Just a year ago, Xavier Henry’s career was up in the air. He was a free agent, and deemed as an underachieving lottery prospect just three years into his NBA career. When he was drafted, it was based on upside, and the fact that his game didn’t fit perfectly in the Kansas system. At 6’6″ with a 6’11” wingspan, he has very good athleticism, and a knack for getting to the rim. Prior to the season starting, there wasn’t much reaction from the Laker fan base about acquiring him. Then this happened.
Laker fans finally saw a player, aggressively attacking the basket, able to breakdown the defense, and hit a few shots from mid range. There was reason for excitement. Some of us, including myself, thought the Lakers stole a lottery player through free agency.
On opening night against the Clippers, he came out strong with 22 points, and a surprising victory over the hometown rival.
As the season continued, holes were found in his offensive game. He would put out a solid effort every five games or so. His impact was minimal and consistency was a question mark. Every fifth game, he would show up as a player living up to his potential.
At one point, Steve Nash and Steve Blake were out with injuries. It was Xavier Henry left with point guard duties. The increased minutes and burden for scoring allowed him to focus on what he does best, attacking the basket. He was more free within the offense, in the sense that, he could break down his defender in an isolation situations, but wasn’t comfortable just yet using the team to break down the defense. During the month of December, he was averaging 12.5 points per game on just 25 minutes of play, on 44% from the field. In doing so, he would come out with the occasional highlight reel.
That was the highlight dunk of the year.
Then the injury bug hit. He was out for the month of January and March with a right knee injury. He couldn’t escape it.
In March, he came back. He was aggressive attacking the basket, but under more control. His jumpshot had better timing, and thus became more accurate. It lead to the biggest Laker blowout of the season against the New York Knicks. He came out with 22 points, trying to make simple plays.
Unfortunately, he couldn’t last all the way through the month. Two weeks ago, he underwent successful surgery on his right wrist and right knee with gave him issues throughout the season. Now, he has the ability to rehabilitate.
What does this mean for Xavier Henry? He has upside. He has the athletic tools. He doesn’t demonstrate the hoop IQ just yet to warrant extended minutes, but makes for a great spark off the bench. He was one of the few players that gave the Laker roster a boost of energy with the occasional highlight play. More often than not, he cut into passing lanes and got the team in transition, a quality sorely lacking even during the two more recent championship runs. He showed interest in staying a Laker. As a Laker, he would get the minutes and opportunities to allow his talent to mature.
He should stay. There’s no other team that will give him the flexibility of rotating between both shooting guard and small forward positions. He has yet to be part of a true winning team, and it’s possible he could impact the team on both ends of the floor consistently.
If there could just be one thing he could work on, it’s his ability to finish in the paint. Forget 3-point accuracy or a midrange jumpshot. The standard for NBA level small forwards and shooting guards at the rim is around 65%. His shot chart is typical for a high school left-handed wing, shooting well on the right side of the floor. If he could combine that while raising his ability to finish at the rim by 20%, the floor would open up for him tremendously on the offensive end. The fact that 45% of his total shots are actually at the rim, is telling of his aggression, creativity, and ability to break down the defense.
Congratulations Xavier. Last year was your true rookie year. There were a few walls that were hit at different points of the season, but they were taken head-on with your attitude. We’d love to see you come back.