Saturday, June 6, 2020

Aaron Henry is ready to take college basketball by storm

September 25, 2019
<p>Freshman forward Aaron Henry (11) walks off the bus as the men&#x27;s basketball team arrives to U.S. Bank Stadium before their NCAA Final Four game against Texas Tech in Minneapolis on April 6, 2019. (Nic Antaya)</p>

Freshman forward Aaron Henry (11) walks off the bus as the men's basketball team arrives to U.S. Bank Stadium before their NCAA Final Four game against Texas Tech in Minneapolis on April 6, 2019. (Nic Antaya)

Photo by Nic Antaya | The State News

Many people remember the image. Michigan State freshman forward Aaron Henry walked off the court in the Spartans' opening NCAA Tournament game against the 15th-seeded Bradley Braves, only to be met by Tom Izzo before he could reach the bench.

Izzo let Henry hear it.

The Spartans, of course, went on to win the game and advance through the tournament before falling to Texas Tech in the Final Four in Minneapolis. But, following that first round game, Izzo received criticism about the coaching style he used on Henry.

It appears, months later, it may have done more good than anything else.

Izzo stood in front of a room full of reporters Tuesday afternoon and talked about his team, minutes before the first day of practice for the 2019-20 season began. It wasn't National Player of the Year candidate Cassius Winston that Izzo said had the best summer. It wasn't seniors Joshua Langford or Kyle Ahrens either, who both worked back from injury riddled seasons.

It was Henry, and from what it sounds like, he is ready to take college basketball by storm.

“I will say this, when I look at who has had the best summer physically, improvement in his shooting and ball handling, defense. I mean, Aaron Henry has had as much improvement of anybody," Izzo said. "So, if there is a change from last year to this year by one player, he might have taken the biggest steps with Gabe Brown right behind him.” 

Last season, Henry was an intriguing prospect. His athleticism and basketball knowledge played well beyond his years. In the early portions of Michigan State's season, Henry was the first out of a talented freshman class to get major minutes. He played 15 minutes in the Champions Classic against Kansas and 21 minutes against Texas in the Las Vegas Invitational. By season's end, he averaged 33 minutes between Michigan State's five games in the NCAA Tournament.

There were times last year when Henry didn't look like a player just making the transition from high school to college ball. In 39 games, he averaged 6.6 points, almost four rebounds and two assists per game.

He became a difference maker, like when he scored a season-high 20 points against LSU in the Sweet 16. A teenager who wasn't afraid to drive the ball on any defender.

And then there were times when he looked like a deer caught in headlights. As good as Henry became off of the dribble, his shot sometimes lacked the substance of approbation. Timidness or ineffectiveness could've played a role in that. Turnovers were at times an issue too, like the five he had against the Braves which sent Izzo into that tirade.

But with another offseason under his belt, Winston noticed the differences in Henry's game over the summer.

“Just all over the place," Winston said. "His shots, he’s doing a better job of knocking them down, his spot-up shots. Putting the ball on the floor, making reads and things like that. You know, instead of being a role player, he is going to be a go-to player and that’s a big jump.” 

A big jump could turn out to be an understatement. Henry expanding his contributions from a role player to an every game scorer could turn out to be a major positive for the Spartans.

Michigan State, the likely preseason No. 1 team in the country, has all the pieces — a senior point guard in Cassius Winston who could end up being the best player in college basketball this season and a versatile forward in junior Xavier Tillman who emerged down the stretch for the Spartans last season, just to name a few.

Henry's athleticism may once again be a major component in MSU's offense this season. But a newfound shot can add another layer to that.

“It keeps you honest," Winston said "You can’t sag off of him as much. You have to respect his shot and he can make plays. He’s so strong, physically gifted that he can go to the basket and make plays there too.” 

Talk is sometimes cheap. But, that is all there is right now until Michigan State opens its season with an exhibition game against Albion on Oct. 29 (7:30 p.m., BTN Plus). That's when Henry will first have the opportunity to show off his summer improvements.

Then, it gets real very quickly when MSU plays Kentucky in the 2019 Champions Classic Nov. 5 (TBD, ESPN).

And if he is anything like what Izzo and Winston describe ... whew, look out college basketball.

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