First, the good news: Scoot Henderson, the third overall pick in the 2023 NBA Draft, always tries his best. For a young guard who’s already spent more time as a professional basketball player than he spent as a high school student, his motor runs uncommonly hot: on defense, he gamely tries to repel ball-handlers; he heaves himself rimward with tremendous gusto; when he dunks, it rings through the arena with the sudden, taut pop of a champagne cork. By all accounts, he’s genuine, kind and hard-working. To borrow a football-ism, he’s a forwards-hat kind of guy.
Now, the bad news: through the first 35 games of his career, Scoot Henderson is plumbing new depths for how poorly an NBA player can play. That he’s stinking so redolently, it’ll change how every other small guard prospect is evaluated. It’s way too early to write him off, but the line between granting him grace and huffing copium is increasingly thin.
Henderson’s stats are uniformly dreadful. Look upon his Basketball Reference page and despair. His -6.2 Estimated Plus-Minus is the worst of any high-minute player of the last decade. His 45.6 percent True Shooting is the lowest of any qualifying player in the league. Draymond Green currently shoots a better percentage from 3 (44.2 percent) than Henderson does at the rim (42.9 percent). Damian Lillard, Henderson’s predecessor in Portland, could miss his next 120 shots and still have a higher field goal percentage for the season than Henderson. Portland is outscored by 12.3 per 100 possessions when Henderson is on the court.
Mind you, prior to the draft, Henderson was hailed as the best point guard prospect in years, which made perfect sense, since he was the best point guard prospect in years. By skipping his senior year of high school to join the G League Ignite in 2021, Henderson became the youngest professional basketball player in modern American history, jumping straight from 11th grade to the second-best league in the entire world.
During his G League layover, Henderson seemed like a certainty amidst a sea of almosts, averaging 22.9 points and 6.3 assists per 36 minutes as a 17 and 18 year-old. Although Henderson was an inconsistent shooter, he still dominated because he was the rare guard who, like Russell Westbrook or Ja Morant, could think as quickly and powerfully as he moved. At his best, he carried the menace of a card shark—his athleticism forced defenses to tip their hand and reveal basic, circumscribed schemes, for which he had long divined solutions.
Beyond the Trail Blazers, Henderson’s execrable rookie year is an important battleground in the NBA’s cold war on point guards. Just as the Warriors dynasty popularized small-ball, the NBA’s current meta has recentered the importance of size and length. For the most part, the upsizing has centered around power forwards and centers, but its material effects have been felt most acutely by the league’s smallest players as traditional playmaking duties are hoovered up by their bigger peers. Of the 500ish players in the NBA, only 66 (including Henderson) of them are 6’3 or shorter, down from 91 in 2014. And of those 66, only 29 play more than 15 minutes per game; then, of those 29, just 22 have a positive EPM.
Accordingly, in order to thrive as a short king, you must be remarkable in ways that no taller players can approximate. So far, Henderson hasn’t inspired much belief that this specialness is within his grasp. He’s very explosive, but he’s not De’Aaron Fox or Ja Morant. He’s a clever passer, but lacks Trae Young’s omniscience. He’s crafty, but can’t approximate Jalen Brunson’s pivot-y genius. Even spunky, score-first guys like Colin Sexton and Terry Rozier pull from deeper offensive reservoirs than Henderson can access.
Against NBA competition, Henderson looks ordinary in ways that never seemed imaginable during his impressive two-year G League layover. Like print journalism or the music of Sublime, Henderson’s game was calibrated for a world that no longer exists. His whole gestalt collapses once he’s no longer a game-breaking athlete—sure, he’s fast and long-limbed and has shoulders fit for the cover of a romance novel, but most NBA players can say the same.
Without the ability to blast his way to the rim at will, his playmaking is defanged—Henderson can’t exploit rotations if he can’t provoke them in the first place. Similarly, his wobbly shooting is now a debilitating weakness, empowering defenses to sag off him and cordon off the paint. Whereas G-League defenses could only hope to contain Henderson’s pick-and-roll game through voodoo or prayer, NBA teams have legitimate answers. Here, big men are better equipped to stymie him in the paint; the guards are quick enough to dart underneath ball-screens and meet him on the other side.
In the NBA, every discrete element of the game is a fresh struggle for Henderson, each minor deficiency compounding to the point that success on any given possession is now nearly unattainable. Since he can’t shoot, defenders can hang far enough back that he can’t beat them cleanly off the dribble, which means he has to carve wider, loopier routes to the basket, which means that he has to finish at more severe angles at the rim. And if he can’t reliably put pressure on the rim, he can’t create good shots for himself or his teammates at the rim, which means he has to rely more on his iffy jumper.
As such, Henderson is now marooned on a receding shoreline of possibilities. He’s not necessarily doomed for bust-dom; he simply has a narrow, difficult path to stardom. For Henderson and everybody else who can comfortably fly in coach, extreme greatness is the only way to achieve goodness.