Aaron Henry is a 6’6” two-way wing with the skills to immediately contribute at the next level due to his elite defense, strong ancillary creation and off-ball abilities. Still only 20 years old, Aaron has grown over his two seasons at Michigan State to be a great 3&D wing in the modern era of the NBA.
On off-ball specific actions, he excelled most when either moving toward the rim or had the time to set for perimeter shots. He rated in the 74th percentile of all players on hand-offs and the 79th percentile on cuts. He rated just below average in the 41st percentile when shooting off a screen, a key place for improvement as he becomes a more versatile shooter.
Henry shot 35.7 percent from behind the arc on 129 attempts in his career, rating in the 61st percentile of all players. Most important to his role in the NBA, he shot 40.0 percent on his 95 catch and shoot attempts rating in the 79th percentile. Henry rated in the 81st percentile on open attempts shooting a massive 49.1 percent on 53 attempts.
Looking at his shots by location, Henry shot 60.2 percent on all non-dunk rim attempts and 40.9 percent from the midrange. Both of these rate in the top quartile of all players with his non-dunk finishing rating in the 78th percentile and his midrange efficiency rating in the 81st percentile.
Asked to run two secondary pick and rolls per game, he rated in the 57th percentile as a passer. While he struggled as a scorer out of the pick and roll, rating in just the 15th percentile over his two years, this passing ability is a crucial differentiator compared to other 3&D wings in the NBA.
Overall as a passer Henry averaged 4.9 assists per 100 possessions with an assist to turnover ratio of 1.3. His college assist rate was in the 86th percentile of all wings while his assist to turnover ratio, one of the best measures of passing accuracy and efficiency, was in the 84th percentile. He is a strong passer with the demonstrated pick and roll ability to be able to help a team’s ball movement and generate more easy shots for teammates.
On defense Aaron is consistently asked to guard the best perimeter player on the opposing team and he has been incredibly successful at this thanks to his elite defensive IQ. He does a very good job staying in front of players and contesting shots on the perimeter. Asked to guard the pick and roll on just over one third of his possessions, he rated in the 88th percentile of defensive efficiency. When opposing players tried to isolate against him he rated in the 76th percentile. He keeps up with quicker players thanks to his 6’10” wingspan and is able to hold in the post due to his 210-pound frame.
A few trends have begun to emerge in recent drafts. The most important one is of course the future stars that have come out from these classes – players like Luka Doncic, Trae Young and Zion Williamson. They are undoubtedly the centerpieces for their franchises and the type of talent every team wants. However, they are also exceedingly rare and difficult to acquire outside the first few picks in any given draft. Furthermore, this “heliocentric” approach to team building means that a single star player will take on an increasingly larger offensive load for each team with more and more shot attempts and precious seconds from each possession are given to the few top stars.
At the same time, there are still four other players on the court who are asked to find ways to add value. Meaning players that can make an impact without having the ball in their hands consistently are becoming almost as valuable as the stars. 189 players that are 23 years old or younger played in the NBA last year. 70 of them played above 20 minutes per game with 26 of them having an on/off plus-minus of at least +2 per 100 possessions indicating that their presence on court led to a significant improvement of the team’s performance.
Further breaking down those 26 young impact players, 9 were stars like Trae Young, Ja Morant, Zion Williamson, Jayson Tatum and Devin Booker. Another 6 were talented big men like Mitchell Robinson, Jonathan Isaac and Brandon Clarke. However, the biggest group consisted of 11 players made up of the supporting wings and off guards like Kevin Huerter, Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVIncenzo, Justise Winslow and Bruce Brown. Notice that none of the supporting players were traditional point guards.
Of course as a team your main goal is getting a Zion Williamson, Ja Morant or Trae Young type player, but each draft only comes with a limited supply of players that have that sort of upside. Once they are gone you can look to acquire a big man or a small guard, but the data points toward supporting off guards and wings as the most efficient way of drafting.
The 2018 draft, considered by many one of the strongest classes among the last few drafts, is a perfect example of this thinking. If the commencement of a re-draft for the 2018 class was announced right now, surely players like Luka Doncic, Trae Young, DeAndre Ayton and Jaren Jackson would be gone within the first few picks, but who gets picked after that top group? Well, Kevin Huerter and Mikal Bridges are currently sixth and seventh respectively in minutes per game among the class. They have both also had a significant positive impact on their team’s performance despite neither carrying a large role offensively. Both players know how to play within a supporting role and allow the stars of their teams to play their part while Huerter and Bridges execute their roles.
Even a casual basketball fan will tell you that five stars on one team is less than the sum of its parts. The best teams fit together in ways that maximize each other’s skill sets. Huerter and Bridges know how to succeed while unselfishly differing offensive responsibility to Trae Young, Devin Booker, DeAndre Ayton and John Collins. This is not a coincidence as Bridges and Huerter showed their ability to succeed in these supporting roles going back to their time at Villanova and Maryland.
Among top 15 picks in the last decade, Bridges’ freshman season is the single lowest usage percent and his sophomore season is fourth. Meanwhile Huerter is the only first round pick since 2009 with an assist percentage above 15, block percentage above 2 and at least 65 three point attempts. In other words these players do not need the ball in their hands all the time, but are still able to provide good passing, solid defensive versatility, and spacing. Danny Green, Cody Martin, De’Anthony Melton and Matisse Thybulle are some of the other players to reach those marks among those drafted since 2009.
Coincidentally there is only one player eligible for the 2020 draft who hit all the marks: Aaron Henry.
Even in college, Aaron Henry showed his ability to play a complementary role while making an impact. At Michigan State, the offense was designed for Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman with a combined usage of over 50 percent. The offense featured a heavy dose of Winston/Tillman pick and roll with Winston often keeping the ball to create himself or, when trapped, giving up to Tillman who was then able to create in a 4 on 3 advantage.
For the overwhelming majority of college players, not having the ball in their hands consistently is a sign of some shortcoming. However, there is a reason Michigan State was almost a unanimous number one team on every poll coming into the season. They had an up and down season as Winston dealt with personal tragedy and some of their other players were unable to fill in for the departures of Matt McQuiad and Kenny Goins. Through all this, Henry maximized his role as much as he could. The assist to usage ratio shows his court vision, unselfish nature and willingness to play within a team construct. Meanwhile, as a scorer, he had a 70.4 effective field goal percent on spot up jump shots, placing him in the top 5 percent of all NCAA players in this category. This ability to hit shots off the catch while being a smart playmaker and ball mover is exactly what most teams who already have stars in place will require from an off ball guard or wing.
Besides the offensive stars who consistently have the ball in their hands, the other players will add most of their value as spot shooters, passers and defenders, all three of which Henry more than competently covers. His relatively low scoring output is one of the criticisms levied against Henry at this point. However, it is not fair to judge his ability to get shots relative to the overwhelming majority of other college prospects since almost no other prospect in this class was competing with players as advanced as Winston and Tillman. This is one of the main reasons why Henry is currently projected as a second round pick in most mock drafts. Yet, looking at recent drafts and at the players picked in the second round that have had success, a trend begins to emerge.
Leaders in NBA minutes played among 2nd round picks
All four of these players can be compared well to Henry in both measurements and style of play. Brogdon, Richardson and Brown in particular are all off guards known for their on-ball defense and ability to make plays for teammates when they first entered the draft. Brooks was a more offensively oriented prospect and less of a defensive stopper compared to Henry but he falls in a similar mold as far as position, measurements and ability to operate from the elbows to make plays both for himself and teammates.
It is too early to do this for the 2019 class after less than one full NBA season for the players involved, but Cody Martin is currently second among all 2nd round picks in minutes played as another very good defensive player whose biggest contribution offensively is as a passer and intelligent decision maker. From the 2018 class, De’Anthony Melton has not played a huge amount of minutes but is still outplaying his draft position considerably and has been a significant positive for the Grizzlies whenever he has played.
These are the players that can be seen as a range of outcomes for Henry’s professional career. He is too smart, disciplined and engaged in his play to fail. Among his lower outcomes are defense first role players like Melton, Martin and Brown. However, if he is able to continue to develop his jump shooting and handle, within a couple of years he can become as effective as players like Brogdon and Richardson. The keys here are that those players do not have freak measurements, are not off the charts athletes, were not one and done players or excessively hyped recruits. All are simply smart, hard working players who understand the game, can contribute in multiple ways on both ends and play a position of need around the league just like Aaron Henry.
While these are seemingly two simple plays, they are the plays that make the difference for the top on ball defenders – guys that can defend both sides of the pick, not allow the ball handler to use the pick nor get down hill going away from the pick. That is what Henry manages to do against Marcus Carr in the first clip. In the second clip, he is there on the catch against Joe Wieskamp but still has the balance and reflexes to cut off the penetration angle when Wieskamp decides to drive, forcing Wieskamp into a tough spot on the floor where a help defender is able to force the turnover. This is a consistent trend with Henry’s defensive film.
Another great contest and a nice looking spot up three-pointer in transition. Reminiscent of Bruce Brown, who has been making similar plays in both NCAA and NBA and has been a good rotation player for the Pistons.
Henry is surely still working on his game and his shot mechanics have been a work in progress. However, they have come a long way for a player that spent a lot of time playing as a big earlier in his career. He was one of the top spot up shooters in the country this year, making almost 45 percent of his shots in that situation. Specifically looking at when he shot immediately off the catch he was among the top 5 percent of all NCAA players shooting 48.1 percent. He has clearly made improvements over the course of his two seasons at Michigan State and while Brogdon was further along at the same age, Bruce Brown, Josh Richardson and Cody Martin certainly were not.
This is Josh Richardson’s shot at the same age as Aaron Henry, as a sophomore and now, in the NBA.
This is Henry’s shot freshman year and then from a more recent game. The development is minor but it is more fluid and a single motion overall.
Cody Martin and how far he has come from when he was the same age as Henry.
Of course, the main strength shared by the majority of these players is their ability to defend and especially defend on ball. Their balance, footwork, positioning and anticipation is among the best in the world and has been highly impressive going back to their days in college.
One of the most impressive things about Henry as a defender is his ability to recover even after the opposing player seems to get a step on him. Due to his instinctual understanding of angles, twitchy reflexes, pristine balance and body control, Henry is often able to make a meaningful shot contest even when it seems like his man has him beat.
There are some that will bring up the game against Georgia where Henry matched up with Anthony Edwards and Edwards had a big scoring performance. The truth is, that game was more an example of why good offense beats good defense than anything. As you will see below, Henry defended Edwards quite well throughout and besides a handful of extremely difficult shots right over the top of Henry, Edwards mostly scored in transition or over other Michigan State defenders. Henry still gave up a dozen or so points that game but very few of them could be considered a thesis on anything but the futility of on-ball defense against elite shot makers.
Henry also showed the ability to contain bigger players when given the chance. There were not many perimeter wing players above 6’7” on Michigan State’s schedule and Henry was not always the primary defender when they faced those players. However, in 9 possessions defending UCLA’s Chris Smith and Jaime Jaquez, Seton Hall’s Jared Rhoden, Michigan’s Isaiah Livers and Eastern Michigan’s Ty Groce, Henry held them to 0-8 shooting and 1 turnover.
Below are two of his defensive possessions against Eastern Michigan’s Ty Groce, their star player last year who stands 6’8” with perimeter skill.
While some will knock Henry’s defense for average steal and block percentages, looking under the hood at Michigan State’s scheme quickly identifies the cause. They run a notoriously conservative defensive scheme. Not once since 2015 has Michigan State had a defensive turnover percent among even the top 300 NCAA programs. Defense is far more than just what shows up in the boxscore and Aaron Henry and Michigan State are perfect examples.
Great defense from either wing position is not the only thing Henry has in common with prospects that have been underrated in recent drafts. They are not only instinctual defensive players but also show the ability to make quick, smart decisions on the offensive end. This can especially be seen through the lens of passing and ball movement.
Henry did not get the opportunity to make many skip passes out of pick and roll but that is fairly common for college shooting guards and even point guards. Coby White, for example, did not make a single skip pass during his time at North Carolina and has been making them with good timing and accuracy as a rookie. Players with basketball IQ and court vision are able to develop that ability with time.
This is why Henry showing the ability to make kick out reads outside pick and roll is important for his future development as a playmaker. The ability to find cutters out of pick and roll is also indicative of quick recognition, strong awareness and successful thinking on the move. You can see Malcolm Brogdon making a similar pass in the clip below. This type of play is important for offensive initiators to master, as it often leads to high efficiency baskets.
In the video above you see a couple of nice quick reads from Cody Martin’s rookie season. While creating out of set plays in the half court will be important to Henry’s ultimate upside, as a rookie he will need to make quick decisions and show his worth as a young player by being ahead of his peers when it comes to mental reactions to on court situations.
As a hard nosed defender, smart unselfish decision maker and budding outside shooter, Henry tracks closely with some of the most underrated players in the last five draft classes. However, there is one way he stands out even among them.
Henry is totally ambidextrous. Besides shooting a basketball, he does everything in his life right handed and you can see that comfort on the court, as he sometimes goes to his right hand even when driving left.
This ability will help take his game to another level and open up avenues for development that others Henry is compared to are not able to take.
It is clear that year after year in recent drafts there is a certain player archetype and set of skills that teams continuously undervalue when drafting. It is very hard to make an argument against Aaron Henry as the single best fit under this under appreciated umbrella. Combined with the diminished role he played due to the offensive structure and other high level players on Michigan State, it is hard to see how Aaron Henry is not currently one of the more undervalued prospects in this draft. Considering his basketball IQ, feel for the game, team first attitude, worker mentality and constant growth as a player, there is little to lose in taking him in the first round. Allowing him to return to school for another year and be Michigan State’s star player could propel his stock into a much higher portion of the draft, as the 2021 draft is a stronger one at the very top but not a class that is necessarily deep outside that elite group.
Overall, Aaron is a smart passer capable of secondary actions, a strong catch and shoot perimeter player, and one of the best wing defenders in college. He is everything that teams are looking for from a modern-day wing and adds unique passing ability that gives him an edge over other wings in the 2020 draft class. While he needs to improve his off the dribble and off motion shooting, Aaron is in a great position to step in and immediately help a team because he is already a capable NBA level shooter with the physical versatility and defensive IQ to guard multiple positions. With the proper training and dedication, the sky is the limit for what he can become as a strong 3&D wing.