The Case for Aaron Henry
As a new decade begins, the NBA continues to grow and evolve. Coaches, players and executives are constantly inventing new methods and approaches within the sport. Within the current rules and parameters, it is clear that the individual physical marvels that dominated in the 1990’s and early 2000’s have given way to the ultra skilled perimeter stars that rule the league today. As the value of pure size depreciates, the way has been paved for more versatile lineups with an emphasis on switching schemes. Seven foot giants are too slow to guard on the perimeter and six foot water bugs are too small to contain bigger players inside. The quintessential team of this era will feature a powerful 6’6” point guard and a mobile 6’8” center, alongside three other players in a similar mold, with the entire lineup being able to shoot, dribble and pass.
This is all hyperbole as no such team actually exists in the current league and plenty of guards and centers with traditional measurements still hold rank among the very best in the league. However, positional versatility on both ends is one of the more valued skill sets among front offices. These players are easier to fit in a multitude of lineups and build your team around.
While there are always plenty of guards 6’4” and under coming up through the youth ranks both in North America and overseas, there will likely always be a relative shortage of human beings taller than 6’5” who surpass the skill and athletic thresholds necessary to play NBA perimeter roles. Versatile wings and forwards are not just valuable because of what they provide on court, but their value is further multiplied by their relative scarcity.
A star big man or point guard or other primary offensive engine will always be a valued commodity but the chances of finding such a player outside the top few picks in any given year are incredibly slim. Once a draft moves past that point, prospects that can provide value without the ball in their hands have had the biggest impact on their teams. Perimeter shooting is one way of doing so but arguably the most fertile stream of individual impact which does not require the player having possession of the ball comes on the defensive end. Unless a point guard or big man that can be the primary option on a successful NBA team magically falls outside the top few picks, versatile wings that can impact the game on the defensive end make for easily the most natural choices in the first round and early second round range of the draft.
Of course, point guards are less likely to be defensive difference makers but big men can be quite impactful defensively. However, there is an enormous abundance of defensive big men available for cheap in free agency and the trade market. Justin Patton, Donta Hall, Kyle Alexander, Moses Brown, Bol Bol and Kenny Wooten are just a few that were in the G-League most of last season and could be acquired for minimal assets. There are plenty more playing abroad as well. Not to mention the numerous NBA third stringers that will be free agents this offseason. There are few situations that would call for using the precious asset that is a draft pick on such a player.
There simply is immense value in a player who can impact the game without ever needing the ball – someone who can shoot off the catch, make smart passes with high accuracy, and defend multiple positions depending on matchups.
Jon Chepkevich of the Pro Basketball Combine does a great job pulling together the big boards of various draft experts into a single consensus version. Here is his latest one:
Applying this same draft philosophy to this year’s class, and with a specific eye toward the range of Aaron Henry, there are 14 players who stand out: Jah’mius Ramsey, Leandro Bolmaro, Jaden McDaniels, Desmond Bane, Robert Woodard, Tyler Bey, Cassius Stanley, Jordan Nwora, Elijah Hughes, Abdoulaye N’Doye, Isaiah Joe, Corey Kispert, Ayo Dosunmu and, of course, Aaron Henry.
N’Doye and Bolmaro are two international players that have received some hype in this draft. Both have the intrigue that is often attached to lesser known overseas players where everyone wants to believe that they have come across the next big sleeper who will massively outplay expectations. N’Doye’s length and Bolmaro’s creativity as a playmaker encourage these attitudes. However, a sober look into their play overseas tells a far more pessimistic narrative.
Playing most of his minutes in Spain’s 3rd division, Bolmaro was barely his team’s leading scorer and was often outplayed by the likes of Sergi Martinez and Brancou Badio, two players who have also entered this year’s draft but have yet to appear on any worthwhile big board. He had an above average impact as measured by Player Impact Plus-Minus, an all-in-one player metric, providing a solid +1.1 impact per 100 possessions. However, for where this league stands in terms of talent Bolmaro’s only fine performance in this semi-pro setting should be concerning.
He also played for Argentina’s u19 national team in the FIBA World Cup. While he was that team’s best player, not far behind Bolmaro as the second best was big man Francisco Caffaro. Caffaro played with the Virginia Cavaliers in the ACC this season. He averaged 7.5 minutes per game and played 20 games. Bolmaro was only marginally better than him last summer and there is no one that would call Caffaro an NBA prospect at this stage. While, as discussed earlier, there is an innate value to the wing position, there does not seem to be much substance behind Bolmaro’s prospects at the NBA level.
A deeper look at N’Doye’s career through the FIBA youth ranks tells a similar story. While he has consistently been a very effective defender, he has struggled to score for the French youth national teams. He was actually the backup for Frank Ntillikina on the u16 and u18 teams and Ntilikina himself has had struggles offensively in the NBA. N’Doye has been an even bigger offensive question mark than Ntilikina at lower levels, routinely posting a negative Offensive Player Impact Plus-Minus and most often below even -1. It makes little sense to believe that he will overcome some of the issues that have plagued Ntilikina’s NBA career, especially since the two players have many similarities in their games.
Focusing on just the remaining NCAA players, Aaron Henry stands out for being proficient across the board at the skills that he will actually be asked to perform in his role at the next level.
No dribble eFG%
With the best spot up, no dribble jumper effective field goal percentage, second best Defense Player Impact Plus-Minus, third highest assist volume and fourth best assist to turnover ratio, Aaron Henry is not only able to fill the role that will be asked of him at the next level but clearly will be able to immediately excel in this major role of need across the league.
Among the rest of the group we can also eliminate Corey Kispert and Jordan Nwora as the two worst defenders among this group – both have put up passable but non-impressive Defensive Player Impact Plus-Minus values in college while scouting their film is even less impressive. Kispert had a combined steal plus block percentage of 2.6 percent while Nwora was even lower at 2.2 percent. Tyler Bey and Robert Woodard are both players who have serious questions about their perimeter shooting, due to Woodard’s poor free throw shooting and Bey’s poor three-point efficiency, and categorically fit better among the big men as they statistically perform as 4’s or 5’s. For these reasons, the two can also be removed.
We have seen players like Zhaire Smith and Jarrett Culver be maximized by Chris Beard’s system the last two seasons, only to (at least so far) struggle to live up to those expectations. Considering Jah’mius Ramsey has consistently shot in the low 60’s from the free-throw line going back to his days in the Nike EYBL, it is worth seriously questioning his hot shooting from behind the arch this season. At just 6’4” he lacks the defensive versatility of the other players left on the list and his athletic ability is questionable when it comes to live play, in-game functionality. He struggles to gather quickly off one foot, only being able to finish off two feet with time to load. This severely limits his ability to attack the paint in the half court and will likely be exposed at the next level.
With frail frames and disturbing lack of physical strength, the defensive impact of Isaiah Joe and Ayo Dosunmu will be limited at the next level with neither of them popping statistically in terms of D-PIPM either. Dosunmu lacks the consistent shooting to make up for that shortcoming on the offensive end. Joe, meanwhile, lacks everything but the shooting. In his 1,963 minutes played at Arkansas, Joe has made a total of 27 shots at rim in the half court which equates to roughly one make for every 73 minutes he was on the court.
The remaining players from the original group are McDaniels, Bane, Stanley, Hughes and Henry.
Aaron Henry is clearly the best overall defender of this group, both from the scouting and statistical perspective. His 2019-20 D-PIPM of +2.1 was nearly 30 percent better than any of the other four. Even offensively he is in some ways as impressive as any of these players.
Players like Bane, Hughes and McDaniels have shown to be better off the dribble jump shooters but when projecting into an off-ball role where shooting on the catch is necessary, Henry is the stand out as the best spot up shooter of all five players last season. The ability to quickly move the ball and find open teammates is another valuable trait.
Bane and Hughes had similar passing numbers, but they did so in outsized roles and at an older age than Henry. Henry is a few weeks younger than freshman Cassius Stanley. McDaniels is a full year younger but his inconsistent effort and questionable decision making led to him being benched midway through the year. Not qualities one would look for in an efficient supporting player.
No dribble eFG%
Henry stands out as a spot up shooter here and ultimately already excels at what he will be asked to do offensively at the next level. Despite playing a smaller role on offense, he still had the second highest assist rate per 100 possessions due to his great court vision and natural selflessness. As statistically the most impactful defender, an idea that is backed up by game film, Henry already is equipped to perform his role at the next level.
Among all players outside the top of the class, there are a few that have more star upside than Aaron Henry. The question is what are the chances that they reach this potential. If the answer is “slim to none” then the player most likely to add positive value as a versatile supporting role player who provides jump shooting, ball movement and two way aptitude is the one who would make for the strongest choice.