2023-24 Trail Blazers Preview: How Good Will Scoot Henderson Be In His Rookie Campaign?

Jared Wright | Oregon Sports News

The 2023 offseason for the Portland Trail Blazers was one of severe change. Finally getting a good deal for franchise legend Damian Lillard, then flipping the older Jrue Holiday for even more assets, was a great piece of work by General Manager Joe Cronin. This was Cronin’s one chance to make his mark on a franchise in an industry where NBA GMs and head coaches lose their jobs with the frequency of the ornamental oaks and maples downtown losing their leaves every fall. Cronin was very new to his job, put in a high-pressure situation that he had little to do with, and he aced the test.

Of course, the reason that Lillard asked out in the first place, which led to his agent and sycophants doing their damndest to pressure Cronin into taking a crappy deal for a top-75 all-time player still producing at a high level (Lillard did set a career-high in points per game last season, though he played in just 58 of them), was the Blazers drafting Scoot Henderson third overall in June’s Draft. Cronin wisely realized that a roster with Damian Lillard as its best player was doing nothing in the playoffs was going nowhere, and chose to rebuild with Henderson, Anfernee Simons, Shaedon Sharpe, and whatever they could get in return for Lillard over caving to Lillard’s demands to trade the third overall selection for an All-Star level veteran.

(And before anyone mentions that Lillard got the Blazers to the Western Conference Finals in 2019, I will say this to rebut: they got stupidly lucky. Against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round, they played against a hurt Paul George, and Russell Westbrook let his enormous ego run out of control and got sucked into a clutchness battle with Lillard. Against the Denver Nuggets in the second round, it was a seven-game slog against a callow Nuggets team. Denver was still in the Young Team Taking Its Lumps stage of their legendary team arc, and CJ McCollum delivered those lumps. Then the Blazers got their ass kicked by the Golden State Warriors in the Conference Finals. Again, good fortune, a nice talking point for Lillard’s legacy here, but his teams were never really all that close to being contenders.)

With the Blazers finally having moved Lillard, the focus now turns to the new point guard, the hope for the future. At the tender age of 19, Scoot Henderson has much riding on his shoulders. Let’s take a closer look at him, shall we?

How He Did Last Year

19 30.7 16.5 5.4 6.5 43 27.5 76 3.5 1.1

These stats are from Scoot’s second year in the G-League Ignite team, where he’s played since he was 17. I’m somewhat dubious of these kinds of stats, to be honest; in the G-League, everybody is trying to put up nutty stats without playing any defense or doing the kind of gritty grunt work grunts like these guys need to do to get an NBA roster spot. Every NBA team at this point in the league’s history has four to five guys capable of scoring 20 or more PPG with enough shots. What else are you potentially offering to an NBA team?

What Henderson offers is great potential. The Ignite team is not a normal G-League team, more like a professional version of an AAU squad, with many talented youngsters who, for their reasons, would prefer playing minor league professional basketball instead of spending a year at a top college program.

Scoot and his parents thought playing against grown men, as the top European prospects do across the pond, would be better for his basketball development than pretending to be a collegiate athlete for a year. Given that he was picked in the top three of an NBA Draft and that he’d have been a candidate for first overall in a non-Victor Wembanyama draft, they made the right decision.

What He Brings to The Table

Scoot brings elite athleticism and speed to the point, as well as the kind of unbounded potential that makes fans of bad teams tune in, buy tickets, and dream. Henderson is not a large guy by NBA guard standards. He stands six-foot-two and weighs 195 pounds, but his six-foot-nine wingspan and ultra-competitive nature should help make up for his shorter stature.

There are also some playmaking chops showing up, flashes of the kind of drive-and-kick game that fuels NBA offenses. Scoot should find decent pick-and-roll partners in Deandre Ayton and Robert Williams III, Portland’s new centers acquired in the Lillard and Holiday trades.

He’ll have to punish teams for going under the pick on him consistently if he wants to achieve his full potential in the PnR, whether by sneaking bounce passes to the big rolling or popping out or hitting enough outside shots to make opposing coaches and players feel like defending him is a Hobson’s Choice. Either get burned by Scoot scooting around your defense to the rim (sorry, not sorry), get burned by Scoot dicing up your defense with playmaking, or get burned by Scoot pulling up behind the pick for an open three. That is the appeal of Henderson on offense; hell, I’ll take him doing impressions of Ja Morant or Derrick Rose, as long as those impressions are strictly on-court only.

Henderson still has a long way to go to get there, of course. His outside shooting was not great on the Ignite team, going 14-for-51 his second year there; more time practicing his pull-ups and spot-up shooting will help. The usual young point guard problems with turnovers were there, as well, and will continue to be there. That will be cured with age, experience, and a coach willing to let the young fella make those mistakes. If Chauncey Billups (a former point guard himself) shows a quick trigger, taking Scoot out of games after a couple of screw-ups, thinking that’s the way to teach the kid a lesson, all of Rip City should be extremely worried.

Another worrying thing is Scoot’s tendency to pick up minor, nagging injuries; this was an issue both in the G-League and in the preseason, where he’s been ruled out of the game against the San Antonio Spurs (and draftmate Wembanyama) with a shoulder issue. The Blazers have had an ungodly number of great players and promising prospects tossed on history’s scrap heap due to injuries. Scoot being added to the pile would be the latest in a long line of massive bummers.

The last thing I want to highlight is by no means the least thing about Scoot: his competitiveness. And Scoot is not just a competitor, the kind of guy that says he wants to win because that’s what’s expected of an athlete in America. Scoot is competitive to the point of psychopathy. Scoot will bite kneecaps. Scoot will gnaw ankles. Scoot will not rest until he is absolutely damned sure he did his best to win the game during the season and his best to sharpen his strengths and rectify his weaknesses during the offseason.

That last part is why the Blazers were comfortable dealing away Lillard. Henderson is the type that can eventually fill that leadership role and demand excellence from everyone else around him solely because he pushes so hard for excellence himself. Unlike Lillard, Scoot might be enough of a nut to start fights over it, Michael Jordan-style.

I hope Henderson enrolls himself in the John Stockton-Chris Paul School of Sneaky Nut Punches to help deal with every big man who wants to plow him into the second row with picks. If I don’t see at least five bigs per season doubled over, their reproduction capacity in serious jeopardy, I will be very disappointed.

What To Expect in 2024

Expect the Blazers to be very bad, expect Scoot Henderson to grow as a player and as a man, and hope that this is the starting point of another era of excellent Portland Trail Blazers basketball.

@750TheGame | @OregonSportNews