Trail Blazing a new path

Washington State forward CJ Elleby (2) dunks the ball on a fast break during the second half of a Pac-12 Conference basketball game against USC Jan. 2 at Beasley Coliseum in Pullman.

CJ Elleby won’t have to travel too far to begin his professional career.

The Seattle native became the first Washington State basketball player since Klay Thompson (2011) to be selected in the NBA draft Wednesday, getting scooped up midway through the second round — No. 46 overall to the Portland Trail Blazers.

The former star forward opted to enter the NBA draft pool in the spring instead of returning to Pullman for his junior year. Despite coming into draft day on the bubble, his choice turned out nicely.

The smooth-scoring, well-rounded Elleby is the first WSU underclassman to be taken in the draft, and only the third Coug in the past 20 years to hear his name called.

He was a first-team All-Pac-12 player last season after finishing fourth in the league with 18.4 points per game, and seventh in rebounding at 7.8 boards per game. He added a Pac-12-best 1.8 steals, plus 0.8 blocks each time out.

Elleby is the only Cougar to lead the team in all four categories in one year.

He was the wind in the Cougs’ sails for much of a commendable, 16-16 season under first-year coach Kyle Smith. It was Wazzu’s best campaign in eight years.

Smith communicated with Elleby before the draft to put his pupil’s mind at ease.

“I wished him well,” Smith said during the WSU coaches’ show with Matt Chazanow. “I’m sure he’s anxious for this day. And I just told him best of luck, and things are going to work out because of who he is, and we’ll figure it out from there.”

Elleby, who could pour in buckets from all angles, was the third-fastest player in school history to reach 1,000 career points. He posted 30 of them in March against Colorado, in WSU’s first Pac-12 tournament win in 11 years.

He only was in Pullman for two years, but his name is scattered throughout the record books.

The 6-foot-6, 200-pounder with the iconic, poofy hair worked out for a handful of NBA organizations in 2019, when he declared for the draft after his freshman season. He learned from professional organizations he needed to hone his defense, ball-handling and shot selection, and he did so as a sophomore.

“An aggressive wing who put up huge numbers in the Pac-12 in his first two seasons, CJ Elleby still has upside to develop at just 20 years old,” ESPN analyst Jonathan Givony wrote.

Per ESPN’s draft report, Elleby is projected to play shooting guard in the NBA.

During a Zoom call with media members earlier this year, Elleby said he’d leave his name in the pool if one or more teams showed legitimate interest in drafting him and providing a guaranteed contract. Most mock boards had him just outside the 60-player draft.

“I’m just looking for that team to take a chance on me and believe in my abilities, and see some potential in me,” he said then.

As it turned out, the franchise that wanted him the most is just a few hours down the road from his hometown.

ALSO — Former Washington State guard Malachi Flynn, an Ernie Kent recruit who transferred to San Diego State after two seasons as a Coug, was selected at No. 29 by the Toronto Raptors.

Colton Clark may be reached at cclark@lmtribune.com, on Twitter @ClarkTrib or by phone at (208) 848-2260.

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