Gerald Henderson Is the Key to Duke's ACC Championship Aspirations

Josh BrillContributor IJanuary 13, 2009

If Saturday's Duke-Florida St. game was played at this time one year ago, the end result would have led to a celebrating Seminole home crowd instead of Duke's 14th victory of the season.

The reason for the change? Simple. For the first time in his Blue Devil career, Gerald Henderson was both mentally and physically ready to be the best player on the court for an entire game.

Henderson, the junior swingman from Philadelphia, has been one of the most frustrating Duke players in recent history, playing well below the level he should be since the moment he stepped foot on campus.

In spite of being far and away the Blue Devils' most athletic player since his freshman year, he has never averaged more than 13 points or five rebounds per game, and is still best known as "that guy who elbowed Tyler Hansbrough in the face."

Granted, part of the blame for Henderson's disappointing numbers must be attributed to asthma and wrist problems that have hampered him throughout his career, but there has been many a game where even the most casual observer could see the lack of desire in his performances, content to settle for mid-range jumpers or pass to a contested teammate instead of using his freakish strength and athleticism to overpower defenders and take it to the hole.

The more games he played, the more it looked as though he would be the next in a growing number of career underachievers whose careers ended with premature defections from Durham and disappointing draft spots (see Randolph, Shavlik and McRoberts, Josh.)

But against Florida State, it was all different. With Jon Scheyer and Nolan Smith both ice cold from outside, and Kyle Singler looking somewhat fatigued and unable to carry the team, the Devils desperately needed Henderson to step up.

And step up he did. Henderson erupted for a career-high 25 points, his first 20-point game since November against Southern Illinois, but more than that, he played with the high energy, attack the rim mentality that had been lacking from his game, and began to look like a legitimate Wooden Award candidate somewhere in the process.

It was exactly the type of performance the Dukies needed to eke out the win over a feisty Florida State team on an off day, and he will need to continue such performances if Duke wants to fulfill any dreams of winning into March this season.