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Aaron Henry and the Philadelphia 76ers: Fit and Role

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NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-UCLA at Michigan State Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

Well...that was a wild NBA Draft! Michigan State’s Aaron Henry did not get drafted — much to my shock as well as that of many other NBA draft experts and followers. Even more perplexing than Henry not getting drafted? A lot of the players who got selected ahead of him, including in the second round alone: Joe Wieskamp, Isaiah Livers, Dalano Banton and Aaron Wiggins (all from the Big Ten).

I will not go all the way back through my evaluation of Henry (you can find it here), nor will I go fully into why I see Henry as a better NBA prospect and player right now, than all four of those players. Suffice to say that in his individual matchups with those players — where he largely did, in fact, cover these guys for much of each game — he did quite well. Here are the numbers across the 18 games that Henry played against those four (11-7 record, with five losses coming this past season):

Henry:

Minutes per game (total minutes): 30 (541)

Offensive rating (average): 110

Usage rate: 21.9 percent

Points per game (total points): 12.38 (223)

Rebounds per game: 5.3

Assists per game: 2.4

Turnovers per game: 1.6

Stocks per game (steals plus blocks): 1.66

Two-point percentage (totals): 50 percent (69-136)

Three-point percentage (totals): 32 percent (14-43)

Free-throw percentage (totals): 68 percent (43-63)

The four Big Ten wing-forwards drafted ahead of him:

Minutes per game (total minutes): 28.6 (516)

Offensive rating (average): 95

Usage rate: 18.4 percent

Points per game (total points): 9.16 (165)

Rebounds per game: 3.8

Assists per game: 1.3

Turnovers per game: 1.6

Stocks per game (steals plus blocks): 1.6

Two-point percentage (totals): 46 percent (31-67)

Three-point percentage (totals): 34 percent (23-67)

Free-throw percentage (totals): 88 percent (36-41)

While this is a crude form of comparison (for many reasons), it gives you a bit of a picture that Henry simply out-played these guys individually. When you look at the box scores from the 18 games and re-watch the film, you also note pretty conclusively that Henry individually won his matchups (again, Henry was often matched-up against these guys in the games) in about 11 of the 18 contests.

Now this is not conclusive, by any means, and the NBA evaluators clearly prioritized the shooting of Livers and Wieskamp and the je ne sais quoi and length of Banton and Wiggins. Still it is strange that Henry’s dominant defense, individual creation and terrific mid-range finishing (he was one of the top-five mid-range finishers in the nation last season on hooks, floaters, push-shots and jumpers) was not enough to get him drafted.

Furthermore, the concerns about Henry’s three-point shooting simply do not merit serious consideration in my opinion. He had a bad start to the 2020-2021 season (his first 14 games), but then, in the second half of the season (last 14 games), he shot over 39 percent from three-point range. In fact, Henry’s three-point percentage is better than top-10 pick Franz Wagner’s over the course of their college careers, on nearly identical total volume.

Henry, for his career, shot 33.3 percent (70-for-210) from three-point range, and shot 33.6 percent (38-for-113) against “Tier A” teams (top-50 opponents in Kenpom’s ratings, adjusted for game location). Wagner, for his career, shot 32.5 percent (76-for-234), and shot 32 percent (48-for-150) against “Tier A” teams.

Part of the reason that Henry’s three-point shooting is viewed with skepticism is the volume of three-point shots he took — he only took about two three-point attempts per game for his career at Michigan State (about three per-game his final two seasons). Wieskamp, Livers, Wiggins and Wagner all took far more three-point field-goal attempts per game than Henry did — about four-and-a-half, three (five in the last two seasons), five and four, respectively.

Regardless of my personal evaluations and opinions on what happened in the draft (both regarding Henry and many other draft choices by teams), Henry has signed a two-way contract with the Philadelphia 76ers, so let’s examine his possible fit and role with his current NBA team.

Henry and the 76ers

The Philadelphia 76ers are both contenders in the Eastern Conference and on the verge of a major change. The Ben Simmons-Joel Embiid pairing appeared to have run its course this past postseason, with Simmons increasingly shrinking from offensive responsibilities, and Embiid increasingly under pressure to carry the team single-handedly on offense at times.

Ben Simmons will be traded in the coming days, weeks or months. It is very likely going to happen.

What return will Philadelphia’s president of basketball operations Darryl Morey get for the defense-and-passing-first point-forward? That is tough to say given his perceived playoff value is at an all-time low. But you can expect Morey to get some combination of young promising players on rookie deals, a bonafide “second-best player” and a future draft pick or two in what may end up being a multi-team deal.

So what is the state of the 76ers’ depth chart right now (2021 draft picks and two-way players in italics)?

1 - Ben Simmons, Tyrese Maxey
2 - Seth Curry, Shake Milton, Jaden Springer, Isaiah Joe
3 - Matisse Thybulle, Aaron Henry
4 - Tobias Harris, Paul Reed
5 - Joel Embiid, Charles Bassey, Filip Petrusev

As of right now, Henry has an inside track to at least compete for minutes at the small forward position. Thybulle will likely start there, and Harris (who may also be on the trade block) will play some minutes at the small forward in some bigger lineups, but there are minutes behind those two, and the 76ers did not draft any true wings or smaller forwards.

Furthermore, unless the 76ers trade Simmons for a small forward to a team with cap space, that has a small forward to offer in exchange, the only additions they will bring to that position group will be in free agency, where the 76ers do not have cap space. There are myriad options here, but my guess is that Morey will make a trade for a point guard who can still defend and make plays, but who can also shoot the ball (possibly targeting someone like Malcolm Brogdon, Kemba Walker or Damian Lillard in a traditional trade, or another player through a sign-and-trade — maybe Kyle Lowry).

At this point, I doubt that Simmons gets traded this summer, which means that Henry will be one of two true wings on the team. But this is getting into the weeds a bit.

Henry’s fit will likely remain the same even after a trade: Morey likes to find three-point shooters and stars, and surround them with longer, switchable, defense-first wings and forwards. Henry is clearly viewed in this group and fits as an understudy for the NBA All-Defensive team member Matisse Thybulle. Though their games are similar in some ways — they are physical clones of each other — Henry brings considerably more ball-handling and secondary creation, which may prove useful in a bench role.

Like Thybulle, Henry will primarily operate off-ball when playing with any of the starters, and will be tasked with knocking down catch-and-shoot three-pointers, cutting for finishes at the rim, running the wings in transition and, occasionally, creating offense in weak-side odd-numbers situations after Embiid gets doubled and the ball gets swung to the opposite side. Head coach Doc Rivers will, I expect, absolutely fall in love with Henry’s game, and I expect Henry to get some amount of play this season given the ideal fit of Henry’s skills with his required role. It is this alignment of skills and role that gives me great confidence that, even as a two-way contract guy (meaning he will also spend time in the G League this season), Henry will stick in the league, and end up getting his contract converted to a fully guaranteed deal by the 76ers within a year or two.

I will update and revisit this discussion when roster developments begin to get finalized and when the depth chart for the team settles down.

Congratulations Aaron, and best of luck as you chase your dream!

Go Green!