Xavier Henry pump-faked and shot the lane. He saw the rim but never his unsuspecting victim. He took flight a step past the free throw line, cocking the ball back in his left hand. Thwack. Henry’s spectacular fatality of a dunk over Jeff Withey, the Pelicans’ rookie center and a former Kansas teammate, was an instant, unforgettable posterization. And the message was clear: Jump, 7-footers. Or risk the wrath of Xavier Henry jumping over you.
The dunk, during an otherwise quiet November game at Staples Center, garnered so much attention that Henry later texted Withey to check in on him. “He said he was doing all right,” said Henry, the Lakers’ 6-foot-6 swingman. “It was just one of his ‘welcome to the league’ moments. He said he learned not to take no charges no more.”
But the play reverberated beyond SportsCenter, YouTube, and Withey’s soul for those close to Xavier Henry. It meant something. It was a literal leap in the right direction, as Henry attempts to right his career after some lost years. “It’s been difficult both physically and mentally for him, his family and me as well, knowing what type of talent he is and the ability and skill he has,” said Mark Heusman, a conditioning expert who has worked with Henry since he was in high school. “It’s just been difficult to see him struggle through this and not be able to show off what he has.”
Henry, who is just 22 years old, was once the prize of a recruiting clash between Kentucky, Kansas, and Memphis. He is a former lottery pick who’s in his fourth NBA season with his third NBA team. He is finally making his mark with the Lakers, although his contract is not guaranteed. His career has been hindered by stops and starts, injuries, and acclimating to the rigors of the NBA. He’s fighting for his NBA life.
“[That dunk] probably came out of nowhere for people that haven’t really seen me play the last few years,” Henry said.
That includes just about everyone. Henry is a prime example of how a talented young player can quickly get lost amid the league’s shuffle. The Lakers are a patchwork team, having played without Kobe Bryant for the first 19 games of the season, trying to salvage their today in hopes of a better tomorrow. In a deep Western Conference, the team is surprisingly holding steady. Few anticipated this much. Fewer still expected Henry to be one of the reasons why.
It’s pronounced ZAH-vee-ay. He was born in Belgium, where Xavier’s father, Carl Henry, played professional basketball. The name was taken from one of the team’s trainers. “That’s how they pronounced the spelling there of Xavier,” his mother, Barbara, said. “We thought it was pretty unique.”
Henry was always a unique kind of kid. He wanted to jump to the NBA right after his senior prom. “He would have went from high school to pro [if he could have],” Carl Henry said. But the NBA blocked that pipeline after the class of 2005, installing a rule stating that to be eligible for the draft all players must be one year removed from high school.
Xavier Henry debated playing overseas for a season to get around the rule. But no player to that point who tried that had returned to the U.S. with much success. When he settled on attending college, Kansas — the alma mater of both his parents — figured to have the upper hand. But John Calipari knew the family well and served as a Kansas assistant when Xavier’s father played for the university. Calipari also had a reputation for annually sending his players to the NBA. So Henry committed to the Memphis Tigers. Then Calipari bolted for Kentucky, and Henry reopened his recruitment. Eventually, he joined Kansas, where he teamed with his brother C.J., a professional baseball washout who decided to return to basketball.
Henry averaged 13.4 points for the Jayhawks in 2009-10, second behind Sherron Collins. That team featured eight future NBA players, including Markieff and Marcus Morris and Thomas Robinson. But after a 33-3 season, they were stunned 69-67 by no. 9 seed Northern Iowa in the second round of the NCAA tournament, a shocking upset. Henry took just six shots in that game. He was gifted, but rarely aggressive, and with a team full of pro prospects, he was never asked to dominate.
Kansas coach Bill Self met with Henry after the season. Self recommended that he enter the draft. Despite a modest first season, analysts and mock drafts predicted Henry to be a surefire lottery pick. Self was sure that Henry had the body and the maturity to handle the NBA at a young age. C.J. Henry had faced the same decision a few years earlier with baseball. He had been a heavily recruited basketball player and told himself that he would attend college should he slip to the second round of the baseball draft. The Yankees selected him in the first round.
“You take a chance coming back in any sport and not turning professional,” C.J. Henry said. “When you do that, I think health is the biggest determining factor.”
Injuries sidetracked C.J.’s baseball career. His brother was healthy at Kansas, but Xavier was unsure about whether to declare for the draft or not.
“I was a kid, 18,” Xavier said. “I had a lot of fun my freshman year of college. It didn’t end the way I wanted it to, of course. I had mixed emotions about coming back and doing better in school and for the team and my coaches and for everybody who supported us. But coach let me know that it was probably the best time.”
So Xavier declared with the expectation of becoming a lottery pick. “He enjoyed Kansas, I enjoyed Kansas,” Carl Henry said. “It was just time for him to leave. Should he have stayed? He could’ve stayed another year. We’ll never know what would have happened.”
Xavier Henry, like most players who depart early, likely would have benefited from a longer college stay. He weighed that risk against his stock falling. Another year would allow professional scouts more time to pick apart his game. Another year would also subject him to the risk of an injury.
“Like a lot of kids, I think he was ready to make a lot of money,” Self said. “It’s hard to fault anybody when they leave, because everybody chases the American dream. Why shouldn’t these kids? Now, could he have stayed another year? Yeah, he could have — then you risk a lot of things. My thing is, if a kid’s a lottery pick, then it’d be hard for me as a coach to try and convince him to stay.”
The Grizzlies selected Henry 12th overall in the 2010 draft, just two picks after Indiana took Paul George.
Lionel Hollins coached Memphis at the time. Hollins is the kind of craggy old-school coach who believes rookies should earn their playing time. Still, he started Henry as a rookie, preferring O.J. Mayo as a spark plug off the bench. Henry showed flashes of promise once the season started, playing team ball and feeding the ever-waiting hands of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol.
Xavier Henry was developing into an NBA player. But all Carl Henry could do was cringe. He wanted his son to shoot more. “If he’s wide open and somebody is open closer to the rim, guess what? He’s going to pass the basketball to the guy closer to the rim,” Carl said. “He’s going to do everything the coach tells him to do. And I think that’s his biggest downfall. I would have been shooting the ball. The Memphis coach told him, ‘We have enough scorers,’ but when you’re wide open, shouldn’t you shoot the ball?”
Carl knows how fleeting an NBA career can be. He played in just 28 games for the Sacramento Kings in 1985-86. “I didn’t get to play that much because they had a lot of veterans on that team and we had a new coach that didn’t like rookies,” he said. “So basically I winded up sitting on the bench. But when I did play, I was not shy about putting the ball up. I’ll tell you that.”
He played overseas after declining an opportunity to return to the NBA with the San Antonio Spurs. He said he could make more money in Belgium. When his career ended, Carl returned to Oklahoma to become a trainer and his sons’ AAU coach. In high school, both Xavier and C.J. “loved to shoot it,” said A.D. Burtschi, their coach at Putnam City High School in Oklahoma City. “You noticed I didn’t say they both loved to defend? They both loved to shoot it and were great scorers.”
But Xavier Henry adapted to playing off the ball at Kansas, picking and choosing his spots to score, a style he tried to develop in Memphis.
“I knew it wasn’t going to be easy to always be on the floor with those guys and to be able to play,” Henry said. “You have to learn more than just playing for yourself. You have to play for everybody and make everyone else’s job easier as they make your job easier.”
In the NBA, everyone loves a willing role player. Carl Henry wanted his son to be more aggressive, but said Xavier must walk his own path. “I can’t do it from home,” Carl Henry said. “He has to go out and play the game.”
Then injury struck. Knee problems forced Xavier to miss 34 games in his rookie season. Henry complained of soreness in his right knee in late December. Several tests failed to clarify a specific injury until he was eventually diagnosed with a “sprain.” It would be the first in a dizzying string of setbacks.
“Early on, he had a little success,” Hollins recalled. “He didn’t shoot the ball very well, but he could get to the basket. He tried to defend. He knew where he was supposed to be. He wasn’t a long ways off and as time went on, he lost a lot of confidence. And you’ve got to be on the court and play. If you’re injured and can’t play, you’re not going to develop, period.”
Meanwhile, NBA life went on. “Unfortunately, teams don’t have all of that time, especially if you’re a winning team,” Hollins said. “Usually if a guy’s not doing it right or if they’re hurt all the time, they’re looking to move on because it’s really a ‘who’s producing now’ league and the developmental part of it is developing players that are going to be able to play.”
Hollins inserted Tony Allen into the starting lineup. The tenacious Allen quickly came to personify the city and the team’s grit-and-grind image.
“It became sort of a Wally Pipp–Lou Gehrig thing because Tony Allen took his place and went on to become an All-Defensive player,” said Chris Wallace, Memphis’s general manager.
David Joerger replaced Hollins, who coached the Grizzlies for parts of seven seasons, in June after a 56-26 season. But Hollins — who described Henry as an agreeable, coachable young player — lamented the expectations of young players.
“If you’re not contributing and you’re not doing what you’re supposed to do on the court, the worst thing you can do is give a player time and let him just go out there and make a bunch of mistakes, because it’s not deserved,” Hollins said. “It’s not earned. People think it’s a rite of passage to go from high school and college to playing in the pros. You’ve got to earn it and you’ve got to not make the mistakes. You’ve got to be tough. You’ve got to be aggressive. You’ve got to do all the things that earn you a right to be on the court.”
Ingesting all of that isn’t easy for a 19-year-old struggling with injuries for the first time. The Grizzlies qualified for the playoffs in 2010-11 and claimed the franchise’s first series win. Memphis hoped to capitalize on that momentum the following season. Then, forward Darrell Arthur suffered a season-ending injury and Zach Randolph missed nearly three months with a knee injury. The losses decimated Memphis’s front line. An opportunity presented itself for Henry, but his injury still nagged him. During the lockout, the organization couldn’t monitor his progress. So in January 2012, Memphis dealt Henry to the New Orleans Hornets for forward Marreese Speights.
“Xavier became the price of doing business to try and bring Speights back to try to salvage the season,” Wallace said. “If we play it patient, we’re not making the playoffs and that would have been a real downer and doused the momentum we were building, not just on the floor competitively, but in the efforts to recapture the hearts and minds of our fans.”
Henry missed five of the first 11 games of 2012-13 while recovering from an ankle injury. He struggled adapting to New Orleans’s defensive scheme. He made a brief D-League appearance.
“I think the toughest thing for [Henry] is that he was at Kansas for only a year before he left early for the draft,” Monty Williams, New Orleans’s coach, told the Times Picayune in March 2012. “Then he goes to Memphis and is hurt, so he doesn’t get the same teaching. Then we have a lockout. That’s two years where he hasn’t played consistently.”
Henry had arthroscopic surgery to repair a lateral meniscus tear in his right knee that summer. New Orleans shifted Henry back and forth between forward and guard the following season. He played erratic minutes in 50 games. Just three injury-wracked years into his professional career, his momentum had been stymied. Suddenly, his career was on the ropes.
The clock that started ticking upon Henry’s NBA arrival went off this summer. New Orleans elected to not pick up Henry’s option. He had entered the league full of promise. Three years later, he had almost nothing to show for it.
The Los Angeles Lakers are a hodgepodge of former lottery- and first-round-pick reclamation projects: Jordan Hill, Wesley Johnson, Shawne Williams.
After Dwight Howard left L.A. for Houston over the summer and Kobe Bryant continued his rehabilitation, the Lakers rounded out their roster with one-year contracts to preserve space for next year’s free-agent crop. In most situations, a jumble of players on one-year contracts mixed with a team not expected to make the playoffs is a recipe for selfish play. But the Lakers have banded together thanks to the play of Henry, Williams, and Johnson.
“It’s keeping faith and believing in yourself,” said Mike Conley, Henry’s Memphis teammate and a point guard who took a while to find his own footing in the league. “At that point in your career, people are going to say things about you and you’ve just got to stick to your guns, get better every day, and prove people wrong.”
Henry and his cohorts are still trying to carve out their own NBA identities. He sparked the Lakers to an opening-night upset win over the Clippers with 22 points. Earlier this month, he racked up 27 points in a thrilling loss to Portland. His dunk over Withey remains one of the young season’s highlights.
“This is his fourth year, which would make it his rookie year [if he stayed in college],” Hollins said. “He’s just now playing with aggressiveness and playing with a little more toughness and a purpose that you would expect a player to do. I just think a lot of these kids that are coming out one-and-done, they’re so young and definitely immature, both physically and mentally, and not really ready or able to cope with the rigors of playing in the NBA.”
Henry can still surprise like he did early in the season. But his minutes are as uneven as his play. (He made one basket in 13 minutes against Detroit, a game before playing 29 and converting nine field goals against Portland.) Bryant’s return will clearly siphon away more minutes. He’ll need to earn his time. Henry’s NBA future is still being written.
“He’s had some really good games,” said Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni. “He got lost a little bit, but I think he’s coming back now. He’s feeling a little bit comfortable. He’s had a little ups and downs, but he’s done real well.”
No one can say whether Henry made the right decision in leaving Kansas after one season. Could he have returned for another year, worked on some weaknesses, learned the game, and seen his draft stock skyrocket? Sure. He also could have suffered the same injuries that limited his NBA career while in college and never been drafted in the first place.
“It’s just one of those tough life decisions that you have to pick one way or the other,” Henry said, “and once you make that decision, you have to live with the consequences no matter what.”