Xavier Henry isn't a star. He doesn't instill fear into opponents. His name is synonymous with the term "draft bust" more than it is with anything else.
Which is why he may be just the surprise the Los Angeles Lakers need.
Drawing conclusions this early in the process is like shooting off fireworks inside your garage, house, apartment or dorm room. People aren't supposed to do it, yet some do.
Similar methodology applies to the NBA preseason. Two games don't mean anything. The entire preseason is often considered a forum for which the baseless and meaningless take place.
Skepticism of that kind holds doubly true for the unproven talents who could be making names for themselves courtesy of inferior opponents, fortuitous whistles and lucky bounces. Dominant performances by Derrick Rose are believable and worth reading into because they're expected. Touting Henry for a couple of encouraging showings, when he's spent three-plus years residing in obscurity, is both premature and hyperoblic.
Still, the preseason means something. Roster spots and places in the rotation are won from these exhibitions. And asked if Henry was securing himself a roster spot with the Lakers thanks to his preseason efforts, head coach Mike D'Antoni intimated he was, according to Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding:
While it's still early, the Lakers are a team that are going to field surprises this season. Their docket isn't like it was in years past. There is no concrete rotation. There isn't even a definitive agenda or set of expectations for them.
Immersed in structural uncertainty, Magic Mike is going to experiment. Once unimpressive or disappointing prospects will play meaningful minutes. Reliable role players will emerge from dark corners, in time to make a lasting impression.
One of those players, those surprises, could be Henry. It could happen.
There's Something Here
Henry isn't inept.
Envisioning him making a sizable contribution isn't as hard to believe as it is in most cases. Guys like Chris Copeland and Jeremy Lin went undrafted and weren't supposed to make it. On a larger scale, past players such as Bruce Bowen and Ben Wallace weren't projected to make impacts either.
The case of Henry is different. He was selected 12th overall in 2010 by the Memphis Grizzlies for a reason. In 2009, he was ranked on ESPN's Top 100 High School players database, ahead of others like DeMarcus Cousins and John Wall, for a reason.
He was supposed to be good. Really good. Watching him develop into a rotation fixture, then, wouldn't be absurd.
Remember, the Lakers aren't dealing with a veteran set in his ways either. Henry is only 22, three years removed from college and has never logged more than 16.9 minutes per game for his career. There is still time for him to develop and thrive in the right situation.
The Lakers could be that situation.
Pressure for him is almost nonexistent in Los Angeles. D'Antoni is looking for a few good men to help round out the rotation—he's not expecting Henry to be a star or the No. 1 option on offense. Kobe Bryant (when healthy), Pau Gasol, Steve Nash, Nick Young and some others will all be held to a higher standard than him.
Free from the strain put on former lottery picks, Henry could flourish. Not the way a star would, but the way a player like himself, who was once a valued commodity, should.
Rebounds won't be easy to come by in Tinseltown.
Crashing the glass was a strength of Los Angeles' last season, but over the summer, three of the team's six leading rebounders signed elsewhere (Dwight Howard, Metta World Peace and Earl Clark).
World Peace and Clark's departures are especially troubling. They were two swingman who could slice through the paint and grab a board, or get position on the perimeter for a long miss gone awry.
Los Angeles also had Kobe, who corralled 5.6 rebounds per game. It's unclear when he'll actually return to the lineup, and we can only guess as to how physical he'll play once he does.
One of the Lakers' most prominent stopgaps, Nick Young, isn't known for his rebounding at the 2 or 3 positions either. He's bringing down just 1.9 rebounds per game for his career. Henry is at 1.8, even though he's averaged almost nine minutes less a night than his new teammate.
Below you'll also see how his per-36 minute averages over the last three years match up against Young's:
Coming off the bench, behind Young, or even to play next him, Henry could inject some additional rebounding into a lineup that isn't brimming with shooting guards and small forwards who typically net significant hauls.
Through his first two preseason games, Henry snagged 10 rebounds in 50 total minutes, or 7.2 per-36 minutes. His effort against the Golden State Warriors was particularly impressive—he hoarded seven boards in just 26 minutes of action.
Clouds won't part and rebounds won't necessarily pile up with Henry on the floor, but he bolsters a largely unsung dynamic of the game, paving the way for him to turn some heads and shatter some expectations.
D'Antoni prays exclusively to volume-shooting Gods, so he's had to like what he's seen from Henry thus far.
In two games, Henry has combined to shoot 13-of-22 from the floor (59.1 percent). He's also converted two of his five three-point attempts, which while not spectacular is bound to appeal to D'Antoni's distance-shooting love affair.
The key, however, has been his willingness to look for his own offense and shoot in general. Those 22 shots in 50 minutes of action equate to 15.8 per-36 minutes. For your reference, Young, a habitual chucker, is averaging 15.2 per-36 minutes for his career.
Shots won't be as readily available when he plays next to Young, Kobe, Nash and Gasol, among others, but the first rule of D'Antoni's system is: Don't talk about shooting. Shoot. The second rule: Shoot. You get the point.
For players to be successful under Magic Mike, they can't be afraid to bomb away. Early on, Henry hasn't been shy. That his uninhibited aggression has been accompanied by shooting efficiently enough to confuse Young is nearly a bonus.
Although he's knocking down just 40.3 percent of his field-attempts since entering the league, he's found success in certain situations before. According to Synergy Sports (subscription required) he drilled 57.1 percent of his spot-up threes last season. At Kansas, he also knocked 41.8 percent of his treys overall, and he's drained at least 36.4 percent in each of the last two seasons.
If you don't think the Lakers are interested in a spot-up shooter with range, you're probably also of the mind that Howard can play power forward as well (he can't).
Any impact Henry can have on offense, whether it be as a floor spacer or a threat that minimizes the double-teams opposing defenses can implement, the Lakers will take it.
Shot selection has been one of Henry's greatest issues the past three years, hence the underwhelming field-goal clip (40.3 percent). That's all changing.
Sure, this ties into his 59.1 percent conversion rate through two preseason contests, but this is more about how he's scored in general. The 44 total points he's notched have come on 22 shots, an absolutely ridiculous ratio. And why? Free-throw shooting.
Henry took 20 free throws in two games. Three seasons in, he's only averaging 1.8 per bout. He's not going to hit the charity stripe 10 times every night during the regular season, but his new-found willingness to get there promotes easy baskets or, as we're seeing now, freebies from the foul line.
Thirteen of his 22 preseason shots have come around the rim, or 59 percent. I point you here:
Meanwhile, in his previous three seasons, fewer than 49 percent have come from within that same area, shown here:
A 10 percent jump is a marketed increase, especially when you consider he's taking more shots now than he ever has before. Save for Kobe and Young, the Lakers don't have many players with the explosion necessary to attack the paint and live to tell the tale. Depending how well Kobe's recovery goes, they may not even be able to count on him night in and night out.
“His biggest thing is shot selection and getting confidence, and tonight he did that and if he can continue to do that, he can play," D'Antoni said of Henry's performance against Golden State, per the Los Angeles Times' Ben Bolch.
Next to crafty playmakers like Nash and Gasol—a healthy Kobe, too—players who create their own high-percentage shots aren't a necessity. But if Henry proves to be another scorer who can play that inside-out game, while succeeding both on and off the ball, then the Lakers will have found someone special amongst the free-agency dregs.
Hungry For An Opportunity
Player psyches are important, more than we realize sometimes.
Timid athletes aren't going to believe in themselves. They're not going to make big shots for fear of taking those big shots. To succeed, you have to be hungry—you have to have a short memory.
Think of Kobe or Swaggy P. Two different players, same offensive attitude. They want to score, and they're not going to stop shooting until they do. And if they do, they're going to shoot some more.
Developing said confidence isn't possible unless you're given an opportunity, like the one Henry is finally getting.
"I just never had that opportunity to really show what I can do,” Henry said, via Bolch.
Memphis remains a scorer's hospice while Henry was prejudged before he reached New Orleans. He's never been given the chance he needed. This chance. The opportunity to start anew, removed from his rookie contract and the expectations that come with it. In a system that can cater to his athleticism and values his skill set.
“Everybody’s been hungry,” Henry explained, per Bolch. “Everybody every day knows they can’t take a day off. You have to come out hungry."
Staying hungry, famished like he is now, could result in a new Henry, a rejuvenated Henry. A Henry who is important to, and equally capable of, helping the Lakers succeed.
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