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

Before they saw each other as brothers more than a decade ago, Boogie Ellis first asked Vince Rogers to be his trainer. Rogers kindly turned him down.

Rogers only trained professionals, he told Ellis, and the future USC point guard was just a pre-teen, albeit a confident one. Still, Ellis, whose cousin played on a team Rogers coached, was determined. Every fiber of his being longed to get better. So the child kept coming. Finally, Rogers relented.

He has been by Ellis’ side ever since, helping him through all the ups and downs and leading him on and off the court as a basketball guru and sibling of choice. No one understands Ellis and what drives him like Rogers. During this season, Ellis’s second and last at USC after moving from Memphis, Rogers watched proudly as the point guard made a critical discovery, one that helped establish him as one of the best on the West Coast.

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

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

On Thursday, with the rest of USC’s offense stalling, Ellis tried to carry the Trojans and scored 35 in an 87-81 loss to Arizona.

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

With the senior point guard moving up, USC is also in a good spot as the regular season wraps up Saturday against Arizona State. The Trojans have a top-three finish in the conference, and with a win on Saturday or the following Thursday at the Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas, USC should safely secure a third straight trip to the NCAA Tournament .

For Ellis, it’s the only fitting conclusion to a basketball journey that detoured through Memphis before returning to Southern California. Those two years in Tennessee were particularly hard on Ellis, whose freshman season, he explains, was shaken up rudely.

“After high school, I never had any problems,” says Ellis, who played at San Diego Mission Bay High. “I was a top-30 recruit, had every school in the country (talk 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 with Memphis. Still, he struggled to shake off his frustration. His hard work did not pay off as he had hoped.

He had always been his harshest critic. But that penchant for perfection now turned the point guard into his own worst enemy. He was too deep in his own head.

“That’s the biggest thing he’s always struggled with, the emotional ups and downs,” Rogers said. “When things go well, he’s high. If it doesn’t go well, it’s lower than it should be.”

USC guard Boogie Ellis 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 with his transfer to USC. After a fast start to his first season with the Trojans, Ellis hit a wall in December.

“He started getting into his head again about worrying about being perfect,” Rogers said. “That kind of messed with him a bit. “

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

The unceremonious ending of his junior season raised questions about Ellis’ future at USC. Soon after, he dipped his toes in the NBA draft water. Through that process it became clear that he had enough room to grow. As he saw it, he had a year to make marked progress, hoping to land a role in the NBA.

He had to become more of a floor general and less of an isolated playmaker.

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

In response, Ellis delved deeper into his film studies, taking in every nuance and internalizing every detail about insult that he could discern from hours and hours of video. Nearly every night, he and Rogers watched together, Rogers answering questions his way.

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

The results are undeniable.

“He’s just becoming more of a point guard,” sophomore wing Kobe Johnson said. “He’s taken a big step in mastering the game. If he has to take over, he’ll take over.”

That much has become clear in the past 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 appearances in his last 10 games.

“I really believe in myself, you know?” Ellis said. “I’ve been through a lot, a lot of ups and downs. I’ve been on the lows and I’ve been on the highs. But at the end of the day you’re going to take pictures, you’re going to miss pictures. Six assists in one game, six losses in the next game – you just have to keep believing. If you don’t believe in yourself, no one else will.”

That message wasn’t always easy for Ellis to internalize. With his college career drawing to a close this month, Rogers feels a shift in his “little brother.”

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