from the field, including a remarkable 58.3 percent (7-of-12) from behind the three-point arc. Most importantly, the HEAT are 4-2 in those six games.
All told, Ennis has appeared in 53 games for the HEAT in his first NBA season. He’s averaging 4.4 points, 2.5 rebounds and 0.6 assists in 15.2 minutes per game. He’s shooting 40.7 percent from the field, including 34.8 percent from long-range, and an outstanding 83.6 percent from the line.
Ennis has scored seven or more points in 15 of those 52 games, and grabbed three or more rebounds 20 different times. Ennis has scored at least 10 points in five different games, and grabbed six or more rebounds eight times.
Ennis has also thrilled HEAT fans and ignited teammates with a handful of high-flying, eye-popping, rim-rocking dunks – with the jam against the Mavericks and the season-opening stuff over the Wizards both gaining national acclaim.
As he begins to develop more experience, confidence, insight and savvy on the HEAT practice court and in critical NBA game situations, Ennis only figures to become an even more valuable, versatile and exciting option for Spoelstra to utilize off the HEAT bench. With the HEAT challenged by injuries this season, Ennis has even made a spot start, with that lone start coming just nine games into his first NBA season.
Ennis can play both the small forward and shooting guard positions, and his quickness, energy, leaping ability and overall athleticism are the kind of assets any team would welcome. As the HEAT launch full sprint into the stretch run of this intriguing and eventful 2014-15 season, Ennis stands ready to provide a serious jolt of energy, excitement and athleticism off the HEAT bench.