Aaron Henry is...
We know he has a ton to offer, but he has just not played well in conference games this year, or had a consistent stretch of high-level performances. He is at a 106 Ortg for the season (he was at 105.8 last year), and though he is scoring more and rebounding more, this is a function of increased minutes and increased shots.
Aaron has really improved his passing this year, improving his assist numbers from 1.6 a/g to 3.1 this year, and taking a major load off of Cassius in the shot-creation department even if his scoring has been inconsistent. Last year Aaron had one game of 5 or more assists, this year, he already has 5. That has been a consistently great part of his game this year - especially his passing in and around the paint (passes that are often very difficult to execute due to the close proximity of the receiver help defenders, and the speed of decision making required).
Take a look at some of these passes:
Great find vs Minnesota - over the defense, on time, right to where X needed to catch it - leading him towards the hoop.
And this is super vs Michigan. Draws the second defender, bounce pass under Teske’s reach, but with enough angle/pop to get it up to Tillman’s waist so he can go right up with the shot.
I have had a few chances to interview Aaron and talk with him (last year at the NCAA Tournament games in DC, and this season in NYC after the UK game). He is really thoughtful, really engaging, and clearly a cerebral and sensitive kid. I describe him in this way to complement him. Such thoughtfulness and consideration is a real strength; it gives him perspective, it lets him self-evaluate, and it surely helps him in the film room. But it can also lead to cluttering his thought-process, sapping his decisiveness on court, and undercutting his instinctive play as a scorer.
Part of this is on Izzo and the staff, who clearly need to more effusively give Aaron a green-light as a scorer. One of the things that observers may underrate about Josh Langford and his absence is that Josh took shots. He was not shy, and though his shot-selection (read: long-two’s) was often frustrating, his willingness and ability to get his shot off put a ton of pressure on defenses and opened up defenses for teammates who weren’t in the primary action.
This team needs a consistent third guy behind Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman, at this point, Henry is still the safest bet. He has a good physical profile, all of the talent and skill required, and he is a very good defender. This team needs him to find his game offensively. So that he can take pressure off of Cassius and Xavier as scorers and pressure off of Cash as a shot-creator.
Of a kind with Spartans from past years...
Namely, Aaron Henry appears, to me, to be a hybrid of Denzel Valentine and Alan Anderson in terms of his abilities. For a bit of a historical recap (before you all start yelling at your computer screens):
Alan Anderson (6’6” 220)
What was Anderson’s game and usage like?
Anderson was a creative ball-handler and scorer, often used as a small-ball 4, sometimes as a pure wing player, and sometimes as a true point-guard. Beyond his position, Anderson was frequently an offensive initiator (bringing the ball up the court, or beginning offensive sets, allowing Hill to start off-ball). Anderson got a lot of touches from the top of the key, from the elbow, and often as the ball-handler in transition. One of the things you can see in the clips below is Anderson acting as the point-forward, which often led other teams to putting smaller guards on him, which, in turn, would give Anderson a great mismatch on the offensive glass.
Another thing to note: the ‘03 team was considerably more democratic than this year’s squad in terms of who brought the ball up. Currently, Winston is the guy that everyone looks for off a rebound or a steal; this ‘03 team would find Hill or Anderson, with the other guy filling in the open wing. This was also the case in ‘05, though Izzo tried to have Neitzel getting the ball in transition as much as possible.
Like Aaron Henry, Anderson had some turnover issues along with his passing, and you can see that his creation duties were minimized in ‘05 when Neitzel came on the scene, but even as a senior Anderson was still doing a fair amount of this while minimizing his turnovers. The biggest disparity between Aaron Henry and Alan Anderson, at this point, is Anderson’s excellent ability to get to the free throw line. Aided by a more muscular build and a bit more comfort in the paint against bigger defenders, Anderson feasted at the line where Aaron has morphed into more of a finesse player over the early part of the season.
Anderson off the tip - initiates set (pin-down for Hill, who draws a second defender, and dumps off to Anderson for a finish - imagine Winston in the Hill spot)
Anderson rip-and-run, gets the finish and with better spacing he may not be forced into the charge as well.
Anderson with a push and kick to Hill, the quick shot opens up the transition offensive-rebound (again think Henry to Winston, with both bigs crashing)
Anderson PnP as a 4 (this could be facilitated by sliding Hall to the wing in some instances)
Anderson trail-three (again, if Hall slides to the 3, then Aaron can be the trail man off makes or rebounds)
What does this tell us?
That not only Aaron Henry, but also Cassius Winston and Malik Hall (when he is on the court with Aaron and Cash) might need to see a bit of a tweak to their roles. And that Izzo should strongly consider re-democratizing his point-guard and wing-lane-running duties.
Denzel Valentine (6’5” 220)
What was Denzel’s game and usage like?
Denzel started his MSU career as a wing before shifting to a point guard role as a senior. Denzel began as a high-risk passer, generating assists alongside the more scoring-focused Keith Appling, but also racking up his share of turnovers and Izzo stare-downs. As a junior, and as a clear secondary creator and facilitator next to a senior Travis Trice, Denzel settled down as a passer, and really began to excel as both a PnR scorer and as a spot-up shooter and close-out attacker. My sense is that like Denzel, Aaron Henry may need more of the ball in his hands to become a more confident scorer.
Valentine PnR assist to Forbes (imagine Brown and Winston on the wings, with Bingham jr in the dunker spot, and Tillman setting the screen)
Valentine - Hammer concept, then scramble, back to Valentine relocating to corner (again, Henry can run Hammer as the primary action, and unsettle the defense with movement)
Chest-up: Valentine runs various parts of this set in this clip, and Henry can as well. Henry can work as the curler: hitting a shot if open, going right into a PnR with his big from the wing (with Winston as the initiator and therefore the adjacent 3pt-kick-out who will not be helped-off-of without consequences). He can also work as the passer, with the wrinkle that he can break-off the play and isolate his man, especially if the bigs set their screens deep in the paint or as wide as possible towards the wing.
What does this tell us?
That some players need to be passers and creators to be better scorers. One of the interesting things about Cassius Winston is that he is a very good spot-up shooter, and is incredibly dangerous off-ball because of his gravity. Using Cassius off-ball with Henry (not Watts or Loyer) as the primary creator may be a great way to generate space and shots for Henry while giving Cassius some time to rest. Furthermore, even with Loyer on the court (and with Henry at the 3), Henry could still play this role leaving MSU’s best 3pt shooters to draw their men away from the paint, or to make teams pay for helping off of them.
Aaron Henry’s current statistical profile and role:
Frankly, I think Aaron Henry is being used curiously...
Henry is not a dead-eye shooter from 3, and I don’t think that his best spots on the floor are as a catch-and-shoot wing or corner shooter. But this is his role a lot of the time as Winston creates from the PnR or initiates sets with Henry coming off screens as a shooter. We see Aaron only infrequently get post-up chances, which he should get multiple times a game, and almost never see Henry pushing the ball in transition. This last point, especially, is curious: Winston always having to find the ball in transition allowed Purdue to lock onto him as soon as they shot the ball, if Winston can just turn and run (if Henry has the rebound, or is closer to the rebounder) that gives Cash a bit of a break as he can just run to the wing or corner, and it lets Aaron attack the open court before the defense is set.
Aaron Henry’s ideal role:
Aaron Henry is a point forward. He has superb passing instincts, and almost all of his turnovers come off the dribble in the half-court. Getting him opportunities to attack the defense with a head of steam before they have set up will let him get to the paint more easily, get more free-throw attempts, and will give him more passing opportunities. In the half-court, Aaron is some-what wasted attacking from the wing (at least until we find a more consistent 3pt threat from our bigs to de-clog the paint, or until we start playing smaller with Henry at the 4, which I have been somewhat surprised we haven’t seen more of). Rather, getting him more touches in “chest-up” or side-of-the-court clearing sets (like a Hammer set) will give the defense something to worry about (namely Winston and MSU’s other, better 3pt shooters) while Henry can attack his man and have a clear read to pass to (the same side big) if he draws the help.
I would also like to see more opportunities for Henry as Winston’s PnR and PnP partner. It gives other teams another action to worry about, and lets one of the bigs crash the glass from the perimeter, which makes them much tougher to box out.
How a new Henry changes this team:
Aaron Henry with an Anderson-esque tweak to his usage could become more of a point forward (than he has already), and especially more so in transition. If Izzo lets Cash run the wing more often (as has done when Cash and Watts have shared the court), then Aaron can set-up Cash for transition wing-3’s (often more open than those Cash gets in the half-court), and create more cross-matches. These cross-matches will, in turn, open up offensive rebounding chances for Aaron later in possessions and more post-up and elbow-iso opportunities for Aaron against smaller defenders.
This also would provide a clearer way for Malik Hall to get minutes in a smaller line-up, and more opportunities for Malik in transition as this shift would have him fill in the wing sometimes - getting Malik 3pt opportunities and chances to attack off the dribble in transition.
I am sure the coaching staff is considering all of these possibilities, but I think the underrated story of the season is getting Henry more ball-handling and creating chances, and using Winston’s shooting gravity to create space for the other four guys on the court.