After all of the hype and excitement surrounding the Nuggets draft this year, I took some time off from my 20 Greatest Nuggets. But we return today with another Nuggets Player that had great but somewhat tragic career with the Nuggets but has always been one of my personal favorites. I consider him one of the greatest Nuggets of all time. My seventh greatest Denver Nugget of all time….Laphonso Ellis.
I may get some negative reaction to this pick because Ellis’ statistics don’t really back up that he was one of the greatest of all time. But like Calvin Natt prior to him on this list, Ellis’ career was derailed by injury, although Laphonso had a very different type of injury that slowed him down and caused his ultimate retirement from the league. The Nuggets drafted Ellis with 5th overall pick in the 1992 draft out of the University of Notre Dame. He was drafted in the same draft as Virginia product Bryant Stith and these 2 players added to a roster that had been bolstered in the last 2 seasons by Chris Jackson and Dikembe Mutombo. This group would turn around the fortunes of the Nuggets franchise in the mid 1990’s. The Nuggets were in desperate need for a leader and a “Big” that could score because Mutombo was not a very good offensive player. For several years, Laphonso Ellis filled that role for the Nuggets.
Laphonso was named a starter in his rookie year and lived up to the billing of being the 5th pick in the draft as he averaged 14.7 points, 9.1 rebounds and 1.8 assists as a rookie and was named to the All-NBA Rookie first team after the 1992-1993 season. He did not fall victim to the “Sophomore Slump” like many young NBA players do as he maintained or increased his scoring and rebounding averages in the 1993-1994 season. He also helped to lead the Nuggets into the playoffs for the first time since 1989 and had a solid playoffs that year averaging 14.8 points and 8.1 rebounds against the Sonics and Jazz. He also was part of a tandem that held Shawn Kemp and in some ways, Karl Malone in check on the defensive end as well. This is when the career of Laphonso Ellis would slide off the tracks for a while.
Ellis played in only 6 games in the 1994-1995 season as he had been diagnosed with a degenerative condition in his knee that caused holes to form in the kneecap and required a very new procedure, Micro fracture Surgery. It would take better than a year for Ellis to return to the court in 1995-1996 and his minutes were reduced to give the knee additional time to heal. He ended up playing in 45 games in 1995-1996 and showed that the injury was healing as he averaged better than 10 points and 7 rebounds a game in reduced duty. He would bounce back in huge way in the 1996-1997 season as his knee had healed completely and he came into training camp ready to go. He would lead the Nuggets in scoring in 1997 averaging 21.9 points per game. He would also grab 7 rebounds a game and dish out 2.4 assists. He completed his Nuggets career after the 1997-1998 season averaging a very respectable 14.3 points and 7.2 rebounds a game while playing in 76 games that season.
Ellis’ contract was up after the 1998 season and the Nuggets chose not to re-sign him due to the history of knee injuries and Ellis’ career with the Nuggets was over. But not before he had left an indelible mark on Nuggets fans with his leadership, energy and talent giving 6 seasons to the franchise and one bright shining light with the 1994 playoff run. He signed with the Atlanta Hawks as a free agent in January of 1999 and spent 2 seasons in Atlanta, 1 season with the Minnesota Timberwolves and 2 seasons with the Miami Heat before retiring in 2003 after an 11 year career. His Nuggets career stats are very respectable and would have been better had he not had the recurring knee issues for several years in Denver. He finished his career in Denver with averages of 15.2 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.2 assists while shooting 46% from the field and 73% from the foul line.
I have one memory in particular of Laphonso’s time in Denver that shows you how beloved he was when he played for the Nuggets. It was May 5th, 1994 and the Nuggets were battling the Seattle Supersonics in the first round of the playoffs and they had just beaten the Sonics 94-85 to tie the series at 2-2 going back to Seattle. Laphonso had an all star type of game that night as he tallied 27 points, 17 rebounds and 2 steals in 43 minutes of action. He truly led the Nuggets back from the depths against a team that won 62 games in the regular season when the Nuggets only won 43. After the game the television broadcast team interviewed Ellis as the “Player of the game” and before the first question was even answered, the entire crowd started singing “Happy Birthday” to the Nuggets hero. It just so happened that Ellis had this monster game to tie the series at 2 on his 24th Birthday and everyone in the crowd was singing to him in unison. It was a pretty cool moment at the old Big Mac showing that kind of love to a Nuggets player who had just helped turn the fortunes of the series around. I was in the building that day and his performance was one of the best playoff performances I have ever seen in a Nuggets uniform.
So there you have my pick for the 7th greatest Denver Nugget of all time…..Laphonso Darnell Ellis!
Hit me up in the comments on any of my picks for the 20 greatest. These are my picks and I would love to hear who you would rank as the top 20. Stay tuned to Nugglove as we continue the countdown to the greatest Nugget of all time right here @Nugg_Love! Photo courtesy denverstiffs.com.