CJ Elleby’s decision to pursue a career in professional basketball, rather than return to school for his junior season, paid off the Washington State forward Wednesday night. In a rather fortuitous way, too.
Elleby achieved a lifelong dream of playing in the NBA when he was selected in the second round of the 2020 NBA draft, and the Seattle native won’t have to leave the boundaries of the Pacific Northwest to kick start his professional basketball career, being chosen 46th overall by the Portland Trail Blazers.
The forward who became the youngest Washington State player since Klay Thompson to score 1,000 career points became the first Cougar since Thompson (2011) to hear his name called in the draft. Elleby is only the third WSU player since 2000 to be drafted, joining Thompson and Kyle Weaver, and the 12th Cougar drafted in the last 30 years.
Malachi Flynn, another Ernie Kent recruit who spent two seasons at WSU before transferring to San Diego State, was selected by the Toronto Raptors with the 29th overall pick of Wednesday’s draft. Flynn and Elleby didn’t see their paths cross in Pullman, but they were familiar each other from the Seattle/Tacoma basketball scene, and the WSU standouts spent time training together during the pre-Draft process.
After leading the Cougars to their best record in eight seasons, and their first Pac-12/10 Tournament win in a decade, Elleby toggled between returning to school for his junior season and trying his luck in the NBA.
“I’m just looking for that team to take a chance on me and believe in my abilities and see some potential in me,” Elleby said in an April Zoom interview with local reporters after initially putting his name into the NBA Draft. “That’s the main thing, is seeing who has interest and seeing if I can slip into that draft.”
WSU coach Kyle Smith said he spoke with Elleby earlier in the day and hinted that the All-Pac-12 forward was anxious for the day that would determine his NBA fate.
“I wished him well,” Smith said. “We communicated and I’m sure he’s anxious for this day. I 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. He’s in good spirits and pretty anxious for this day and I know just sitting back and watching this thing.”
Elleby’s decision to leave school early was met with some scrutiny and even after he finished fourth in the conference at 18.0 points per game, seventh with 7.8 rebounds per game and second at 1.71 steals per game, the majority of mock drafts suggested the WSU star wouldn’t hear his name called on draft night, and would therefore have to find his way into the league through a two-way contract.
In April, Elleby indicated he’d leave his name in the draft if one or multiple teams assured they had interest in drafting him and offering a guaranteed contract. It’s unclear what Elleby’s exact communications were with the Trail Blazers, but the forward didn’t have to sweat out the full four-hour event, hearing his name called not long after 8:30 p.m. Wednesday.
“I’m looking for a team that is basically telling me they’re going to pick me,” he said. “I want a guaranteed contract. That’s pretty much it. It depends on the number of teams that are interested in me, so based on the (evaluation) I get back and word for the teams, it all depends on stuff like that.”
Portland, of course, is the closest NBA city to Elleby’s hometown of Seattle, meaning dozens of his friends and family members will be able to make the short three-hour trip down Interstate 5 to watch him play.
Among those thrilled to see Elleby go to the Trail Blazers was WSU teammate Isaac Bonton. The Cougars’ two leading scorers grew close in their only season playing together and shared more than a few memorable moments during the 2019-20 season – none more so than when the Pacific Northwest natives combined to score 56 points in WSU’s 89-76 win over Oregon State on the day the school retired Thompson’s jersey.
Bonton, also a Portland native ans Blazers fan, tweeted out “TOWN BIZZ!!!” shortly after his friend and teammate was drafted.