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Aaron Henry - Mindful and on the rise

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The Spartans sophomore wing has learned plenty from a whirlwind freshman year - mostly about himself.

NCAA Basketball: Binghamton at Michigan State
Aaron Henry has provided the MSU faithful with plenty of highlights early in his career.
Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

A lot of wise, wonderful and amazing minds have said a lot of wise, wonderful and amazing things about just that what we know as the mind. It is a subject that has forever moved the emotions of human beings, it has bewildered them, fascinated them and maybe most importantly propelled them to think. Some of these thinkers were old Greeks or Romans, others brilliant philosophers of yesterday, some of them were legendary authors, then there were powerful politicians and romantic poets and many many others, famous and unknown. One gentleman by name of Thích Nhất Hạnh, a buddhist monk and long time peace activist from Vietnam, certainly found his way onto the list by the virtue of sayings like the following about the mind, life and attentiveness: “The mind can go in a thousand directions, but on this beautiful path, I walk in peace. With each step, the wind blows. With each step, a flower blooms.”

Aaron Henry knows about the mind going into a thousand different directions, especially as a basketball player. Thanks to an upbringing centered around tough love, a whirlwind freshman year and some major life lessons, he will be the first one to tell you that he now also knows about walking in peace. It might not be the wind that’s blowing or the flowers that are blooming but maybe the cheers from the crowd, the love from his family or just the joy of playing a game that he recognizes along the road. Either way, for himself and for the Michigan State Spartans, his future path figures to be a truly magnificent one.

One of the most important Spartans this season

Sadly a part of the general public might still only remember him as “the kid that Tom Izzo yelled at” but entering his sophomore year Aaron Henry is on the cusp of being known for all the right reasons. The 6-6 wing has put plenty of first year ups and downs behind him and worked diligently on his game over the summer. The results – both physically and mentally – have impressed coaches and teammates alike. Next to senior superstar Cassius Winston and rising junior Xavier Tillman Henry figures to be one of the most important Spartans on a team that has their eyes on returning to the Final Four and ultimately winning the program’s third national championship. He has vaulted his name onto the radar of NBA scouts, quite a few of them consider the athletic forward a future first round pick maybe as early as next season. It all sounds pretty impressive for a kid that originally was set to star on the gridiron, atleast if everything went according to family tradition.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Seton Hall
Aaron Henry adds great balance with his inside outside game.
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Henry grew up in Indianapolis under the watchful eyes of Nicola and James Henry. Most of his family didn’t really care much for basketball, it was always another sport that came first – football. Five of Henry’s uncles played in college. His older brother Demarco, who Henry considers the most influential person in his life, followed in their footsteps and is currently a senior running back for Division III Depauw University. It wasn’t the path that Aaron envisioned though. “I have to be honest, I never really liked football that much, it wasn’t that exciting to me,” Henry remembers of the days when many in his family tried to steer him to the grass fields. Not picking up a sport was never a question though as a part of an athletic, active family, so Henry decided on basketball. “I started to take it seriously somewhere around fifth or sixth grade,” Henry says. “That’s when I began to develop and I’m glad it got me where I am today.”

A high school star in Indiana

Henry went on to play for Ben Davis High School, a traditional basketball powerhouse in a state full of them. In Indiana the sound of a bouncing basketball more than anything else represents the state’s heartbeat and every player knows it deep down in his heart. Making First Team All State really means something, winning a state title on top of it immortalizes you. Henry did both as the leader of the Giants yet surprisingly kept waiting for offers from major college programs. Fortunately for him though former Michigan State standout Gary Harris decided to sponsor an AAU team when he was drafted by the Denver Nuggets in 2015 and afterwards assigned his old friend Omar Dillard to coach it. Dillard was Henry’s youth coach in Indianapolis and together with Harris set out to help the kids along in their basketball careers. Especially Harris was hands on, which is far from a given for a just turned NBA pro athlete. “We can all relate but not like Gary can,” says Dillard of the special bond Harris had with the kids. “He is very very close to them and puts in a lot of time, which not every sponsor does. When you have one team though you can do that and it’s great for everyone.”

Henry grew close to Harris from the get go and enjoyed spending time with a young man who did what he wanted to do and had already accomplished things he wanted to accomplish. Harris in turn saw a lot of talent in Henry, Big Ten level talent at the very least. He let his former coach Tom Izzo know about it, yet the Hall Of Famer wasn’t convinced immediately. “We went and saw him, questioned some things,” Izzo remembers. “We went and saw him again, questioned some other things.” Dillard and especially Harris never let it go though and kept singing Aaron Henry’s praises. “Gary kept saying that you know, he has seen him play so much, that I have to stick with him and that the kid can really play,” Izzo laughs. “And that he was a great kid, too.” Michigan State finally offered him a scholarship and he accepted it rather quickly in September 2017. Though he had gained some more recognition during his latest AAU circuit and held offers from Indiana, Butler and Connecticut at the time, Henry and his three star profile remained an afterthought in most recruiting rankings. But when he arrived in East Lansing, it didn’t take Tom Izzo long to reach for his phone.

NCAA Basketball: Northern Illinois at Michigan State
A coach and his player - a special relationship.
Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

“I called Gary Harris immediately and said that I owe him one,” Izzo says of Henry’s first days on campus. “He came in as physically ready as any player I have ever seen. And I’m really not sure if he would be here if not for Gary Harris.” After an early high school graduation Henry and his fellow freshmen directly enrolled at MSU, looking to gain as much ground on the upperclassmen as possible. Next to his already advanced physical profile Henry also possessed a variety of basketball skills that separated him from many other college freshmen. “He’s really ambidextrous on the court and uses both hands equally well,” Omar Dillard says of Henry’s most unique skill. Paired with his next level athleticism, length and all around game Henry’s talent helped him crack the rotation early. His first NCAA basket was a dunk off an inbounds play against Kansas in the Champions Classic, a moment Henry still holds in high regard. “That was pretty exciting, it was like I had arrived,” the 6-6 forward laughs, also remembering that he immediately posted a picture of the dunk on all his social media accounts.

He had plenty more opportunities that season to share a few of his own highlights. Early on he only played bench minutes but when junior Josh Langford suffered a season ending injury to his foot, Henry entered the starting five. His first game as a starter came at Penn State, where late in the first half he got the ball in transition. With a crossover he entered the paint from the left wing and even though PSU’s massive shot blocker Mike Watkins was bearing down him, he exploded into the sky. Off two feet Henry hammered a resounding dunk into the basket, leaving fans, announcers and teammates in awe. There were other plays to remember, like late baskets at Wisconsin and Ohio State to help MSU win important road games, a one handed transition dunk against Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament or a block against Ignas Brazdeikis in the closing seconds of the same game, ultimately securing Michigan State’s victory. Yet even if Henry flashed special ability on numerous occasions, played hard nosed defense from the get go and proved many times that he could give any lineup great balance, not everything was going well for the Spartans’ freshman. Especially not in his head.

Tough times as a freshman

“I wouldn’t say there was a time that I was depressed or I just hated basketball, but we all can be honest, it was a rough stretch, it was a rough time for me,” Henry says. “My parents even saw it in me, I wasn’t having fun.” Amidst his highlight reel plays there were numerous accounts of indecisiveness, lack of confidence and overall frustration. Henry struggled to really connect with his new role and find joy in what he was doing every day. The immediate responsibility of starting for a national championship contender did the rest, especially for an intelligent young man who is as thoughtful, mature and ambitious as Henry is. He was trying to grasp everything immediately, understand it all and on top of it make no mistakes. A task that soon felt impossible. “I felt my head was about to explode,” the now sophomore recalls of the masses that were put on his table his freshman year. Or that he himself at times put on his table, expecting way more from himself than possible. His point guard Cassius Winston, remembering his own struggles as a young player, could understand what his teammate was going through. “It’s tough, one game you are scoring twelve points, the next game only four,” the All American says. “You just don’t know how to play at that level early on, you don’t know how to play as many minutes and how to carry yourself. It’s so hard to keep the energy.” Henry tried and even spent many hours talking to Tom Izzo in his office about what was going through his head. He wondered what he was doing wrong, what he was supposed to do – everything. That tentativeness though would still carry over to the court and was never more visible than in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Bradley vs Michigan State
A less remembered moment from the game against the Bradley Braves.
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

The Spartans were caught in a dogfight with the Bradley Braves, a scrappy 15th seed who kept the game tight long into the second half. MSU was struggling, especially Aaron Henry, and during a late timeout Tom Izzo exploded on him. He rushed out on the court, screaming at his bewildered freshman with wide open eyes and fury written all over his face. The tirade continued into the huddle, when veteran leaders like Cassius Winston and Matt McQuaid stepped between the two. In that moment Izzo wanted a lot more from Henry and he saw a special season with a special group of kids in danger of slipping away. He knew that Henry wanted more, too. In March nuances can decide games and ultimately careers or even legacies. Izzo knows that better than anyone. Under the bright lights of the NCAA Tournament everything gets magnified, an inbounds play, a jumpshot… or a coach laying into his own player. Izzo’s outburst became a national story, with every sports talk show from California to Long Island picking it up. Critics were aplenty of Izzo’s behavior, often from persons, stations or networks that don’t value ethics highly but now saw a chance to grab clicks and viewership. Luckily, there was also a huge amount of people from former players to TV analysts to colleagues backing the legendary coach, referencing his special bond with his kids and that he cares for them like a father. Interestingly Aaron Henry himself is the best prove of that special relationship.

A special relationship with his coach

He himself didn’t see anything special in Izzo screaming at him, far from it actually. He remembered his upbringing and how his father didn’t sugarcoat things. He did it because he wanted to prepare his son for the real world, the world that doesn’t cut you any slack. Tom Izzo was a different messenger but he had the same message. “It wasn’t like he was going at me but almost like he was helping me,” Henry says of the incident. “I wasn’t getting it through my head, I wasn’t playing hard and he was just trying to get me to understand it. I don’t know if he knew I was ready for it but I guess he saw I was prepared for it. I’m going to accept anything he says because he doesn’t want anything for me but the best.” That certainly didn’t add fire to the ridiculous outrage from today’s social media driven society. The one that usually only takes the time of a swipe to understand, grasp or care for a certain matter. Henry went further by describing the relationship with his coach. Of course that was at a time when the angry mob had already moved on to another story that they could carve up, never even giving a thought to the real soul of a matter. “I wouldn’t say Coach and I are like father and son but it is very close,” Henry says of himself and Tom Izzo. “He has so much experience, he is so much wiser and has so much to teach me. Who am I to be confrontational or wanting to argue with him? I want to learn everything I can whenever he talks and soak up everything that’s inside of him.” Values like respect, for yourself and your elders, looking in the mirror from time to time, self criticism – all right here, spoken of by a young college kid who is wise beyond his years. Who says that he received plenty of tough love from his parents and coaches growing up. Who says that it has made him a much better person.

And who has a coach that respects him dearly for it. “If I ever was proud of a kid then it was Aaron Henry at that time,” Tom Izzo praises. “His next two weeks were phenomenal. There comes this line of demarcation in everybody’s life where you are either going left or right. From that point on I don’t think I ever talked to Aaron again about not going hard enough. I truly appreciate it that instead of moping and complaining like everybody else in the world he went to work. That’s why he’s going to be a great player before he’s done. And I mean a truly great player.” A glimpse of that greatness came in the aforementioned two weeks after the Bradley game. Aaron Henry averaged 10.4 points, 5.2 rebounds per game during MSU’s Tournament run that went all the way to the Final Four in Minneapolis. He shot 58.3 percent from the field along with 40 percent from the three point line and defended star players like Minnesota’s Amir Coffey, Duke’s R.J. Barrett or Texas Tech’s Jarrett Culver. His brightest moment came in the Sweet Sixteen against LSU, a game where he delivered 20 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists.

NCAA Basketball: Minnesota at Michigan State
Aaron Henry has a lot more to give this season.
Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

His Tournament heroics were only the beginning as Henry’s vows to show more of that complete all around game in the future. He transformed himself into a more aggressive player over the summer and tried to get better in every aspect of the game. Improving his jumpshot was the most obvious task, yet Henry didn’t stop there. “He is all over the place and has developed every part of his game,” Cassius Winston says of his teammate. “His shot is so much better, he puts it on the floor, is making much better reads and he makes plays for everyone. You know, instead of a role player he has become a go to player and that is a big jump.” A big jump that was propelled by years of tough love, a long hard look in the mirror and the right attitude, according to Aaron Henry: “In the end it was a matter of when am I going to play hard? When am I going to change things for myself? Coach can want things for me, my parents can want things for me but when do I want things for myself? I almost had to relearn how to play and readjust myself to the speed of the game.” Henry certainly did that and is now one of the most important pieces to the Spartans’ puzzle. His defensive prowess has been incredible and on offense he is getting more and more comfortable with the role of a distributor and playmaker. More responsibilities have followed on both ends off the court.

Happiness on the horizon

Most importantly though, Aaron Henry is having fun playing basketball again. “I put too much pressure on myself,” he says of the struggles during his freshman year. “Basketball has been a game all my life and wanted to change that. But in the end it was always basketball. I know now what I have to give and what I have to do. The thing is as a young player you can get so caught up in everything that you lose sight of what’s in front of you. You put so much pressure on you that you can’t even focus.” Henry, more than anybody else, found a way to focus, to concentrate on the important things in life and along the way found his own special attentiveness. “I just want to live in the moment and then everything will work itself out. Right now, I feel at ease on the court, I’m confident in myself and I consider myself at peace,” Henry says with a telling smile, showing that there is so much more to these words. And that he not only means them, he understands them, too.

And so he continues on his beautiful path with the wind blowing and the flowers blooming. Unlike his freshman year though, Aaron Henry sees and feels it now.