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Xavier Henry Elevates Game, Mind And Body In Redemptive Season With Lakers

Xavier Henry exited the doctor’s examination room and impatiently clenched his hand, fearing his wrist lacked the capacity to allow him to finish a resurrecting season. Moments later, his doctor emerged from an office, eyed the wrist and looked toward a young NBA journeyman on his third team in four years.

“Xavier, you need surgery,” the doctor told Henry.

Henry had known his past wrist injuries that alleviated within a week were nothing like this sharp pain in his left shooting wrist, and he heard from the doctor that it was as severe as possible – short of a fracture. He was diagnosed with a torn ligament on March 22 and prescribed a surgery timetable of sooner than later. From Kobe Bryant to Luol Deng, Henry heard about players passing on wrist surgery, testing their pain tolerance and, slowly, curing the ligaments.

And still, Henry had been informed his ligament had ruptured too seriously, beyond the grasp of natural healing.

If he wanted to continue playing, the Los Angeles Lakers’ trainers warned Henry he’d endure perhaps his career’s most grueling physical challenge. In the days later, Henry practiced in the Lakers’ facility and felt his wrist respond to the bumps and hits delivered on it. That’s when he says he decided, “I might as well play it out and see how long I can go before I get surgery.”

With the Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans, the lottery expectations with which Henry entered the league in 2010 went unattained. He failed to stay healthy, failed to produce when on the court. After this season, Henry will undergo surgery on his wrist and is unsure if his right knee – in which he sustained a bone bruise and an abnormality of the lateral meniscus – needs some sort of procedure as well.

For someone on a one-year deal, Henry understands there’s no urge to force him to play through these injuries. He easily could fix the wrist and rest the knee, and yet Lakers' coaches and teammates recognize his loyalty to the staff that gave him a chance to earn a lasting position and merit another contract.

“If the Lakers want me back, I would love to be back,” Henry told RealGM. “I love it here, love playing on this team, and we have a great organization. It’s been eye-opening for me, and I enjoy it. You always have two sides of things – I can’t always control whatever I want to in free agency.

“The wrist, it’s painful. This doesn’t feel like it’s going away, but I’d rather play in these games and give myself a chance to get better, develop with the guys and try to get wins before I hang it up and know it’s done for the season.

“And I got so much on my mind, trying to heal and leave it all on the court. I really want to make this last as long as I can.”

For three seasons, Henry had been a meager part and less heralded talents rose above him in rotations. He was a five-star college recruit fleeting out of a role in the NBA. There was an incoherent jump shot. There were rare glimpses of athleticism. There was a glorified role player at Kansas lacking a niche on the next level.

The Lakers came calling with a training camp invitation in September, and most of all, came pitching a wing reserve spot in Mike D’Antoni’s system. Between his first preseason performance of 29 points and seven rebounds and a 22-point season debut, Henry captured a roster spot.

Between then and now, Henry has averaged 10.3 points, 2.7 rebounds, one steal and 21.3 minutes per game – presenting a more polished jumper, a knack to draw fouls and reach the free throw line at an average of 4.2 shot attempts and a high-character approach inside the locker room and on the sideline. In a lost Lakers season, Henry starred in two of their best moments: a destructive dunk on Jeff Withey in November, and 22 points in 23 minutes in a 127-96 victory over the New York Knicks on March 25.

“I just didn’t get the same opportunity and the same playing time in the past,” Henry says. “I hurt myself early in my career … but I didn’t get the same kind of opportunities that I have now and I’m trying to make the most of every one that I get.”

Henry so wishes he had back those two months he missed due to his right knee issue, and sitting in the trainer’s room he would feel distant from the team. He remembers some past locker atmospheres; how everyone would forget the presence of an injured teammate.

This time, Wesley Johnson and Jordan Farmar made concerted efforts to stay updated on Henry and his knee’s status, and it made such a difference for him to receive their input.

“They stayed in my ear,” Henry says. “I was hurt, and they made sure I was on top of my rehab and made sure I was ready to come back.”

All but three players on guaranteed contracts for next season, all the losing for a historic franchise, and Henry knows the Lakers’ infrastructure has every reason to be toxic. It has every reason to be a despondent, scattered group.

“For a lot of guys on one-year deals and not knowing what they’re going to do in the summer, there could be a lot more controversy with players trying to go on their own,” Henry says. “But guys are really trying to commit to the team aspect, and I like that. The camaraderie is pretty good. We all want to win and we are all dedicated to working.

“It doesn’t always happen for us of course, but the games we have won, we’ve had guys play together.”

From Nick Young’s team-building antics to Henry’s unyielding approach with his injuries, this is what maintains the Lakers’ sane environment and keeps them communicative. “[Henry] is tough, he’s fearless,” D’Antoni said recently. “He loves to play, and he battles.”

No one knows exactly who will return to the Lakers in the offseason, decisions looming up and down the roster. No, Henry won’t be choosing between only non-guaranteed camp offers in free agency, so, yes, a bright smile fills the face about the excitement and prospect of being desired, of finding an agreement with Los Angeles management.

Whatever, Henry says, because the last weeks of a season and post-season remedies consume his mind. Out of all rationality, out of the doctor’s advice, he probably belongs most on the bench for good – restoring his body’s health – and still, here is Xavier Henry promising to play out a season with a busted wrist, a dragging knee and an end that removes those distasteful ones of years past.

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