The Portland Trail Blazers drafted Scoot Henderson to be the point guard of the future. That doesn't mean he needs to be the point guard of the present.
Scoot has all the makings of an NBA superstar. The strength, the athleticism, the explosiveness, the leadership, the mentality. (And now the goggles). In hindsight, maybe expectations were too high for a 19-year-old jumping into the most important position in basketball on one of the least talented teams in the league.
Henderson struggled through his first five NBA games. He seemed unsure of when to hunt his own shot and when to defer to teammates. He turned the ball over too much. His shot selection was awful. He couldn't stop fouling on defense. Then he missed nine games with an ankle injury.
Since returning on Nov. 22, though, Scoot has steadily gotten better. He's making better decisions with the ball, shooting more efficiently and clamping down defensively with a higher concentration on avoiding silly fouls. But what's been the impetus for this change?
Well, a few things, but one key decision by head coach Chauncey Billups seems to have unlocked a more confident and free-flowing version of Henderson, and it's led to both individual success for Scoot and team success for the Blazers. And it needs to continue.
Scoot Henderson has been coming off the bench for the Blazers
It made sense to bring Scoot along slowly on his way back from injury. No reason to rush back a major piece of the future. But Billups has yet to insert his rookie point guard back into the starting five, and it's paying dividends for everybody.
Henderson played fewer than 17 minutes in his return, a win over the Utah Jazz. He played 27 in a loss to Milwaukee four nights later, and his minutes have hovered around 22 during the Blazers' past three games.
Henderson is playing better individually in his bench role
Scoot had 23 assists and 20 turnovers across his first five games. He only shot better than 40 percent from the floor once and was 2-for-21 from three. He racked up 20 personal fouls and fouled out of a game against the Toronto Raptors.
In five games coming off the bench since he returned, he's averaging fewer turnovers and nearly as many assists. He's been more aggressive offensively, scoring more points and getting to the free-throw line more often. He's shooting 35 percent from three during this current stretch.
His per-game averages are going to look better in the box score if he's playing fewer minutes. But he's looked more comfortable coming off the bench, and he's had some of the best games of his young career doing so. He scored a career-high 13 points against the Bucks on Nov. 26 and did it again the following night against Indiana.
He attempted a career-high 6 free throws in that game against the Pacers. He's connected 7 times from behind the arc compared to only twice pre-injury. He was a minus-9.2 through his first five games and is a plus-6.8 in his last five.
In Portland's most recent contest, an overtime loss to the Jazz, Scoot finished with 17 points, 5 rebounds and 3 assists in 21 minutes. He's played his best basketball as a reserve and is developing quicker.
The Trail Blazers have been better as a team with Scoot coming off the bench
Portland has won three of its five games since Henderson returned. Not only has the rookie been playing with more freedom, but it's also given Billups' team more balance.
The Blazers' bench had a net rating of 1.2 during the first five games of the season. That's jumped to 4.9 since Scoot returned.
The lineup of Shaedon Sharpe and four backups - Henderson, Matisse Thybulle, Jabari Walker and Duop Reath - has played more minutes than any other during this five-game stretch sans the usual starters. Its net rating of 36.8 is the best of any group that's taken the floor for Portland.
Any lineup that's played at least 10 minutes together since Nov. 22 and includes Henderson coming off the bench has been a net positive.
Why Scoot should come off the bench for the rest of this season
The argument against Henderson remaining a reserve for the rest of his rookie campaign is that he should be getting as many minutes and as much experience as possible. He should be allowed to play through his mistakes on a team that's more focused on player development than its win-loss record.
But why mess with a good thing for both team and player?
The Blazers are operating more smoothly as a whole with Scoot running the bench unit, and he's learning how to run a five-man group rather than be a part of one that would feature veterans like Malcolm Brogdon and Jerami Grant.
Brogdon and Sharpe have manned the starting backcourt since Henderson rolled his ankle. Anfernee Simons is expected back soon after suffering a thumb injury on opening night and as Portland's most talented offensive player and one of its leaders, should slide right back into the starting lineup.
That means Scoot would be breaking up a duo that has started the last six games together (winning half of them) as well as starting over perhaps the team's best player. Remaining in his bench role makes sense for both him and the team.
“While I’m sitting down, I’m watching the game,” Henderson said via Aaron Fentress of The Oregonian/Oregon Live. “Making sure when I go in there I know what to do. I know what we need.
“I think it’s a solid thing for me to go through right now. And I’m okay with it. As long as I’m getting in there and trying to make the game better for my team.”