Xavier Henry has not been a good NBA player over the course of his three seasons in the league. His high water mark as a shooter is 41 percent. He”s hit only 62 percent of his free throws, has never cracked 10.0 in PER, and the lumps him in with luminaries like Corey Gaines, Milt Williams, Russ Lee, Randy Woods, and others who have drifted briefly though the NBA universe.
In his scouting report for ESPN.com (Insider subscription required),:
“Through three seasons, Henry simply hasn”t shown any improvement. The outside shooting that figured to be his calling card hasn”t materialized and Henry has made just 13 3-pointers in his NBA career. That”s left him relying primarily on inefficient long 2-pointers. Henry has been effective at getting to the free throw line, yet has struggled to convert those opportunities, shooting 62.4 percent career at the foul line. A decent rebounder, Henry struggles to defend smaller, quicker wings because he doesn”t move well laterally. According to Synergy Sports Technology, opponents lit him up for 1.265 points per isolation play, putting him in the third percentile among NBA players.”
So when the Lakers, already crowded at guard with the additions of Nick Young and Jordan Farmar, signed Henry to a make-good deal late in the summer, I expected he wouldn”t make the team. Because, you know, he hasn”t been effective as a pro.
Well, now Henry has 44 points through two preseason games, and people are mocking me on the Kambrothers Twitter feed. It”s a little early to declare him a difference maker, but he”s on the right track for a roster spot. But even if he does earn a spot, there”s still a lot of work to be done before Henry establishes himself as a legitimate member of an NBA rotation.
That said, Henry is only 22 and as Pelton also noted in his report, his WARP projections for Henry outstripped Paul George”s ahead of the 2010 Draft. Henry still has time to improve, and a vast leap in skills is not always required for players to find a niche.
“To me, it”s small things,” Mike D”Antoni said Tuesday. “There”s a lot of old adages. That you”re only as good as the coach thinks you are. The scouts got him, and the coach says “I didn”t love him,” so that goes. Or maybe the bright lights hit you. Sometimes you have to fail, sometimes you have to re-examine yourself, and work on your game. He”s probably kept working on his game. Everybody”s got a different reason. At one point, though, all these guys have kicked somebody”s rear somewhere. They didn”t get to the pros because they”ve been bad their whole life. Somewhere, they”ve been really good, and you try to find that spot and why they were (successful).”
It could be a matter of opportunity, or a particular team”s system, or embracing a role he”s asked to play. It could be a matter of boosting one or two parts of a skill set, even incrementally. A bad mid-range game becomes adequate, opening up driving lanes, better exploited by an uptick in ball skills with the off-hand. That type of thing. As Lakers assistant Mark Madsen told me, the gap separating the 10th or 11th guy on a roster from someone ending up in Europe or the D-League isn”t always large. Little improvements matter. In Henry”s case, it could start with hitting free throws. 16 of 20 over the weekend (games that, as a reminder, were preseason contests), a big leap over his career average and a major boon for a guy who has, despite myriad other struggles, always done well drawing contact.
I asked Henry Tuesday what parts of his game weren”t where they needed to be over his first three seasons, and where he is now. “I was able to get better at everything. Everything wasn”t completely there,” he said. “When I first came in, I wasn”t really a driver at all. I mainly shot spot-up shots. Then I got an injury early on, early in my career. I had little nicks and bangs everywhere through. Now when you start to put everything together, and you put a healthy body with it in somebody that”s young, I can basically just pick and choose what I do.”
Where Henry goes from here is among the more intriguing storylines for the rest of camp. Mitch Kupchak indicated before camp that the Lakers might just carry 15 guys, at least starting the year. It makes sense, given how many players they have who are old, recovering from injury, or old and recovering from injury. It”s not just a matter of who contributes in games — they need bodies to practice. And just as importantly, it makes sense for a minimal investment for the Lakers to carry the Henry-types they have in camp, because they represent cheap access to talent for a team thin on draft choices going forward.
Henry”s play to this point — did I mention they were preseason games? — could well be a mirage. The odds, based on his NBA body of work, favor it. Most guys who perform as Henry has don”t turn it around. Most, but not all. Maybe improvements in his game combined with a good fit in L.A. will prove him useful, and me wrong. It would certainly be good to see.