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James Ennis III eager to capitalize on opportunity with hometown Clippers

James Ennis III controls the ball during a game between the Orlando Magic and Denver Nuggets in April.
James Ennis III controls the ball during a game between the Orlando Magic and Denver Nuggets in April. The Ventura native signed a 10-day contract with the Clippers on Tuesday.
(David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

Playing for the Lakers or Clippers had always been a dream for Ventura-raised James Ennis III.

To finally get that opportunity, he had to come a long way. Quite literally.

Eight seasons into his NBA career, the 6-foot-6 forward had just seen his 10-day contract with his eighth NBA team, the Brooklyn Nets, expire following Monday’s game at Crypto.com Arena against the Clippers. The circumstances weren’t ideal, but the geography was: Without a deal in place, he drove from Los Angeles to his mother’s home in Ventura to ponder his future.

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What happened next was a phone call around 6 p.m. Tuesday from his agent, Scott Nichols, informing him that his opponent from 24 hours earlier wanted to be his employer.

The Clippers open trip with a 91-82 win over the Celtics on Wednesday in Boston.

His first instinct was gratitude. His next step was preparation. As the details of his 10-day contract were worked out, Ennis began preparing for his latest NBA stop Tuesday evening in a familiar place — a Ventura gym.

“I go to a 24 Hour Fitness, go there, lift real quick, do some cardio runs, shoot,” Ennis said. “And you know, next day, that’s where it all started.”

Wednesday morning he boarded a private jet at a Southern California airport and spent the next several hours en route to Boston — where he later watched the Clippers’ 91-82 win from the TD Garden sideline — getting up to speed from conversations with the other passenger, Clippers point guard Reggie Jackson. The two overlapped in Detroit in 2018, and Jackson had just been cleared from the NBA’s health and safety protocols after eight days of quarantine.

“I was asking Reggie a bunch of questions,” Ennis said late Wednesday, dressed in Clippers warmups. “I’m just very thankful and blessed to be here.”

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The 31-year-old Ennis is among the wave of players who have benefited from new NBA roster exceptions allowing teams who otherwise would not have open roster spots — such as the Clippers — to fill the voids created by COVID-sidelined players with an equal number of replacements on 10-day contracts. The Clippers (18-17) used their first two hardship deals on NBA newcomers in center Moses Wright and point guard Xavier Moon, opting to tap the roster of their G League affiliate in Ontario, which runs the same plays as the big club and offers a level of familiarity.

“I’m actually happy — not happy about COVID, let me get that straight — I’m happy that these guys are getting an opportunity to see what the NBA is like, even if it’s for 10 days,” forward Marcus Morris Sr. said. “Being able to see what they’re up against and being able to see what the competition really is. Guys work their entire life for this moment. For me, that’s an accomplishment for them, man. They’ve been playing their whole life and they get a chance to step and grace an NBA court for their families, to be able to see that, that has to mean a lot. I’m happy they’re getting an opportunity ... I hope some of them stick.”

What made Ennis’ signing unique was his place as an out-of-network veteran. The former Long Beach State product is a career 36% shooter with 140 NBA starts and 22 playoff appearances. He also brings something else: valuable experience transitioning to multiple NBA teams and the quick learning that comes with that. Coach Tyronn Lue said Ennis is in a “tough position to be in,” with three games in his first four days, allowing little time to learn plays and even staffers’ names, but teammates said his veteran status would help.

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“He’s gonna transition easy, I’m sure,” guard Terance Mann said. “He’s already asking questions and you could tell he wants to be here.”

The Clippers play at Toronto on Friday and Brooklyn the following day, before returning to Los Angeles. One week after Ennis played at Crypto.com Arena as a visitor, he will return Monday as a member of the home team, a meaning that is true in more ways than one.

“Obviously, you know, when you grow up [here], you want to play for your hometown teams,” Ennis said. “I worked out for the Clippers, Lakers during my draft workouts back then [in 2013] but I’m just happy to be here now. Good to see my mom, my dad and my brothers and sisters, family friends, you know, happy and excited for me to be playing for Clippers.”

Projecting how long Ennis could stick with the Clippers beyond his first 10 days is difficult. At full strength the Clippers don’t have an open spot on their 15-man roster, and though backup center Isaiah Hartenstein’s minimum deal is nonguaranteed, he has become a supremely important piece of their bench unit who will regain his place in the rotation as soon as his sprained ankle heals.

Ennis isn’t yet in a place where he can afford to think long term, however. As he knows from experience, it’s hard to predict what the next day will hold.

Up next for the Clippers: Friday at Toronto

When: 4:30 p.m.

On the air: TV: Bally Sports; Radio: 570, 1220

Update: This is the first game between the Raptors (14-17) and Clippers in Toronto since Dec. 11, 2019, after the franchise decamped to Tampa, Fla., last season. It also marks former Raptors and Clippers backup center Serge Ibaka’s first game in Toronto since Feb. 28, 2020. As Toronto coach Nick Nurse told reporters Thursday: “When Serge was in his A-game element … we hardly ever lost.”


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