The great Greek philosopher Aristotle once said regarding leadership: “He who cannot be a good follower cannot be a good leader.” Aaron Henry during his first two years playing for the Michigan State Spartans basketball team did follow. A lot. Part of it, especially during his freshman season, was just doing his job, he wasn’t supposed to be more than a role player, a complementary piece, a follower of older and more accomplished peers. But by last season people wanted more, knowing about his limitless potential, his physical gifts that had him make occasional plays few others in the Big Ten or even the country could make. Yet the sophomore Aaron Henry still stayed in the shadows for most of the year, leaving the limelight to others and plenty of room for criticism. But ever since a fateful Tuesday night at legendary Cameron Indoor Stadium, those days, that longing for more, that wondering why Aaron Henry isn’t more, they are all but over. Thanks to none other than Aaron Henry himself.
If anyone was wondering who the leader of this year’s Michigan State basketball team was, Tuesday’s win against the Duke Blue Devils told everything one needed to know. Aaron Henry isn’t the Aaron Henry of his first two years anymore. He was voted a captain by his teammates in preseason and against Duke he showed everyone why. And it was about much more than his already impressive 14 points, five rebounds, five assists, three blocks and three steals during the game. It was about him showing his teammates, his coaches and the world that this is his team, that whenever this squad will fall on dire times that he will step to the forefront, that he will march ahead with everything he has into the field of battle. He will lead the way with everything people wanted him to show last year already but didn’t get on a nightly basis. Now it is there all game long. The relentless driving to the basket, the smothering defense, that shuts down small or big opponents alike, the elite level passing, the rebounding way up in the sky. He even handled the point guard position for longer stretches when the time called for it.
Henry thanks Tom Izzo for guiding him
All of that has been possible because of his mental adjustments. With Aaron Henry it was never a question of his physical tools, it was about the space between his ears. And maybe his heart. He himself alluded to struggling with self confidence, with understanding his role, with being all he could be. People remember him being chewed out by Tom Izzo during the NCAA Tournament two years ago. What gave fodder to a nauseating boulevard media, was just another step during Henry’s maturation process. A process that every step of the way was guided and accompanied by his Hall of Fame coach. After the Duke game Henry thanked Tom Izzo again for all he had done for him, often behind closed doors, and how it is his greatest honor that he can play for him. He reminded people that he has played a lot of big games already at MSU, that he has won championships here, all the time oozing with toughness and confidence. He praised his teammates like all great leaders do. At the same time he admitted that he had to raise his own standard to the heights that his coach was holding him too.
"It's a hard place to win from what I understand, with or without fans, and it was still tough." ️— Michigan St. on BTN (@MichiganStOnBTN) December 2, 2020
Aaron Henry talked last night about winning inside of Cameron Indoor. @MSU_Basketball pic.twitter.com/6Gbn9Jm0tN
Henry’s maturation and stranglehold on the leadership position comes in timely fashion for the Spartans. With their last great leader in Cassius Winston gone there was a void at the top of the hierarchy, a gigantic hole left by one of the greatest players and leaders the program has seen in decades. Many of the other talented players are too young to fill it, like dynamic combo guard Rocket Watts for example, haven’t been playing for MSU long enough, like transfer star Joey Hauser, or have been injured so much in recent years that their on court impact figures to be a bit limited, like Joshua Langford. All of them are good players, accomplished voices on and off court, yet none of them possesses the combination of physical tools, a complete offensive game and the defensive dominance that Henry can bring every night.
Aaron Henry back in high school mode
At times in recent years one could tell that Henry would be able to thrive in that role and needed large shadows of former superstars to leave in order to really take over the team and the game. When he played high school basketball at storied Ben Davis High in Indiana, he led the team a title in a state where it means a little more than in other places. He did it by having the ball in his hands, by making plays for others, by being the absolute focal point of everything that his team was doing. On Tuesday night he looked exactly like he did in high school, when he was the unquestioned alpha player, someone for whom it was natural to run a team. All the way to late in the second half, when his voice drowned out that of his coach, directing his fellow peers how to run a play correctly. Izzo and Henry stood side by side at that moment, it was clear though who was the coach in that very moment. And nobody was probably happier about it than Izzo himself.
Henry has always been a thoughtful player, someone who went a little deeper into his own feelings, about himself, about his game, his role. Many times it seemed that he was still thinking out on the court, leading to slow decisions, mindless mistakes and missed opportunities. Now it seems that all the thinking is done before Henry steps on the court, that with the tip going up the junior knows only one thing and that is to play the game with relentless energy. At times it seems there are two or three of him out there on defense while his playmaking has been one of the key components of MSU’s offense early in the season. There were mistakes, there were missed shots, sure. Aaron Henry is the first to tell you that. But all of them happened while playing aggressive and in attack mode. Nothing else matters.
And even though Aristotle also said that “one swallow does not make a summer, nor does one day; and so too one day, or a short time, does not make a man blessed and happy” you sure have to be optimistic that Tuesday night wasn’t the last of Aaron Henry being a great leader. Not with this being his team now, not with bigger goals ahead…