We have seen flashes of brilliance. He had a knack for making shots in crucial moments, and his jump shot was closing in on the rank of “consistent.” His ability to read the court and defenders was improving, and his shot selection was much better. His basketball skills were about to catch up to his athletic talents.
Through Gerald Henderson’s career, his athletic gifts—specifically his vertical—have elevated his status. His ability to jump over and around defenders gave us the comfort that a blossoming into greatness would happen soon.
At the end of last season, Henderson was on the cusp. All the signs pointed that way. Everyone could see it, and we all jumped on the bandwagon. Henderson was about to move from a potential big-time talent to a bona fide Division I superstar.
But that hasn’t happened yet.
This season, we have seen those same moments of jaw-dropping athleticism: dunks over bigger players and blocks at the rim when it seemed an easy lay-up for the opponents. Those moments are spectacular, they are memorable, and they will get Henderson on SportsCenter.
What makes the great players truly great? They dig down deep and find ways to put those moments together—moments which turn into portions of games, and portions that turn into whole games of greatness. And then maybe, just maybe, a season where everything “clicks.”
But that hasn’t happened yet.
Burden to Bear?
The expectations are here. The criticism is coming on faster and heavier, and Henderson knows something is out of whack. So why is this different? Why is this more difficult? Henderson has risen to the occasion before. He has been playing with high expectations his whole basketball career—both direct and indirect.
Henderson grew up while his father, Gerald Henderson Sr., won three NBA Championships—two with the Boston Celtics and one with the Detroit Pistons. During his 13-year career, Henderson Sr. played with many of the greatest players in NBA history.
Henderson Sr. wore the Celtics jersey with the greatest frontcourt of all time: Larry Bird, Robert Parrish, and Kevin McHale. He also suited up alongside Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, Isiah Thomas, and Joe Dumars throughout his NBA career.
As a five-star recruit coming out of high school, Henderson was selected a McDonald’s All-American. When recapping his play against players like Greg Oden, Kevin Durant, and Brandan Wright in the all-star-type game in 2006, DraftExpress.com called Henderson “the most complete player on the floor.”
Rivals.com rated Henderson as the 11th-best player in the country and second-best shooting guard behind his former high school teammate and current underrated UNC star, Wayne Ellington. Of the 10 players that were rated ahead of Henderson on Rivals.com, all but three—Ellington, Ty Lawson of UNC, and Chase Budinger of Arizona—are in the NBA.
Sophomore to Junior
This preseason, Henderson was selected to the All-ACC First Team with UNC’s Ty Lawson and Tyler Hansbrough, Boston College guard Tyrese Rice, and Miami guard Jack McClinton. Henderson also appeared on the Preseason Wooden Award Top 50 as an athlete to watch as a possible winner of the award.
There have been plenty of ups and downs this season. In a tough game against Southern Illinois, Henderson scored a season-high 20 points while shooting 50 percent from the floor and going six for seven from the foul line.
In Duke’s next five games, Henderson's highest scoring output was 14 points facing I-AA Montana, and in Duke’s 76-60 win over Purdue in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, Henderson had a season-low two points.
In his defense, in that same game at Purdue, Henderson had nine rebounds, five assists, two blocks, and a steal. While Henderson is struggling to find offensive consistency, he is too talented and is finding other ways to contribute.
I Think I Can
We always hear about players who are pressing. Players press because the moment is so big, the other team is highly ranked—or a rival—and they want their individual play to reflect the importance of the game.
As a Duke player, Henderson is no stranger to crucial games in front of a national audience.
Henderson personally extended the Blue Devils' season when he went coast to coast to score on a finger roll with 11 seconds left in the game to beat Belmont in the first round of the 2008 NCAA Tournament. Duke plays in the ACC, and you can see at least one of their games a week on ESPN. To top it all, Henderson has played in the greatest rivalry in college basketball against UNC.
In the nine “biggest” games last season for Duke; two UNC, two Clemson (one in ACC Tourney), one GT (ACC Tourney), one Davidson, one Wisconsin, and two games in the NCAA Tourney (Belmont and West Virginia), Henderson performed above his season averages, averaging 14.2 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 1.2 steals, and 1.6 blocks in those games.
Henderson averaged 12.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 1.1 steals, and 0.9 blocks a game throughout the season.
But why is he pressing?
I believe there are a few reasons.
Other than Grant Hill’s last two seasons, Duke will never feature a “one-man team.” Henderson is on the most talent-rich team Duke has had since 2004. This year's team has multiple McDonald’s All-Americans and other top-tier talent, and Henderson is not the first option on offense.
Like a lot of talented players who are not utilized at every moment, Henderson’s attention goes in and out. At times, he becomes invisible on the floor.
Duke uses a very fluid offense that favors no one player, other than Kyle Singler. Coach K features him only because he is a versatile and talented ”big man.” At times Duke will run a set to get Henderson the ball and let him create, but he is not called on to carry a team like Stephen Curry does at Davidson.
Secondly, I do think Henderson is forcing the issue and not allowing the game to happen. Whenever he gets the ball on the perimeter, he is in a hurry. It looks unnatural. There is almost the sense that Henderson needs to dunk on the entire opposing team to validate the Blue Devil fans' belief in him.
Lastly, Henderson figured this would be his last season at Duke, so everything means more and needs to be more memorable than before. The NBA is calling, and Henderson wants to bolster his résumé.
Like any good college student, he wanted to show interested employers that he not only spent the time in the classroom learning the theory, but also that he is talented and experienced enough to put the theory into practice.
No Madness Yet
Coach K is not panicking—at least not yet. No Duke player is in the top five of any major offensive statistical category in the ACC, but Duke is still the third highest scoring team in the conference at 81.7 points per game. The Blue Devils are fourth in shooting percentage—even after the horrible game against Michigan.
They are also third in threes per game, making 6.1 three pointers a game, but are only shooting 30.7 percent behind the arc, which is the fourth-worst in the conference.
Everyone can take a deep breath. Duke has only lost one game to a better than advertised Michigan team who also beat UCLA earlier this season.
Here is Henderson’s saving grace: Everyone will forget by March.
Duke and Henderson will be in enough high profile games and have enough opportunities to erase all the worries and show that he is still a relevant player in college basketball and the NBA—that he still has the potential to, and can, live up to all the hype. Ultimately, that his future is yet to be determined.
Years down the road, when Henderson has been drafted into the NBA and is making millions of dollars playing a game for a living, we all will look back at these struggles and call this a journey. A journey to the top of the mountain—a mountain he can probably jump over.