Here we are a year later and Michigan State’s Aaron Henry finds himself on the precipice of his NBA career. Where last year I had some questions and ultimately predicted that he would return for his junior season, this year there is zero doubt in my mind that he is more than ready to have a terrific NBA career and to be a rotation-level player right away.
NBA scouting report for Aaron Henry
General info and initial scout:
Height: 6’6” (in shoes)
Weight: ~210 pounds
Date Of Birth: August 30, 1999 (~22 years old and one month at the start of 2020-21 NBA season).
Official measurements (NBA Draft Combine):
Height: 6’4.5” without shoes, 6’6” in shoes
Wingspan: 6’10.75” (nearly plus-five inches)
Standing Reach: 8’7.5”
Standing Vertical: 29”
Max Vertical: 35”
(Note: you can check out all of Henry’s NBA Draft Combine numbers here)
Henry improved significantly as an athlete this past year — showing better leg strength and explosion than he displayed as a sophomore. He has NBA-level athleticism, solid, positional strength, and can hold up against bigs, but that is not a strength at this point. Henry still shows the very quick feet and excellent technique both in his slide and drop-step and in his turn-and-run that he did last season. He continues to show an excellent understanding of when to use which technique on defense, he gets skinny over picks, and is good in trailing around screens.
My critique of Henry previously was his tendency to float through games, or get mentally knocked out of games due to foul trouble. That critique is no longer remotely applicable. This past season, Henry played on a truly bad team by Michigan State standards: this was the worst Tom Izzo-led Michigan State team since his second season at Michigan State and the only Izzo-led team in the Kenpom era to rank lower than No. 45 (the team finished No. 64!). Henry was the alpha all season long and, in the second half of the season, single-handedly (at times) dragged and willed the team into the NCAA Tournament. With no other shot-creators, terrible point guard-play, woeful three-point shooting around him, and generally poor defensive contributions from players other than Marcus Bingham Jr., Henry was the offensive focal point all year and played engaged basketball all season (bar a couple of blowout losses after the team returned from its two-plus week COVID pause).
Henry projects as a rare plus on-ball defender at the next level — even more so than he did last year. He has terrific feet, hands, length, timing, and understands when and where to use his physicality. There were games that Henry simply dominated on the defensive end where he improved his steal and block percentages to 2.4 and 4.1, respectively. He proves adept at reading the game, understanding other teams’ actions, and blowing up plays on-ball and off-ball. This will be his calling card initially as a professional.
His shooting form has improved significantly since the end of his junior season:
Michigan State's Aaron Henry in the NBA Combine shooting drills. pic.twitter.com/cLLvv9t5V4— Jonathan Givony (@DraftExpress) June 22, 2021
He is much smoother and has a more natural dip and release from behind the three-point line in this catch-and-shoot drill from the combine, a smoothness that he already had (all season) off the dribble in the mid-range. Despite his guide-hand looking a little funky, it appropriately does not influence the ball; this is a replicable form for catch-and-shoot situations in the NBA where teams will initially, at least, shade off of Henry until he shows he can hit three-pointers (and even then Henry will likely be low on the scouting report).
Henry’s shot is far from broken; in fact, there is strong statistical evidence to pair with this improved visual data that indicates that Henry will be an at-least-average three-point shooter for his position (i.e. that he will get to around 35 percent as a professional).
Henry’s off-the-dribble creation improved dramatically this season (evoking his high school years where he played as a point-forward). Often going against set-defenses, Henry proved able to beat players off-the-dribble, and to slash off of catches and curls from the wing.
Henry remains an excellent and confident finisher with both hands on a variety of reverses, off-foot finishes, push shots, tear-drops, and hooks. Significantly, Henry also showed the ability to play off of two-feet and off of one-foot in the paint — an athletic dynamism that is important in the NBA. Henry had 10 dunks this year (on 13 attempts), but he continues to finish well around the rim when he isn’t dropping off passes, which is one of his underrated skills: for his entire college career Henry has been a terrific paint-area passer through and around help— and this will really maximize his NBA role as a secondary creator and paint-breaker (see below).
When he runs the wing Henry is a terrific transition player: he reads the court well, understands best angles to attack, and finds open teammates on the perimeter, but this year Henry was often the one bringing the ball up the court or having to work with a delayed break (due to the point guard struggles on the team). I expect him to be a potent transition player and finisher in the NBA in a call-back to his first two seasons at Michigan State. While Henry’s free-throw rate still leaves a bit to be desired, he does not rely on free-throw generation the way some college stars do, which will benefit him in the much more physical NBA, where he will not get a lot of calls.
In his junior year, Henry stepped into a much bigger role this year than was anticipated, as evidenced by his massive leap in usage and the percentage of shots he took while on the court (in his second and third years Henry’s usage, role, and minutes-played took huge leaps each season, a strong indicator that he can handle and even thrive in a bigger role as a more veteran NBA wing — a not-insignificant consideration).
By the end of his junior year he was playing his best basketball on both ends of the court and finished the year as one of the most impressive juniors to ever play for Tom Izzo. Henry remains very smart, very engaging, cerebral, humble, and highly teachable, but, as noted earlier, he developed an absolute killer-edge and alpha mentality this year.
After this past season, Henry’s ball-handling and individual shot-creation and finishing (in the mid-range and at the rim) should put NBA teams on notice. In fact, Henry finished as a top-five mid-range shooter in the entire nation (see below) an extremely valuable long-term proficiency as Henry’s three-point shooting begins to percolate, and as his creation role and finishing acumen lead teams to encourage mid-range shots from him even more.
Henry’s strength, length, quickness, and explosion are all at-least-average in the NBA, if not genuine positives (his length — nearly a plus-five wingspan — and lateral quickness — he should test very well in the athleticism drills at the combine — are real selling points). And, with his “killer” mentality secured this season, the only actual weakness that I still have for Henry is his three-point shooting — an important weakness, but not a fatal one, nor one that should scare NBA teams away given some positive indicators: his impressive second-half-of-the-year shooting (see below), steady free-throw shooting improvement, and excellent form and comfort on mid-range shots.
Note: the impressive step-function increase in Henry’s usage, assist rate, and free-throw percentage. Also of note: Henry finally “putting-it-all-together” on defense this season; on a poor defensive team, generally, Henry posted terrific block and steal percentages.
After a more quiet year last year in terms of dunks, Henry amped up his transition dunks and landed (and attempted) far more dunks in the half-court (almost all off of one foot; to complement his jump-stop finishing). Henry’s self-creation and efficiency at the rim and in the mid-range is impressive, particularly considering the awful spacing he had to deal with.
While the three-point percentage looks ugly on its face — especially given Henry’s solid 35.6 percent mark over his first two seasons (129 attempts) — the granular detail of Henry’s shooting season tells a far different story. In non-conference play, adjusting to the absence of fans, a new, much-larger role, an unexpectedly bad team, and dire shot-quality due to poor point guard-play, Henry started the year making just six of 26 shots from three-point range (23 percent). But over the rest of the season, Henry shot 18-of-55 from three point range, for 32.7 percent from beyond the arc. In fact, in the second half of the year (from the Iowa game onwards; i.e. the last 14 games of the season) Henry shot 15-of-38 from three-point range, for a superb 39.5 percent — while maintaining a high degree of shot-difficulty.
Henry’s selling points on offense:
- Passing: Henry is a terrific passer, particularly in tight-quarters and in-and-around the painted area. If a big is open near the rim Henry will make the right pass and get the big-man an easy dunk — he is a willing and capable passer.
- Creation: this past season, Henry’s self-creation and creation for others was a revelation, and he produced excellent looks out of the pick-and-roll as well. On a bad team that did not generate high quality shots, Henry was at the heart of almost all of the good things that did happen on offense. His ability to beat his man off the dribble using complex cross-over combinations, hesitations, spins, and aggressive jump-stops won Michigan State games to the extent that Henry became a go-to a drought-breaker and closer (see his 10-straight clutch-points against Indiana down the stretch of that must-win game) even in the face of intense defensive attention.
- Mid-range and paint-scoring: Henry’s mid-range output (roughly six mid-range attempts per game at 46 percent) is in the same range as guys like Khris Middleton, Jamal Murray, and Jeremy Lamb (current NBA players) — I am not saying he will be those guys, but from a mid-range scoring perspective he is not dissimilar coming out of college, and, in fact, is a better mid-range shooter than those players were in college.
There are not a lot of prospects with a more impressive set of highlights in terms of winning basketball, variety, and ability to produce smart basketball plays despite a high degree of difficulty or pressure. Henry’s smooth handle (much improved from his sophomore year), calm under-pressure, and keen awareness of time, score, and personnel saved Michigan State’s season, and indicates that Henry will thrive as a secondary creator, paint-player, and primary wing-defender.
Henry’s point-of-attack defense and help defense (in terms of his help-awareness and positioning, timing of his rotations, and completing of plays) really pop in this film where he stifles nearly every player he guards. Take a look at this play against prospective first-round pick Ayo Dosunmu:
Aaron Henry on-ball defense: just devouring Ayo Dosunmu, going to his left. Rugged at the point of attack, quick feet/fluid hips. Glides over screens. pic.twitter.com/elSKTrtP4c— Brian Geisinger (@bgeis_bird) May 14, 2021
Henry’s defense is a real weapon, and while many NBA evaluators may not value it, his offensive game also pops on the film, too.
While Henry is not a lottery-level offensive creator, he really is not that far off: on a team with negative spacing, and often lacking any semblance of rhythm, Henry’s ability to generate shots for himself and his teammates was pretty incredible in the half-court. Take the second Indiana game, at home, for example. You can see a series of highlights from that game in the above videos, but some context is required.
Both teams were fighting for their NCAA Tournament lives, and Indiana’s entire defense was focused on stopping Henry after he destroyed them in Bloomington in the first matchup. In the first half, the Hoosiers bottled him up pretty successfully, holding Henry to four points. In the second half, Henry scored 18. With Michigan State down 49-48, with 4:35 left in the game, Henry scored 12 straight points (from all three-levels), grabbed an offensive rebound (for a put-back), had a crucial steal, and a defensive-possession-ending rebound, to put Michigan State up 60-52 with, 25 seconds left in the game. He dominated the game and there was nothing Indiana (with the No. 43 defense in the nation, per Kenpom) could do to stop him.
This same story played out in all five of the season-defining wins against Indiana, Illinois, Ohio State, Indiana, and Michigan — these high-level teams, two of them with excellent defenses (defensive ranks of No. 43, No. 7, No. 82, No. 43, and No. 4, respectively) were geared toward thwarting Henry, and simply could not keep him out of the lane, or off of the scoresheet as he put up 27 points and two assists, 20 points and five assists, 18 points and four assists, 22 points and five assists, and 18 points and three assists in those five season-defining wins.
Henry’s feel for the game and the rhythm of opposing defenses is superb, and while he did at times struggle with getting stripped (often getting raked across the arms) on drives into traffic, the NBA game and spacing will benefit him tremendously in this respect. Like Miles Bridges a few years ago, Henry’s game will absolutely thrive in the NBA where defenses are stretched, driving lanes are wider, teams are not putting their best defenders on him and not helping towards him, and his passing awareness and skill will punish teams that do help on his drives and curls.
In the second part of my discussion of Aaron Henry as an NBA prospect, I will dive into some more granular player comparisons and show why Henry is such a unique prospect as a point-wing whose role, usage, creation, defense, and two-way excellence place him in a tier of his own making. Part two will also include a discussion of his NBA role and his potential “fits” for teams. Be on the lookout for that article soon.