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New Faces from Old Places: James Ennis

In the final part of our series, we take a look at what could be the most underrated signing of Houston’s free agency.

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Detroit Pistons Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

After losing Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute in free agency, the Rockets were struggling to find answers to replace their 3-and-D wings. However, they might have found their guy in James Ennis.

Ennis, 28, spent last season with the Memphis Grizzlies and was traded to the Detroit Pistons near the trade deadline as the team looked to make a playoff push. Though their playoff pursuit was unsuccessful, Ennis showed signs of an underrated wing that fits today’s NBA.

In the final part of our New Faces series, we spoke with Joe Mullinax (@JoeMullinax) of Grizzly Bear Blues and Sean Corp (@Sean_Corp) of Detroit Bad Boys to learn more about one of the newest Rockets. Thank you Joe and Sean for participating.

Jeremy Brener, The Dream Shake: Are the Rockets a good fit for Ennis? If so, why?

Joe Mullinax, Grizzly Bear Blues: The Rockets are a terrific fit for James Ennis, because I truly believe he will finally be on a team that will use him properly. When James was at his best in Memphis he was out and running in transition, a part of quick-hitting offense where he could either run for the corner or attack the rim. If only Houston ran similar stuff...

Sean Corp, Detroit Bad Boys: James Ennis in Houston reminds me of Detroit’s previous small forward, Marcus Morris, moving on to Boston, and I would imagine Ennis will enjoy a similar boost in productivity. Both players are stoutly built small forwards and while neither is supremely talented in any one area they have a versatile skill set and, most importantly, almost always make the right decision with the ball.

For both Morris and Ennis, relying too heavily on them produces diminishing returns, and they were relied on too heavily in Detroit. But as the fourth or fifth option the floor he will hit open shots, cut at the right times and probably enjoy much great success as a catch-and-shoot option in a more wide-open offense.

Ennis is not a great defender, but he smart and strong enough on the defensive end to switch out on the perimeter and can handle assignments against 2s, 3s and 4s without forcing his teammates to overhelp or otherwise mess things up. This means for however many minutes he plays as 3/4, he should enable Houston to play the kind of switching defense that they will need to in order to keep up with a certain elite team in the Western Conference.

Jeremy Brener, The Dream Shake: What is Ennis’s success rate in guarding premium scorers?

Joe Mullinax, Grizzly Bear Blues: If you expect him to be a LeBron or Klay stopper, you’re going to be disappointed. But he is a serviceable defender who can take the assignment of a best bench scorer and limit what they want to do. At 6’7” with good length he can switch and fight over the top of screens well, and he has the frame to withstand bumps and bruises in the lane when being driven on.

Sean Corp, Detroit Bad Boys: LeBron torched him for 31 points on 17 shots, but that was really the only embarrassment on his defensive resume in Detroit. Ennis came to Detroit with a reputation as a solid two-way player and, frankly, I was left a little disappointed on both ends based on his time in Detroit.

However, I’d say his Motown stint is probably not the best 27-game sample to judge. Detroit was pretty much out of the playoff picture, they had turned everything over to Blake Griffin to see how to incorporate him into the offense and that left everyone else as collateral damage from a development perspective.

Crucially, Detroit also had zero point guards that could play off the ball alongside Griffin with Reggie Jackson out with injury. That meant that for a sizeable chunk of those 27 games, Ennis spent half his minutes in Detroit on the floor with Ish Smith and Andre Drummond. When your offense is that dysfunctional it is hard to give maximum effort on the defensive end.

Jeremy Brener, The Dream Shake: What is Ennis’s biggest strength?

Joe Mullinax, Grizzly Bear Blues: As previously mentioned, he can run and thrives in transition. He is much more comfortable in these situations, and when he is able to simply cut or have one offensive responsibility to execute. When multiple pieces have to be put together for him to have an open shot on that end, or he is on the floor with multiple non-creators, he can very easily get lost in the shuffle.

Sean Corp, Detroit Bad Boys: His best attribute is his quality decision making and ability to play off of other talented players well. Blake and Andre Drummond had the ball in their hand a lot, and Ish Smith loved to push in transition, and Ennis knew where to go and how to find holes in the defense.

Playing alongside James Harden and Chris Paul will just maximize that skill to its greatest possible end, and he’s also not going to be a ball stopper or complain about touches. He’s a great fourth or fifth option the floor who will be able to do whatever the offense needs him to do.

Jeremy Brener, The Dream Shake: What is Ennis’s biggest risk or weakness?

Joe Mullinax, Grizzly Bear Blues: He isn’t someone that you can place in offensive sets and expect to create for himself or even others off the dribble. He is dependent on space and it being provided by either situations (transition game mentioned in #1) or by others. The good news is between James Harden and Chris Paul the Rockets have arguably the two best creators in the NBA, so Ennis’ weakness is negated more in Houston than it was in Memphis.

Sean Corp, Detroit Bad Boys: Again, I’m not sure I saw the most stellar game film from Ennis in his run with the Pistons, but I was a little concerned about his lack of lateral quickness and agility as a defender in Detroit. Whether that was a limitation, a lack of effort, or defensive breakdowns of his teammates that he struggled to make up for I am not sure. But I recall him being a good straight-lline athlete who would inexplicably have defenders go right by him.

I’d be concerned if the Rockets expected him to be another Ariza on defense and really stretch him beyond his limits. In my eyes he’s a small forward who can switch onto others while the defense recovers, but he can’t be a defensive stopper that just handles the other team’s best perimeter threat no matter how small and athletic.

Jeremy Brener, The Dream Shake: What other player in the NBA could Ennis be compared to?

Joe Mullinax, Grizzly Bear Blues: Ennis has a little bit of Al-Farouq Aminu to his game, with a splash of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Danny Green. He isn’t the shooter than Green is, or the defender that MKG or Aminu are (at least in theory), but between defensive versatility and perimeter shooting he is a decent combo of good qualities of those types of role players.

There’s a reason he isn’t paid like those guys - he isn’t as good. But as I said before, he’s also never been used properly for extended periods of time.

Sean Corp, Detroit Bad Boys: As stated above, he’s like Marcus Morris but without the obsession with backing down defenders for mid-range jumpers. He’s not as versatile a defender but more consistent as a perimeter threat.

Jeremy Brener, The Dream Shake: What is your projection for Ennis this season?

Joe Mullinax, Grizzly Bear Blues: I was going to say he’d be the starter for Houston, replacing Ariza, and that the Rockets wouldn’t miss Trevor too much because of the way Ennis would be used. Now, with the Rockets bringing in Carmelo Anthony, I fear that Ennis’ role will be smaller than it should be. With the possible exception of Golden State, Houston is the best possible team for James to land on with regard to fit. He should thrive if he has consistent minutes. Anthony may block that, though, and that’s a real shame.

Sean Corp, Detroit Bad Boys: I would think that the Rockets will get similar efficiency on the offensive end from Ennis that they got from Ariza last season. A 37 percent 3-point shooter with between a 60-65 percent 3-point rate who can also run the floor and finish a transition bucket. However, I don’t think he’s going to play 2,200 minutes like Ariza did last season.

Obviously, once Carmelo Anthony joins the fold, the team is going to have to incorporate him and keep him happy (good luck). With the loss of Ariza and Luc Mbah A Moute, there are 3,000 minutes to split between Anthony and Ennis split between the SF/PF positions with PJ Tucker probably playing a more prominent role on both ends to cover up for Anthony’s limitations. I’d say between 1,300-1,700 minutes for Ennis wouldn’t be out of the question as an efficient catch-and-shoot option, and if the Anthony addition is a disaster he becomes a nice security blanket.

To read the earlier parts of our ‘New Faces from Old Places’ series, click here:

Wednesday, August 1: De’Anthony Melton

Thursday, August 2: Gary Clark

Friday, August 3: Michael Carter-Williams

Wednesday, August 8: Carmelo Anthony

Thursday, August 9: Vincent Edwards