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‘He’s taken the next step’: How Boogie Ellis found his game as USC’s point guard

USC guard Boogie Ellis pulls at his basketball shorts as he catches his breath during a break in play.
USC senior guard Boogie Ellis explored entering the NBA draft last spring but realized he had work to do on his game, particularly getting his teammates more involved. “Now he’s making great decisions,” said coach Andy Enfield.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
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Before they saw each other as brothers, Boogie Ellis first asked Vince Rogers to be his trainer. Rogers kindly rejected him.

Rogers only trained professionals, he told Ellis, and the future USC point guard was just a pre-teen, albeit a confident one. Yet Ellis, whose cousin played on a team Rogers coached, was determined. Every fiber of his being yearned to be better. So the kid kept coming around. Eventually, Rogers relented.

He has been by Ellis’ side ever since, helping him through every up and every down, guiding him on and off the court as basketball guru and self-chosen sibling. No one understands Ellis and what makes him tick like Rogers. During this season, Ellis’ second and final at USC after transferring from Memphis, Rogers has looked on proudly as the point guard made a critical discovery, one that’s helped him mature into one of the West Coast’s best.

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“He’s always been a perfectionist, and sometimes, that can mess with you,” Rogers said. “I think he’s learned that things aren’t going to always be perfect. So he’s much more at ease. He’s in a really good place.”

By every measure he’s never been better. Over his last 10 games, Ellis is averaging 22.3 points and nearly four assists. Twice in that span, he’s set single-game career highs in both categories.

On Thursday, as the rest of USC’s offense stalled, Ellis tried to carry the Trojans, scoring 35 in an 87-81 loss to Arizona.

Boogie Ellis scored 35 points, Reese Dixon-Waters had 17, but USC’s late rally fell short against No. 8 Arizona in an 87-81 loss Thursday.

March 2, 2023

“He’s taken the next step,” USC coach Andy Enfield said. “He’s actually taken a few steps forward. Even from the beginning of the year, he was very insecure as far as his decision-making, now he’s making great decisions. His assist totals are way up. His turnover totals are down. He’s shooting a much higher percentage from the field and the three-point line. He’s shooting 86% from the foul line in league play. He’s doing it all for us.”

With its senior point guard surging, USC also finds itself in a good place as the regular season winds down Saturday against Arizona State. The Trojans have locked up a top-three finish in the conference, and with a win Saturday or the following Thursday at the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas, USC should safely secure a third consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament.

For Ellis, it’s the only fitting conclusion to a college hoops journey that took a detour through Memphis before slingshotting back to Southern California. Those two years in Tennessee were especially tough on Ellis, whose freshman season, he explains, was a rude awakening.

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“Out of high school, I’d never had any problems,” said Ellis, who starred at San Diego Mission Bay High. “I was a top-30 recruit, had every school in the country [talking to me]. But when I got to college, I struggled.”

It wasn’t until the end of his sophomore season that Ellis earned a starting role at Memphis. Still, he struggled to shake his frustration. His hard work wasn’t paying off as he’d hoped.

He’d always been his harshest critic. But that propensity for perfection was now turning the point guard into his own worst enemy. He was too deep in his own head.

“That’s the biggest thing he’s always battled with, the emotional ups and downs,” Rogers said. “When it’s going great, he’s high. When it’s not going great, he’s lower than it should be.”

USC guard Boogie Ellis lets out a yell while lying on the court after scoring and drawing a foul.
USC guard Boogie Ellis celebrates celebrates after scoring and drawing a foul during a win over Arizona on Thursday, when he scored a career-high 35 points.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Those feelings didn’t go away upon his transfer to USC. After a fast start in his first season with the Trojans, Ellis hit a wall in December.

“He started getting back in his own head about worrying about being perfect,” Rogers said. “That kind of messed with him a little bit. “

He found his stride only intermittently from there, falling flat in the NCAA tournament. He scored just three points, turned the ball over three times and played only 14 minutes, a season low, as USC was knocked out in the opening round by Miami (Fla.).

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The unceremonious end to his junior season left questions about Ellis’ future at USC. Shortly after, he dipped his toes in the NBA draft waters. Through that process, it became clear he had plenty of room to grow. As he saw it, he had one year to show marked progress, in hopes of carving out a role in the NBA.

Namely, he needed to become more of a floor general and less of an isolation playmaker.

“It’s something that people have always talked about with him, that he’s not a point guard, that he doesn’t make others better,” Rogers said. “I think he’s taken that personally.”

In response, Ellis dove deeper into his film study, absorbing every nuance, internalizing every detail about offense he could discern from hours and hours of video. Almost every night, he and Rogers would watch together, with Rogers lobbing questions his way.

L.A. Times college basketball experts Ben Bolch, Ryan Kartje and J. Brady McCollough project the Pac-12 tournament and national championship winners.

March 1, 2023

Scoring had never been an issue for Ellis. Instead of creating his own opportunities, Ellis tried to focus on uplifting others around him, anticipating how their defenders might react and using it against them.

The results have been undeniable.

“He’s just becoming more of a point guard,” sophomore wing Kobe Johnson said. “He’s taken a big stride in controlling the game. When he needs to take over, he takes over.”

That much has been apparent over this last month. Rogers points to USC’s win over UCLA in January as the turning point for Ellis. The previous season, he was held scoreless in the same game at Galen Center. This time, he dropped 31, his first of three 30-point performances in his last 10 games.

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“I’m really believing in myself, you know?” Ellis said. “I went through a lot, a lot of ups and downs. I’ve been at the lows and I’ve been at the highs. But at the end of the day, you’re gonna make shots, you’re gonna miss shots. Six assists one game, six turnovers the next game — you just have to keep believing. If you don’t believe in yourself, no one else will.”

That message hasn’t always been easy for Ellis to internalize. Now, as his college career comes to an end this month, Rogers has sensed a shift in his “little brother.”

“He’s understood now that it’s a journey, that he can accept the good and the bad,” Rogers said. “Throughout that journey, he was able to persevere. It could’ve been easy for him to quit, to give up, to not work as hard, to accept what everyone said about him. But he didn’t. That’s what I’m most proud of with him.”

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