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MSU basketball - The enigma named Aaron Henry

Talented sophomore puzzles teammates, coaches and fans with his passive play.

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Michigan State
Tom Izzo is wondering how to get his potential sophomore star going.
Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

We‘ve all seen it. Not often but we‘ve seen it. Usually it comes along briefly but when it‘s there it is as obvious as the white beard on a Santa Claus. Aaron Henry‘s ceiling, his potential and his ability can be breathtaking, fascinating and they certainly don‘t know many limits at the college level. Yet at the same time the fact that he has all those special talents can be incredibly frustrating. You just have to ask his coach.

“Aaron Henry is a very talented kid and I think his ceiling is off the charts,” Tom Izzo said after his team‘s excruciating home loss to the Duke Blue Devils on Tuesday, a game in which Henry played 21 forgettable, passive minutes and only took two shots from the field. “That‘s the problem. When his ceiling is off the charts and he doesn‘t cut out, he doesn‘t go out and rebound and doesn‘t do this or that, then there is a problem.” Asked specifically what could be wrong with his sophomore wing Izzo was at a loss of words. Maybe – knowing something that‘s not supposed to leave the locker room - he chose to be at a loss of words, too. “I don‘t know. You know, Aaron…,” Izzo was shaking his head. “I don‘t know. I really don‘t. Next question.”

He can ask for the next question with the press but Izzo knows that he can‘t do the same with Aaron Henry or his own team. The 6-6 forward, who possesses maybe the most complete game of any Spartan and offers an athletic ability that changes the entire makeup of the group, is too important for that and probably the answer to quite a few problems that are ailing the 5-3 Spartans on the court right now. Of course there are bigger things as the death of Cassius Winston‘s brother is still looming like a dark cloud over the entire program and the attempt of trying to make sense of playing a game. Winston is the senior leader of this young group, the person all these sophomores and freshmen look up to, their rock, their superstar, their heart and soul. If he isn‘t right and he‘s obviously and understandably not despite some solid statistical games, then this team misses a huge part of their DNA. It also takes away a lot from every individual, on every bus ride, in every shootaround, in every practice. All the players play with Winston, they feel with Winston and they grieve with their family member, a term quickly thrown out about teammates at a lot of places but which is probably a bit truer at Michigan State.

Henry could make some problems dissapear

In that dire situation, Aaron Henry‘s expected emergance in his second year in the program might atleast help the team to right the ship on the court. And even though it all starts and stops with Winston, the Indianapolis native is probably the one key to the Spartans salvaging what is left of their season and of their national championship dreams. In the end these were the things that have driven them all summer long and the latter is one of the big reasons they all came to MSU. Now Henry himself won‘t fix all the issues this team has, far from it. He will not make a backup point guard magically appear out of the blue, he won‘t make the frontcourt rotation bigger or more athletic, he won‘t heal the injuries to Josh Langford or Kyle Ahrens, he won‘t help Izzo find a set rotation and he won‘t make some players something that they are not or needed to be. He would be able though to mask quite a few of these things and probably add another level alongside a true balance to this squad that has been sorely missing in the last couple of weeks.

NCAA Basketball: Duke at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Henry is was supposed to be the third member of a big three – along Winston and junior big man Xavier Tillman – a player that builds on a strong NCAA Tournament his freshman year and who possesses a variety of next level skills. Reports all summer indicated that he was ready for this role. Izzo and everybody else raved about his development, he himself talked about “wanting it”, “feeling the confidence now” and all those things that sound so great in the summer. Yet when the games started there wasn‘t much difference to the role player we saw last year. A strong one, sure, a player with great ability but also one who not often enough showed his true talent. A player who despite his physical tools rarely creates opportunities for himself, who doesn‘t show much emotion no matter how the game goes and who just leaves everyone constantly wanting more. Especially his coach.

Izzo has tried everything to reach Aaron Henry

Tom Izzo has tried everything to get Aaron Henry going. It has worked at times, sometimes it hasn‘t. Even last year the usually reserved, thoughtful and quiet Henry often drew the ire from Izzo, mostly because he “wasn‘t playing hard enough”. He admitted to that himself but Izzo‘s much maligned outburst in the first round of March Madness against Bradley seemed to have switched on the light. His head coach said how proud he was of his player‘s reaction, Henry said he needed it and immediately brought a lot more energy. When the ups and downs returned this season Izzo has benched Henry numerous times. Against Virginia Tech in the Maui Invitational Henry responded with one of his greatest stretches he ever had as a Spartan. He took over the ball handling duties late in a desperate attempt to claw back in the game and it almost worked. Henry drove by defenders at will, drew fouls, set up teammates, knocked down jumpers and screamed and flexed after positive plays. He proved that none of his limitations are physical as he was hitting shots, passing the ball, moving fluidly and with a purpose and on top if was just unguardable. For once, he came out of his shell and for a brief moment he showed everyone the player he can really be if he chooses to. A player who puts a team on his back, who can lead an entire offense by himself and who if on cannot be stopped by anyone but the clock.

NCAA Basketball: Northern Illinois at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Unfortunately Henry‘s effort wasn‘t enough to pull out the win against the Hokies and even worse, that inner fire he showed during those closing moments of that game never really returned. And it certainly was never there against Duke, a game in which Henry seemed disengaged and completely out of sorts. Izzo benched him again yet this time it never drew a response from his player. Actually Henry looked downright unhappy, disinterested and unfocused. You might say even inhibited or sad. He looked like he wasn‘t there mentally. The coach‘s postgame comments indicate where the entire situation is right now – nobody can figure it out. Is Henry‘s ankle which he injured against Seton Hall earlier this year still bothering him? Unlikely, since Maui was after that. Doesn‘t he have the mental makeup to be a leader or a star player? In high school he was a leading player on a state championship team in Indiana, he has proven himself in big moments for MSU numerous times as a freshman and usually seems like a guy who has the mental toughness to perform under the bright lights. How come he seems to get it for a few minutes, a half maybe, and then completely dissapear after that? Is something else bothering him – on or off the court? Henry is considered a very intellectual young man, someone who at times ponders with his own mind and who can struggle channeling his own thoughts. The great Ernest Hemingway once said: “Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.” Maybe that applies to Aaron Henry and it hurts him on the court, maybe it doesn‘t. Nobody knows but Aaron Henry

Teammates looking at Henry for more

No matter where the reason for Henry‘s lack of emotion and fire lies, somehow Tom Izzo and the Spartans have to find a way to get him going. Or he himself has to find a way because his teammates need him more than ever. They aren‘t talented enough to overcome him not being more than a good role player and they aren‘t athletic enough to not have him out there wreaking havoc. Xavier Tillman (“He just has to play better and he knows it himself”) and Cassius Winston (“You can‘t be up and down because you are one of our reliable pieces”) both tried to tell him that after the Duke loss. Izzo has tried it numerous times and I‘m sure behind the scenes there is a lot more going on that we all don‘t know.

In the end though, Aaron Henry has to want it for himself. He even said so himself, referring to Izzo screaming at him last season and consequently playing strong for the entire NCAA Tournament: “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 or my teammates can want things for me but when am I going to want things for myself?”

The answer to that question or why this question is still a question this year is the huge enigma that Aaron Henry is right now...