Comparison and Development

Going further into possible comparisons for Aaron Henry statistically, there are three NCAA players in the last decade that came up as particularly close matches to him at a similar age. All three are now moderately successful NBA players, which in itself is a positive sign. Looking at their careers further may provide some answers about the routes Henry’s development can take. 

First, Alex Caruso has some statistical similarities with Henry. From a broad perspective, there are some through lines between the two players and their archetype. Both are very good passers despite playing a periphery offensive role on their team and both face questions about their shot making upside. Both are guards/wings with very strong defensive abilities.

However, a more detailed look at the two does bring out several important differences. Caruso was a terrific team defender, putting up really impressive steal and block numbers throughout his A&M career. 

While Henry would likely be able to create defensive events at a higher rate in a more aggressive system, Caruso was really special in this regard. As a sophomore, Caruso had a steal percentage over 4 and a block percentage over 3. On the other hand, Henry is taller and stronger than Caruso, with excellent balance and body control. These attributes make him a much more effective and versatile on ball defender. Essentially, while both players are capable all-around defensive players, their biggest strengths on this end of the floor are more or less polar opposites. 

In the same vein, while Henry and Caruso both stand out for their passing, there are a few key differences in the ways they set up teammates. Caruso was not nearly as strong or as capable of using physicality as Henry. Henry is also more of a pure wing prospect, with quick recognition of ball movement opportunities. Meanwhile, Caruso was more of an off-ball point guard, who depended more so on deliberate ball handling to set up his teammates. 

Henry has a really strong argument as a better shooting prospect at the same age as well. Henry has better college career three-point percent, free throw percent and attempt rate than Caruso did as a sophomore. The 2013 and 2014 Texas A&M teams were among the worst high major offenses in all college basketball (according to numbers from  kenpom.com and  barttorvik.com). Michigan State was in the Final Four in 2018 and among the favorites for the national title in 2019.

This additional context makes it much easier to understand Henry’s lack of usage and scoring volume while raising concerns for Caruso’s inability to score at a higher volume. It explains why Caruso was not considered a serious NBA prospect until his senior year and even then went undrafted. Still Caruso has carved out a solid NBA career and would likely be a top 25 pick if the 2016 class was re-drafted today. Caruso coming up as a top statistical match for Henry should still be noted and provides at least a mildly optimistic outlook on Henry’s upcoming development as a player. The comparison also give us a glimpse of the future development we can expect from Henry.

While Caruso is still not known for his scoring, he has made significant strides as a jump shooter and is now a perfectly competent spot up three point shooter in the NBA for the Lakers. He has made 37.5 percent of his threes over the course of his NBA career and 76.5 percent of his free throws. As the video shows, Caruso made some slight tweaks in his shot mechanics from college until now. Caruso has a more fluid wind up and release, with better wrist action and less off-hand involvement. 

Henry first broke out during the Adidas Summer Championship in the summer of 2017 where he had an excellent week leading Gary Harris’ Team Harris to far more success than expected for a program that was not officially sponsored by Adidas or any other sneaker company at the time. Overwhelmingly, the top travel teams are part of one of the three major shoe circuits – Nike, Adidas and Under Armour. For a program outside the three to have serious success competing against those major programs is extremely rare. Team Harris’ success immediately attracted the attention of college coaches and recruiting experts. Henry received an offer from Michigan State over the course of that week and rose significantly on recruiting service rankings. 

However, the second comparison for Aaron Henry is not Gary Harris. The player Henry actually most closely resembles on the 2014 Michigan State team that was led by Harris is sophomore Denzel Valentine. Obviously Valentine has had his ups and downs in the NBA due to injuries, but at the time Valentine actually played a role remarkably similar to the one Henry had on the 2019-20 Michigan State team. Just like Henry, he took a backseat for the best of the team and gave up numerous offensive possessions to Harris and Adreian Payne (as opposed to Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman).

Both Harris and Payne ended up first round picks. Valentine ended up returning to Michigan State making significant improvements as a shooter, passer and ball handler. He was drafted in the lottery after having arguably one of the most impressive offensive seasons in recent NCAA history. While Valentine is now known as a great shooter, he struggled quite a bit with scoring the ball early in his Michigan State career. Just like Caruso, his free throw and three-point percentages through his sophomore season in college are worse than Henry’s percentages while his attempt rate is similar. Henry attempted 6.0 three-point attempts per 100 possessions this past season, while Valentine took 6.2 three-point attempts per 100 as a sophomore at East Lansing.

The similarity between Valentine and Henry really only exists on one side of the court. Henry is a much better defensive prospect than Valentine, a more explosive athlete and, most importantly, does not have the unfortunate injury and health concerns that Valentine had when he came into the NBA.

Jump shooting was a question for both prospects as sophomores and there are a lot of similarities between the two in that regard. Like Henry, Valentine did not come into Michigan State with a reputation as a shooter but rather an intelligent allaround player that could fill in the gaps. After some struggles making perimeter shots as a freshman, Valentine adjusted his shot mechanics as a sophomore and began to show signs of his shooting upside. He even had similar issues that Henry has worked on mechanically. For example, getting a good follow through and a single fluid motion on his pull up while keeping his body straight up and down. 

As a sophomore, Valentine began to tweak some of these issues and the improvements began to show during actual games. The first clip in the video above is from Valentine’s freshman season, while the second clip is from his sophomore season. Much like Henry, Valentine’s pull up jumper did not yet show much improvement statistically, but he did make significant strides on spot up attempts. After shooting just 40.9 eFG percent as a freshman, he had a 56.6 eFG percent on spot up jump shots as a sophomore. In the video below, you can see the progression he made by moving the release point from the middle of his body in the first clip during his freshman season to the right side in the second clip from his sophomore season.

This is remarkably similar to Henry’s progression this season. Just like Valentine, Henry rarely took jump shots as a freshman and had an eFG percent of just 50 on spot up attempts. While his pull up shooting numbers did not jump as a sophomore, he made some minor but important tweaks to his mechanics and improved his spot up shooting all the way up to 70.4 eFG percent. It was a very positive sign to his future development as a shooter.

The last player that lines up closely with Henry on film and statistics is Villanova’s Josh Hart. Hart is a little smaller than Henry and was never quite as good of an onball defender. Like Henry, he has a good feel for positioning on the court and ball movement with the ability to avoid mistakes. Both also love to get in the middle of the floor and collapse defenders in order to set up teammates.

Similar to Henry, Hart was not a huge offensive star in his sophomore season and, just like Caruso and Valentine, it was not until later in his career that he became a more reliable three-point shooter. Hart was drafted at the very end of the first round, but would go much higher in a 2017 re-draft. He is currently 10th in minutes played, 12th in win shares and 15th in value over replacement player among players drafted in 2017. Hart is another guy who has put it work on his shooting mechanics from his sophomore season to now.

While Hart is currently not an elite jump shooter off the dribble, it is a marked difference from where he was. He has his offhand almost on the bottom front of the ball right before his release.

The differences in Aaron Henry’s shot mechanics are not huge but the rhythm and fluidity is doubtlessly improved while the follow through on his release is more consistent. After all, this is a lengthy process that takes time. As we see with the three players above, players with a certain baseline of coordination, skill, feel and dedication to the game are the ones that tend to improve as shooters to a more significant degree than others.

This makes the outlook of Henry’s shooting projection more positive than a cursory look of his numbers or even game film would suggest. While none of these players are NBA superstars, Caruso would almost certainly be a top 20 pick in a 2016 re-draft, Denzel Valentine would still be picked in the lottery if he had stayed healthy and Josh Hart would be taken in the top 15 in 2017.

Aaron Henry has a clear and proven historical path to improving his scoring game. As a better defensive prospect than any of the three mentioned above, Henry will be able to immediately provide value to whatever team he is a part of while he develops as a scorer and shooter. With the value of 3&D wings rising over the last decade, Henry is well positioned to help a team now and in the future.