May 25, 2024

Scouting Scoot Henderson’s final push; thoughts on Jrue Holiday, Grayson Allen extensions


PORTLAND, Ore. — Another NBA regular season ended with the league’s bottom 10 teams mostly playing out the string over the past few weeks; the Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs ran through the tape, but the others trotted out hopeless makeshift rosters, as anyone with a remotely threatening injury was shut down for the year.

Usually, I like to give some shine to players on those draft lottery teams who stood out toward the end, but this was an unusually hopeless year for that. So, instead, before pivoting to the playoffs, let’s shine my lottery spotlight on one player whose second-half play hasn’t received enough eyeballs: the Portland Trail Blazers’ Scoot Henderson.

The third pick in the 2023 draft — Victor Wembanyama he ain’t — finished his rookie year with a 9.5 PER. On the other hand, an absolutely horrid start dragged down those numbers. That, and Portland’s quick descent from anything resembling contention, combined to bury the news of Henderson’s second-half revival.

Take Friday’s game against Houston, for instance. It was Henderson’s last game of the season — he missed crunchtime with a groin issue and sat out the Blazers’ sad finale Sunday in Sacramento. Yet, it was arguably his best, too, with 30 points, seven assists and just one turnover in 33 minutes against a good defensive team that was mostly intact.

Here’s one frozen moment Blazers fans will happily carry into the offseason. Near the end of the third quarter, Henderson faced a late shot clock and had Houston’s bulldog defensive stopper Dillon Brooks hounding him on the perimeter. Henderson took a couple dribbles to shake free for a millisecond, rose up and dropped in a long jumper for 2:

That bucket wasn’t quite a 3, but it was his seventh straight successful jumper from more than 20 feet on the night, after Henderson started 6-of-6 on triples. For a guy who entered the season with a “can’t shoot” label, he finished on quite the upswing. Henderson ended the year at 32.9 percent from 3 after starting the year 9 of 50. He made 35 percent after the All-Star break.

His balance on shots off the dribble, in particular, seemed to get steadier as the season went on; Henderson made multiple stepback 3s in the final week, something that seemed unthinkable in November. His shooting 81.9 percent from the line, meanwhile, supports the notion that the shooting part of the equation is now on solid ground.

“His confidence is way up on his shot,” Blazers coach Chauncey Billups said after Friday’s game. “His balance is so much better.”

Along with that shooting has come more potency as a passer, as teams have become more skittish about going under against him. Henderson had three double-digit assist games in April, including a career-high 15 against New Orleans on April 9, after registering only five in the Blazers’ first 75 games.

Notably, when I asked Billups where Henderson had made the most progress since the fall, he pointed first not to shooting, but Henderson’s reading of the game.

“Just understanding two things,” Billups said. “Understanding the actual NBA game, and where he is going to get his opportunities, learning how to navigate pick-and-rolls, when people are going up under him.

Second, understanding opponents, other teams and coverages and things like that. Those things take a while, [but] he’s come a very long way.”

At this point, if Henderson has one area to work on, it’s actually inside the arc. He shot only 41.6 percent on 2s this season, with a low free-throw rate; we don’t look at 2-point percentages much, but that’s a shockingly bad figure. It ranked the fifth-worst of any player with at least 1,000 minutes; of the other players on the list below, two are 3-point specialists who hardly ever shoot 2s and one was on a two-way deal. Henderson, in contrast, is in a prime offensive role and took over 500 of them. While he was fine in the midrange, he only made 50.3 percent in the basket area and 31.3 percent in floater range, according to Basketball-Reference.com; again, both figures were in the bottom 10 among qualifying players.

Lowest 2-point percentage, 2023-24

Player

  

Team

  

2FGA

  

Pct

  

Alec Burks

Det-NY

239

36

Sam Merrill

Cle

39

38.5

Jordan Hawkins

NO

158

41.1

Jordn Goodwin

Phx-Mem

241

41.1

Scoot Henderson

Por

529

41.6

* — Min: 1,000 minutes played

That trend showed on Friday. While he made seven long jump shots in the first three quarters against Houston, he also shot 1 of 7 in the paint in that same stretch.

First, the good news. Here’s the “1” in that 1 of 7. Yowza.

Unfortunately, Henderson’s finishing in the half court leaves a lot to be desired. He still has a tendency to broad jump rather than explode upward and will take off too early at times. He also seems to have unusual trouble getting his legs under him to really power up at the cup, resulting in innumerable “blown-tire” finishes that leave him ending up well below the rim trying to finish over a bigger player.

Henderson also really likes to get to the far side of the rim and shoot a reverse when driving right; this is probably his best technical skill in the paint. Even then, however, it’s striking how often he doesn’t seem to have his weight under him when he goes up to finish. Here, for instance, he beats Brooks cleanly along the baseline but has a classic blown-tire finish.

Billups says advancing his finishing craft needs to be Henderson’s summer project.

“It’s a big thing for him because he’s going to be able to get into the paint.”

“It’s really repetition,” Billups added. “[And] what finishes you need. Sometimes, it’s layups; sometimes, it’s high layups; sometimes, it’s spinning off the glass, with either hand, floater. You never know what you’re going to need in a particular game.”

Choosing the right club to pull out of his finishing bag is the other element for Henderson. Check out these two plays from Wednesday’s game against the Golden State Warriors, for instance.

In the first one, things start promisingly with a lightning fast crossover that leaves Andrew Wiggins in the dust. However, instead of pressing his speed advantage, Henderson slows up into a Euro step move on Trayce Jackson-Davis and can’t explode upward at the end of it; Jackson-Davis easily spikes it out of bounds.

Later, Henderson gets a good screen from Deandre Ayton and briefly has Dario Šarić in a compromised position under the basket. However, he slows up long enough for Wiggins to get back in the play and ends up shooting a tough, contested floater. Henderson’s floater isn’t developed enough, and he’ll get better at it, but even prime Tony Parker would regard this one as a tough shot:

The other thing that might help Henderson are some pivots and, especially, shot fakes. Henderson usually goes on a straight path to the rim but rarely tries to stop and let his defender move out of the way for an easier shot or fake him off his feet to draw a foul.

Here, for instance, Henderson has Jabari Smith Jr. moving laterally at full bore; if he plants his left foot and executes a quick shot fake, it likely sends Smith into the stands while Henderson pivots for an easy layup. Instead, it’s Henderson forced into a wild, contested finish with his left hand, even on a shot where he’s gathered to go up more forcefully than on many of his other attempts.

All of this is part of the learning curve, of course. Asking a teenager (OK, he just turned 20) to operate as a high-usage NBA point guard rarely ends well. Everyone I’ve talked with raves about Henderson’s work ethic and about him as a teammate, and his plan for the summer involves working out the kinks around the rim.

After Friday’s game, Henderson said he’s open to playing Las Vegas Summer League and will be playing somewhere this offseason regardless. He also has a big list of items for his program this summer.

“Handles, with contact, finishing, explosiveness, quick twitch, mind, body. Shooting, obviously. Really just all over. Watching film on how to attack certain situations throughout our system,” he said.

He’ll likely come back to a much different Blazers team next season, with Anfernee Simons and Jerami Grant back healthy, another high lottery pick on the roster and more expectations than on this year’s 21-win outfit.

The irony is that he’ll come back to a different scouting report too. The “can’t shoot” issue has quickly receded, and opponents already were going under screens against him far less aggressively than at the beginning of the season. Now, the key to Henderson’s success lies in his progress as a paint finisher.

Cap Geekery: Late-season extensions

You usually don’t see much roster action after “buyout season” ends, but under the new collective bargaining agreement, one exception has been late-season contract extensions. With the more generous rules on extensions, that has become a much more common thing, and two teams above the luxury tax apron inked deals this week to retain their starting shooting guards.

Boston signed Jrue Holiday to a four-year, $134 million-plus extension that, at first glance, might seem a bit rich for a 33-year-old whose numbers are down this season. However, the key element is that Boston saved several million dollars in the first year of the deal, taking Holiday’s cap number from $39.4 million down to $30 million by having him exercise a player option for 2024-25. That $9.4 million in savings multiplies itself because of Boston’s tax position; with the Celtics projected to land at least $20 million over next year’s tax line, they will save about $35 million in luxury tax penalties next year by having Holiday on this deal instead of his old one.

That $35 million also is a squishy number, because of numerous unlikely incentives in Holiday’s deal that could have hit and raised the overall total of his contract by as much as $4 million, including a highly plausible $1 million bonus for winning the championship. Those incentives stay on the books for the rest of this year, but next year are replaced by his new deal.

The cost for Boston comes in the out years; Holiday will make a total of $105 million in his age-35 through age-37 seasons, which is … not great. However, the Celtics save so much money between salary and tax in the first year of the deal in 2024-25 — a year for which Holiday was already signed — that you can look at it more as a three-year extension for $60 million, which sounds a lot more reasonable. Either way, the Celtics have a serious tax situation to manage for the foreseeable future, especially when Jaylen Brown’s mammoth extension kicks in for 2025-26.

Meanwhile, the Phoenix Suns reportedly inked Grayson Allen to a four-year, nearly $70 million extension ahead of his impending free agency. It’s not clear yet if the reported number includes the unlikely incentives from his current deal that total nearly $1 million per year.


Grayson Allen high fives coaches as he exits a game against the Kings. (Ed Szczepanski / USA Today)

Either way, though, the deal is near the limit of what Allen could legally sign right now and a pretty healthy valuation for a 28-year-old role player. The incentive for Phoenix here is similar to Boston’s — the Suns are over the tax apron and thus have no plausible means of replacing Allen if he signs someplace else. Unlike Boston, however, the Suns didn’t just win 64 games, and their roster is already shockingly expensive.

The start of the postseason may put a kibosh on these deals for the coming days, but keep an eye out for more of them once playoff teams’ seasons end. In particular, the Clippers’ Paul George, the Bulls’ DeMar DeRozan, the Warriors’ Klay Thompson and the Pelicans’ Jonas Valančiūnas all can ink extensions before free agency begins on July 1.

Prospect of the Week: Nolan Traore, 6-3 PG, Saint-Quentin (France)

(Note: This section won’t necessarily profile the best prospect of the week. Just the one I’ve been watching.)

This past week’s Nike Hoop Summit brought together several of the top prospects from what is expected to be a loaded 2025 draft, as well as the likely top pick in 2026 in forward A.J. Dybantsa. The action on the floor didn’t disappoint, either, as the big names all stood out.

Duke commit Cooper Flagg, the projected top pick in the 2025 draft, wasn’t always as assertive in the practices but was the best player in the actual game on Saturday with 19 points , 11 boards and great defense, despite early foul trouble that limited him to 25 minutes. Unusually for a young player of this caliber, he doesn’t rely much on self-created shots, which makes him an interesting player to project forward in terms of his star ceiling.

Rutgers’ incoming dynamic duo of Ace Bailey and Dylan Harper also shined in the practices, especially a Thursday scrimmage, and in the game scored 14 each. Bailey has an alluring combo of size and shooting ability, while Harper combines an NBA body with elite feel for operating in tight spaces. Meanwhile, Baylor’s incoming combo guard V.J. Edgecombe showed Victor Oladipo-like athleticism while getting wherever he wanted all week; he scored 17 in the game on Saturday.

However, the one out-of-left field surprise who had execs texting their international scouts, “Who the hell is this guy?” was Traore, who came into the event without much hype but quickly established himself as one of the world team’s best players.

The 6-foot-3 guard didn’t flash the crazy athleticism of Edgecombe and wasn’t quite as smooth a shooter as Bailey, but his ability to operate in pick-and-roll, decision-making and finishing craft stood out among the other teen prodigies. In the game on Saturday, Traore had 18 points and four assists, with the latter total potentially rising higher had a few nice dishes been converted.

Traore stood out at the Basketball Without Borders tournament in Indiana over the All-Star break and played for France’s U-18 team in 2023 and its U-16 team in 2022, but we otherwise haven’t seen much of him in major overseas play.

That’s about to change, as he signed with Saint-Quentin in the top division of the French league for the remainder of the season. He’s being recruited by U.S. colleges as well, with Gonzaga, Xavier and Alabama in the mix, and the Australian NBL’s Next Stars program has him in its sights as well.

Wherever he ends up, he’s a new face on the 2025 draft board who has established himself as a lottery-level talent. We knew about Flagg, Bailey, Harper and Edgecombe, but Traore is worth putting in that discussion now too.

(Top photo of Scoot Henderson and Jrue Holiday: Eric Canha / USA Today)





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