In the first part of my examination of Michigan State’s Aaron Henry as an NBA prospect, I took a close look at Henry’s game from a purely scouting perspective, breaking down his strengths and weaknesses, discussing highlights and examining his individual statistical profile. But how does he fit in the NBA game? What should his role be? And what teams might see a fit with Henry?
NBA fit, draft context (position-ranking), and potential landing spots
This year’s NBA playoffs has confirmed the value of high level shot-creators both in terms of star-players, but also from secondary players — teams that rely on a single player to create shots have struggled. Whereas teams with multiple shot-creators, and bench players who can create shots to temporarily ease the burden on star players, or to generate high quality shots in secondary actions (out of the short roll, or after a star creator gets double-teamed and the ball gets reversed), have really found success.
The value of secondary shot-creators who can also defend at a high level, particularly at the point of attack, has never been higher. For this reason, even more so than in recent drafts, two-way guards and wings who can create shots and take advantage of defenses, either in rotation or that heavily shade toward a star player, are increasingly prized over bigs or “shooter-only” perimeter players. Simply put, guards and wings who do not merit “hunting” on defense, but who can still provide creation and passing, if not also shooting, are the most valuable archetypes in the league right now.
Fortunately for NBA teams, this year’s draft is loaded with guards and wings. But sorting out which ones are talented enough on the offensive end to merit overlooking defensive deficiencies, which ones fill the aforementioned archetypes, and which ones have significant enough flaws that merit devaluing them requires discernment. If you break all of these prospects into tiers, they look something like this on my NBA Draft board:
Tier 1 (likely-or-potential lottery picks): Cade Cunningham, Jalen Green, Jalen Suggs, Moses Moody, Josh Giddey, Franz Wagner, Sharife Cooper, Jaden Springer, Ziaire Williams, Davion Mitchell, James Bouknight, Keon Johnson, and Cam Thomas.
Tier 2 (additional potential first or likely second round picks): Jared Butler (health concerns pending), Miles McBride, Aaron Henry, Tre Mann, Roko Prkacin, Corey Kispert, Trey Murphy, Ayo Dosunmu, Julian Champagnie, BJ Boston, Josh Christopher, Johnny Juzang, Marcus Bagley, Josh Primo, Joe Wieskamp, DJ Steward, Max Abmas, Josh Reaves, Quentin Grimes, Bones Hyland, Terrence Shannon, Daishen Nix, and Rokas Jokubaitis.
Tier 3 (potential second round picks or undrafted-free-agents): Ochai Agbaji, Marcus Carr, McKinley Wright, Yves Pons, John Petty, MJ Walker, and DeJon Jarreau.
That is 43 names! And does not include some European wings and off-guards who likely will have great chances to get onto NBA rosters or in two-way spots as undrafted free-agents. I see Henry in the upper part of that second tier, but before I get to my reasons for having him in that group, let’s think about some player comparisons.
NBA prospects & comparisons
Kenpom allows us to take a look at the player comparisons in his data-base for each of Henry’s three seasons at Michigan State (Note: I have not included every player comparison that Kenpom’s database generates).
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)
To briefly remind you, let’s look at Henry’s three-year statistical profile once more:
Henry is superb in the mid-range (see below if you do not immediately see how impressive his mid-range shooting is). Henry was actually fine from three-point range: he had a disastrous start to the season — going just 9-for-43 from three-point range (a horrific 20 percent), in the first 14 games of the season — before rebounding with a sterling second half — going 15-for-38 from three-point range (good for 39.5 percent), in the last 14 games of the season.
In his junior season, Henry also dramatically increased his usage, while improving his assist rate (Henry registered 3.6 assists per game on a bad shooting and passing team) and lowering his turnover rate (he only had a 1.24:1 assist-to-turnover ratio, but that does not do his passing or creation justice). Henry did all of this, while also improving his scoring out-put, under constant and dramatically increased pressure from defenses. Henry also became a truly impactful-defender (beyond just a solid and fundamentally sound defender) this past season; he has always been a good two-way player, but the advanced stats bear out just how great he was this past year, on a truly substandard team.
When the going got tough this season, Henry’s game absolutely took off.
Freshman season comparisons:
As a role-player, Henry’s freshman season suffered from excessive turnovers and inconsistency at the free-throw line — but his spot-up ability and willingness to attempt to make plays indicated a promising player. His comparisons yielded a couple of NBA fringe players, and a few draft-picks with solid NBA careers.
Sophomore season comparisons:
As a sophomore, Henry’s role and usage took a significant step forward, his play-making took a step forward on offense, and his spot-up shooting remained strong. Henry’s free-throw shooting improvement was minimal, and the plateauing of his block and steal percentages belied his growing defensive prowess. The notable comparison here is Josh Richardson (see below).
Junior season comparisons:
As a junior, Henry somewhat flummoxes Kenpom’s algorithm (due to his aberrant start to the season from three-point range, which I discuss at length in part one), but, again, Josh Richardson (as a senior) shows up as an excellent comparison — particularly in terms of Richardson’s growth as a creator and play-maker on offense, which Henry’s junior season evokes (see below). Notably, Henry’s junior year defensive impact-play rates took a significant jump this past season.
Beyond the somewhat naive statistical comparisons on Kenpom, there are a number of recent NBA wings that Henry appears to compare favorably to, including: Alan Anderson, Garrett Temple, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Keldon Johnson, Kent Bazemore, Alex Caruso, Bruce Brown, Naji Marshall, Jae Crowder, and, maybe my favorite comps for Aaron Henry: Josh Richardson (see above) and Khris Middleton.
Josh Richardson was a four-year player at Tennessee, who has blossomed into a very capable three-and-D wing (drafted No. 40 overall by the Miami Heat). Richardson, as a junior and senior, became a legitimate play-maker on a bad Tennessee team, a very good, but not great, three-point shooter, and was always a solid defender; those last two traits have served him well in the NBA.
Henry is actually further along as a defender, ball-handler, passer, finisher and mid-range shooter than Richardson was as a prospect, even in his senior season. In fact, Henry’s footwork as a ball-handler is also just much more developed than Richardson’s was as a senior. Richardson was more comfortable playing off of curls and pin-downs than Henry is (notice how smooth Richardson is on the catch-rise-and-shoot coming off of pindowns), but Richardon’s seemingly largest comparative advantage — as a three-point shooter — falls away, to a significant degree, when factoring in Henry’s abysmal start, and subsequent resurgence this past season. Even on a mediocre NBA team, where he will get much better and more-open looks from three-point range, I expect Henry to be a consistently solid spot-up three-point shooter, which was his primary three-point diet in his first two seasons at Michigan State (when he shot 46-for-129 from three-point range, good for 35 percent).
Khris Middleton, who played three-years at Texas A&M, has taken a star-turn in the NBA paired with Giannis Antetokounmpo (Middleton was drafted No. 38 overall by the Detroit Pistons). Despite the seeming disparity between Henry, as a draft prospect, and the player that Middleton has become, I really like the Middleton comp for Henry. Henry’s defensive acumen as a college player is considerably more advanced than Middleton’s was as a sophomore or junior, and while Middleton will likely always be a better three-point shooter than Henry, even Middleton had a disastrous slump as a junior before his season ended due to injury.
The most important parts of the comparison might be the usage, the mid-range shooting, and the physical profiles. Henry is a better athlete than Middleton was as a draft-prospect, is a better mid-range shooter than Middleton was (even as a sophomore, which are the shooting stats listed in the graphic, when Middleton was healthy), and has similar measurables to Middleton, who measured at 6’8.75” (with shoes), had a 6’10.75” wingspan (only plus-two inches), and an 8’9” standing reach. So, while Henry is a bit shorter, his leaping ability and identical wingspan can help compensate for his lack of height, while his quicker feet and strength give him a favorable set of athletic measurements (Middleton’s no-step vertical was 28” and his max-vertical was 31”, for example).
Now before you scoff and say “Khris Middleton is a far better jump-shooter” or “Khris Middleton is a star and Aaron Henry will never get to that level,” I would encourage you to consider 1.) Middleton’s own growth as a player, that 2.) Henry, too, can still grow as a player, and 3.) I will encourage you to watch these highlights of Middleton operating in the mid-range:
Henry’s mid-range game is often reminiscent of what we see from Middleton here. Not always generating perfect separation, but a real knack for getting his shot off (due to his long arms; again, Middleton’s standing reach is only two inches taller than Henry’s). Middleton has a terrific ability to generate angles for unconventional one-handed shots, a mid-post game, and a turn-around game, all of which Henry exhibited throughout the season and during his career at Michigan State.
Turning now to the player comparisons with his fellow draft prospects, let’s examine what happens when we play around with some different statistical thresholds on Barttorvik.com yields the following comparisons for Henry who played in college this year. Obviously some of the names listed above (in the three tiers of draft prospects) do not pass the thresholds, and I purposefully set some of these quite high in order to illustrate the unique profile that Henry will present to NBA evaluators.
Comparison No. 1 - sizable role, two-way players with passable three-point shooting
Thresholds (guard & wing top comparisons): Usage (≥ 19 percent), Box Plus-Minus (≥ +7), Offensive Box Plus-Minus (≥ +3), Defensive Box Plus-Minus (≥ +3), three-point FG Percent (≥ 29 percent).
While the three-point percentage threshold is low, this evaluation prizes two-way players with sizable offensive roles — it is telling that Henry finds himself in this group because the other three players were on high-level teams: Gonzaga, Michigan, and Houston all finished in the top-five of Kenpom’s ratings. Two-way dominance (in advanced stats) is not guaranteed when you are on better teams, but the reason those teams are better is precisely because there are a bunch of high-level players (often good two-way players in their own rights) surrounding a given player. Houston’s DeJon Jarreau was one of three draft-board possibles (along with Quentin Grimes and Tramon Mark, who will return to Houston). Michigan and Gonzaga, of course, each have about about four players on NBA Draft radars. Henry, for all intents and purposes, was on his own for Michigan State in this regard and still managed to put up incredible two-way advanced stats: that is rare.
Comparison No. 2 - Offensive focal-points with at least moderate defensive impact
Thresholds (high usage/mins passers with defense): Usage (≥ 25 percent), Box Plus-Minus (≥ +7), Block Percentage (≥ .5), Minutes Percentage (≥ 70 percent).
This comparison becomes more permissive of one-way dominant players (hence the “offensive focal point” label), requiring an even larger offensive role while still trying to identify at least moderate-level impact defenders (blocks are often a better impact indicator for offense-first players’ effort levels on defense).
Here, Henry finds himself joining a list of stellar guards and Aamir Sims (a power forward and another guy I like a lot who played for a mediocre Clemson team). As I mentioned in the first part of my evaluation of Henry’s draft prospects, Henry and McKinley Wright are two of the top-five mid-range shooters in the nation (that “Far 2” column shows just how much separation those two have from the other guards in this comparison), Henry’s defensive impact ranks right up there with Jared Butler and Cade Cunningham in terms of disruptive impact, and Henry’s play-making allows him to compare with out-and-out point guards, three of whom have at least first-round talent.
Again, before you scoff at my comparing Henry’s play-making to Cade Cunningham (the prospective first overall pick), consider that they averaged the exact same assists per game, with Cunningham playing on a better team, with a higher usage rate, and with the ball in his hands every single possession — Henry’s passing is a legitimate strength and his numbers would be even more impressive if his teammates shot the ball at a higher percentage: Rocket Watts, Joshua Langford, Joey Hauser, and Foster Loyer, four out of the team’s top-six three-point shooters (by volume, accuracy, and role) all had career-worst shooting seasons, with each player’s three-point percentage falling by three percent, six percent, eight percent, and 13 percent, respectively.
As one might expect having seen Henry’s stats above, and my comments (or one’s own assessment of him), Henry certainly fits in this second comparison group on the offensive end. On defense, however, Henry stacks up even better, which accords with his tape/film, his counting stats, and his advanced stats, which align far better with the tape than they did last year. Where Henry was a solid defender in his first two seasons, in his third year he became a defensive play-maker, which is why he got so many more blocks, steals, and deflections. Simply put, Henry has far better defensive potential than most of the players on this list, and realistically has a clear first-round defensive “grade” if not a lottery-level defensive grade.
Henry’s statistical profile took a huge jump this season to really put him on teams’ draft-boards, especially during the final stretch of the season. And beyond his play this past season, Henry should be able to really separate himself in individual and group work-outs —where his IQ, confidence, and skill-level should really allow him to thrive against his fellow prospects. With his stellar interviewing, it seems likely that he will differentiate himself from players with comparable numbers especially given the team-context he found himself in this season.
Note: Henry pulled out of the NBA Draft Combine five-on-five portion after his initial shooting drills, physical and athletic testing, and interviews with teams, which indicates that he may have already received a guarantee from a team in the first or early-second round.
Future NBA Role:
In the NBA, Henry’s role will be that of a rotation player (likely off the bench early in his career) who is more than capable of defending one-to-three, and even some forwards in small-ball lineups. He will operate best as a secondary ball-handler and creator, and will likely get plenty of opportunities to work around screens for curls to the basket, and to operate out of the pick and roll both as a ball-handler and as a screener and short-roll player. If Henry can improve his three-point shooting (especially from the corners), then he should more-or-less explode onto the scene even in his first season. He really has that kind of “how did we miss on this guy?” potential.
In case my various statistical discussions have not made clear just how unique he is as a package — a guy who can defend incredibly well, create off the bounce, pass, finish, drill shots from the mid-range, and actually shows promise as an at-least-average three-point shooter — then allow me one final attempt.
In the graphic below, you will see the total list of players in the entire Barttorvik.com database that achieved these thresholds (back through the 2007-2008 season):
- Usage: ≥ 25 percent
- Assist Rate: ≥ 20 percent
- Block Rate: ≥ 2 percent
- Steal Rate: ≥ 2 percent
- Mid-Range Field Goal Attempts: ≥ 150 (for the season)
- Mid-Range Field Goal Percentage: ≥ 45 percent
- Box Plus-Minus: ≥ +7
- Minutes Percentage: ≥ 70 percent
These are high usage players with primary offensive focal-point roles, are excellent creators and take on a primary assist role (as well as scoring), have excellent proficiency from the mid-range (a skill that few college players can master), have a major two-way impact, and are truly impactful defenders:
There’s only one name.
Henry is incredibly unique as a prospect, and, incredibly, he put up this statistical season on the worst-performing team Michigan State has fielded in the last 23 years.
Team Fits and Draft Range:
As I mentioned earlier, every NBA team is looking for versatile wings who are plus defenders, so his value should get a boost from that fact alone. His possible draft range appears, at this point, to be somewhere in the 20-50 range. Of the teams in that range, the Denver Nuggets, Utah Jazz, Boston Celtics, and Toronto Raptors would seem like the best fits, though I doubt there will be a team that does not have him with a top-50 grade:
Denver needs capable defensive players on the wing to pair with Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr., and Nikola Jokic. The Nuggets — despite Murray and Jokic improving on defense in the last two years — need as much help as possible covering actions off-ball, making impact plays, and covering opposing teams’ best perimeter players. While the Nuggets did add Aaron Gordon at the trade deadline this season, Henry would be an ideal wing off the bench behind Will Barton, whose health issues have plagued Denver’s shooting guard spot in the last few years. Henry’s somewhat dubious three-point shooting profile is minimized in Denver due to Murray, Jokic, and Porter’s terrific shooting prowess, allowing Henry to work off-ball, in the mid-range, and off of cuts in the way Gary Harris used to for the Nuggets.
Utah, even more than Denver, needs defensive wings that can flex up to help out against point guards. Utah got torched in the playoffs by even reserve players on the Los Angeles Clippers whose dribble penetration made Utah’s vaunted defense look like yet another Maginot Line. Henry would really help shut down a “hot” driver for a given opponent, and gap passes and ball-handlers in his help responsibilities. As with Denver, Utah’s scintillating team-shooting would also cover for Henry’s apparent three-point shooting deficiency, and Henry’s athleticism and interior passing game would work extremely well with Rudy Gobert on offense.
Boston, while they have and outstanding perimeter trio in Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, have almost no depth on the perimeter behind those guys. Yes, Payton Pritchard, Aaron Nesmith, and even former Indiana Hoosier Romeo Langford showed some flashes in the past year, but none of those three players have taken-hold of a reserve position with any force, and Boston will need a couple more smart, competitive players, who are ready to defend and pass the ball in a cohesive offense that complements Tatum’s brilliance. Henry could really fit in small-ball lineups in Boston that shift the recently acquired Al Horford to the center position, unleashing a five-man defensive unit of Smart, Henry, Tatum, Brown, and Horford that, on its own, might get Boston to at least Eastern Conference Finals.
Henry fits in the Toronto-ethos like a glove. He plays hard, smart, unselfish basketball, he has a plus-wingspan as a guard-wing (as do OJ Anunoby and Pascal Siakam at the two forward positions), and he defends at a high level. Masai Ujiri (the Raptors’ general manager) loves guys like Aaron Henry, and I think he may well see an offensive diamond in the rough in Henry in the same way he saw one in Fred VanVleet, Anunoby, Siakam, Gary Trent Jr., and the since-departed Norman Powell and Delon Wright. Toronto. after an aberrant down-year, wants to get right back into the thick of playoff contention, so it will be interested in ready-to-play guys outside of their No. 4 overall pick. A rotation that includes, at least, VanVleet, Jalen Suggs (at No. 4), Trent, Anunoby, Siakam, Chris Boucher, Freddie Gillespie, Khem Birch and Aaron Henry should make the playoffs.
In my months-long dive into this NBA Draft, I have watched a lot of film, examined an ungodly number of stats, and reviewed every aspect of Aaron Henry as a prospect. I have him in the top-24 or so players (plus or minus a couple of spots), and am quite confident that his three-point shooting will become good as his defense and offensive repertoire continue to percolate. His NBA role will be very much in-line with his skill-set (just as Xavier Tillman’s was last year), and I expect him to be a much-discussed prospect by the time of the draft.
Ultimately, I believe that Henry will be drafted likely in the middle part of the second round, and I would be amazed if he made it to the 50th pick. Regardless of where Henry is drafted, I view Henry as a guy who will comfortably fit into the modern NBA game and will likely play for at least a decade or so. Henry projects to be a top-nine player in a team’s rotation by the end of his third year.