By Torey Jones
Contributor, 750 The Game
The Scoot Henderson experience has been a bumpy one. The hyped-up third overall pick hasn’t had the start to his NBA career that most people expected. He’s struggled with his jump shot and has often appeared out of control, uncharacteristic for a player who orchestrated things well as a point guard for the G-League Ignite last year. But recently, Henderson has started to turn things around and is coming off the best game of his career against the Los Angeles Clippers. On the night, he poured in a career-high 19 points and 6 assists while shooting 8-for-16 from the field and 3-for-4 from three. While it’s always nice to see Scoot’s outside shot falling, what encouraged me with this performance was the pace and control he played with.
Henderson’s best attribute coming into the league was his speed. Teammates raved during training camp about how fast he was, and his scouting tape showed a guard who could blaze past defenders with ease and still make the right play. Henderson drew comparisons to a young Russell Westbrook, at times raising up powerfully off one foot to throw down thunderous dunks. He also drew comparisons to Derrick Rose and Ja Morant, and there was an expectation that Henderson would come into the league and separate himself athletically from day one.
These athletic gifts are what gives Henderson a ton of long-term upside. In the short-term, most rookies will rely heavily upon what they’re most comfortable with as they grow accustomed to the highest level of basketball. Shooters shoot, defenders defend, and athletes use their athleticism. The Blazers got a taste of that last year with Shaedon Sharpe, who came into the league and was able to make some impactful plays due to his leaping ability. Now Sharpe is running some offense, scoring at a high level and making plays for others.
The difference with Henderson has been his over-reliance upon his straight-line speed to get things done offensively. While his shooting struggles have allowed defenders to sag off him on the perimeter, he’s responded with attempts to blaze past defenders at lightning speed. But this gap has given his defender more time to react and cut off his attack and has resulted in Scoot rounding off his drives. Often he’s gotten stuck underneath the rim without a plan and unable to slow down enough. He’s been unable to beat his defensive player and drive towards the rim resulting in numerous out-of-control layups, charges and turnovers.
Improving his jump shot will force defenders to guard him tighter on the perimeter, making it easier for him to beat his defender off the dribble and get downhill towards the basket. The other ingredient that Henderson has been missing this year is pace. The best NBA guards are masters of pace, being able to play at speeds between 0 and 100%. This contributes to how “shifty” a player is and allows them to get to their spots under control. Being able to play at a slower pace makes it easier to read the floor, change directions and shoot pull-up jumpers. Being able to change pace allows players to setup their defender and create angles that they can exploit in order to get into the paint under control and make things happen.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander of the Oklahoma City Thunder is a perfect example of how good a player can be attacking off the dribble with pace instead of quickness. For a Blazers reference point, Andre Miller was great at this. Miller was never impressive as an athlete, but he could still get to his spots with changes of pace, shiftiness and using his body to shield shot-blockers at the rim. Malcolm Brogdon also plays with an impressive change of pace and is a quality mentor for Henderson to have on the team.
This isn’t to say that Henderson should stop using his speed and quickness to his advantage, just to be more selective with it. In some situations, it makes sense for Scoot to push it to 100% and try to blaze past his man off the dribble. Other situations require him to slow down and still find ways to get to his spots, collapse the defense and generate quality shots for himself and his teammates. Against lesser defenders at lower levels, elite athleticism is more of a difference maker, making effective pace less crucial for guards to get to their spots and make plays. At the NBA level, mastering pace is important and takes time, which is why it’s good for Henderson to get heavy minutes and plenty of reps early in his career.
Henderson just had his best game in terms of controlling his pace, using his quickness in situations that called for it, while playing until control. The best example of this was an impressive play where he pushed the ball quickly and decelerated for a euro-step finish against Paul George. Usually, Henderson has tried to accelerate straight past the defender and rush a layup off the glass. He also had a nice floater where he came off a pick-n-roll at well below top speed and took advantage of the space given to him, and a similar play where he stopped and hit a 7-foot pull-up jumper before Ivica Zubac could close the gap. Monday was a promising sign for Scoot’s development, as his top end speed will become more of a strength once he figures out how to effectively control his pace.