Tyler Ennis has been on his way to Toronto since June 26, 2014.
The Raptors were keen on drafting him with the 20th overall pick that year, only to see the Suns take him at #18. Even after he was selected, Ennis said he was told to “just wait. You’re going to Toronto.” But he was never dealt. Instead of joining a team in need of a backup, or a starting point guard if perhaps Kyle Lowry didn’t work out, Ennis was assured to be playing behind Isaiah Thomas, Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic. Draft night is supposed to be the pinnacle of a young player’s career. And it was. But once Ennis had processed the accomplishment, he took stock of the situation.
“That was, I think, the start of my, ‘oh, this is the NBA?'”
In his half-season stint with the Suns, Ennis only entered eight NBA games, spending most of his time with their G League affiliate Bakersfield Jam. Fortunately Ennis had a mentor who had gone through a remarkably similar path, and was willing to pass along his wisdom.
“Isaiah Thomas was (my mentor),” Ennis said. “Everything from playing (time as a rookie), tips on the court, to just being a dad. He’s been there, and someone I can call. He’s been through the injuries and everything. So I think it was perfect foreshadowing that I got drafted there and played with him.”
Thomas helped Ennis stay positive during his rookie season, and they reunited at the end of the 2017-18 season when Thomas was dealt to the Lakers. Just one season earlier Thomas was a top-five MVP candidate. One major hip injury and two trades later, his status as an NBA player going forward was in doubt. Ennis was in the same boat. After four unremarkable years with four different teams, and a shoulder operation in May of 2015, Ennis’s contract was up. In his exit media availability with the Lakers, Ennis was asked to evaluate his season.
His first anecdote was about Thomas:
“Just seeing how he approached the next-play mentality. It sounds weird, but how he just didn’t care about making mistakes,” Ennis said, presumably alluding to the tenuousness of both of their NBA careers. “That’s just who he is. I kind of adopted that when I got the opportunity at the end of the season.”
Despite Ennis finishing that year strong, including a career-high 22 points in the 80th game, Ennis could not find another NBA home. From there he signed with Turkish club Fenerbahce, but just eight games into his tenure Ennis suffered a broken tibia (in gruesome fashion) that wiped out his entire 2018-19 season.
Ennis’s injury was so severe that he couldn’t join a Euroleague team, as their training camps begin in August. But G League camps start in late October. The Raptors still had interest in the now-25-year-old, so the team had him train at the Canada Basketball facility in Etobicoke throughout the summer, allowing him to rehab at his own pace, and allowing the team to assess if they’d like to officially pick him up. (For the convoluted machinations of how Ennis was officially brought under the Raptors umbrella, refer to Blake Murphy’s reporting.)
Ennis’s progress has impressed everyone with the 905.
“It’s crazy, seeing the road that he was on,” fellow Canadian Duane Notice said. Notice worked out with Ennis throughout the summer. “To see him go from, like, the first week we’re playing pickup – he couldn’t do anything, he kind of favoured it. You could tell he would be cautious the way he was working out and stuff, to now – he’s just confident. (He’s) finishing well around the basket, planting off either foot, (playing) full fledged pickup, not worrying about his injury anymore. It’s tremendous. I don’t even know how he got to that point. It’s inspirational, to be honest.”
A fully healthy Ennis benefits the 905 for a few reasons. For one, recent first round NBA draft picks are almost always assets in the G League, but what might prove more valuable is Ennis’s five seasons of professional experience.
“Seeing him being in the gym a little bit and talking to our younger players – he just calms things down,” 905 Head Coach Jama Mahlalela said. “As a coach that’s a dream because the game gets pretty frenetic, and I think having someone out there that stabilizes the ship and just can run the play that needs to be run and make the right pass when it needs to be made is really special. Before we even get going here I think that is a tremendous asset that he’s bringing to the table and then I think that his actual play, once he gets going, is gonna be phenomenal as well.”
Mahlalela should feel assured that Ennis is going to play unselfishly. In the final 11 games of the 2017-18 season, when Ennis’s minutes significantly increased, he averaged under eight field goal attempts and nearly four assists, only shooting 10-plus shots twice; he’s a pass-first player.
“One of the things I wanted to do was turn the negative of being injured into something that I could look back and say, you know, I got better at this,” Ennis said, “Off the court, as well. But just, I was able to kind of break down my game and get back to basics of shooting and watching the game. I watched probably the most basketball I’ve watched, just being home, and I think it’s paid off. Because I feel, honestly, a lot better now than I did before I got injured.”
Ennis could have eventually returned overseas to earn a more lucrative salary, but his goal is to make it back to the NBA. For him there were too many reasons to continue that journey in North America.
“Obviously being home and being comfortable with the staff and everything, was a plus for me, but I just feel like everybody kinda wonders how my leg is and how I’m looking, and I think going overseas, I think it’s easy to get overlooked.
“It depends where you’re playing. I noticed it, because when I was playing over there, a lot of people weren’t watching the games and I was playing for one of the top teams. I think here, I’m able to play on a level where everyone’s able to see my health and for me, like I said, just get better.”
Mississauga is an ideal landing spot for Ennis. He comes with a CV full of NBA experience, a clean bill of health and an air of wisdom and respectability. But the confidence that his teammates and coach have raved about hasn’t yet been tested in a game, or even a competitive training camp. Ennis’s first real test comes Saturday, November 2 in the 905’s first preseason game against the NBL’s Kitchener-Waterloo Titans. At that point we’ll have a better idea of Ennis’s physical capabilities, and soon enough, we’ll have a more reliable assessment of his merit as a reborn NBA prospect.