NBA All-Star Weekend: Scoot Henderson didn’t have his coming out party, but he may be inching closer to his arrival

INDIANAPOLIS — “My mindset is to come out and hoop and just be myself.”

That was Portland Trail Blazers rookie Scoot Henderson, hours before the NBA’s Rising Stars Challenge. He came out, hooped and scored 10 points in a 40-35 loss to open the evening’s four-team mini tournament. It was a microcosm of what has been a quiet rookie campaign for Henderson, again overshadowed by peers.

In a sea of Tyrese Haliburton shirts on the streets of snowy Indianapolis were a few jerseys bearing Victor Wembanyama‘s No. 1 — to match his selection in the 2023 NBA draft. His Rookie of the Year race against Chet Holmgren has dominated the discussion of first-year players, and they were Friday’s main attraction.

The recent rise of Brandon Miller has pushed Henderson further down the rookie rankings, somewhere behind fellow first-round picks Jaime Jaquez Jr., Dereck Lively II, Keyonte George and Brandin Podziemski.

Asked about the success of other members from this year’s rookie class, Henderson said, “I like it. I’m always going to show love. I’m never going to hit on anybody, whether I think they’re more or less. I just try to show love back and recognize we’re all in this together. To see everybody else’s growth is fun.”

Scoot Henderson is trying to make a late push up the NBA’s rookie rankings. (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images)

They were all gathered here, opening the All-Star Weekend festivities, the only show in town for one night. And there was Henderson, provided another opportunity to not only prove he belonged on this stage, but to reestablish himself as an elite member of this Class of 2024 — to come out and hoop and just be … Scoot.

Friday was not Henderson’s coming out party, but he believes he is inching closer to that arrival.

“I think most of it is little things,” he told Yahoo Sports, “continuing to understand the game, certain situations — the whole game. As a point guard, you’ve got to watch the whole game. I’ve got to make sure the big fella is good. Just little things like that, I think, that’ll make me a great point guard in this league.”

There was a time when Henderson was unquestionably the top American prospect in the draft. Only Wembanyama and Miller were taken ahead of Henderson, and the Blazers were confident enough in the selection that they traded franchise icon Damian Lillard to make room for the point guard of their future. Henderson is built to be a hooper — a 6-foot-3, 200-pound brick of a young man, explosive and creative.

Yet his rookie campaign has been anything but a logical next progression. Henderson left high school before his senior year to become the youngest-ever member of the G League at age 17. He spent two seasons on the Ignite, appearing in the Rising Stars Challenge each year. This, his third appearance, was supposed to be a showcase for what development looks like in lieu of college, under the NBA umbrella.

And there were signs on Friday of what should come. A smooth midrange jumper. A pull-up 3. A lefty finger roll over Walker Kessler. A step-back hesitation dribble drive under Holmgren, into a circus layup (and one).

He’s in the film room early, grinding tape with Portland assistants Pooh Jeter and Scott Brooks, and in the gym late, getting shots up with rookie teammate Rayan Rupert. Except, there’s been nothing linear about his progress. Henderson badly sprained his right ankle five games into the season, missed three weeks and lost his starting job to veteran Malcolm Brogdon. At Christmas, Henderson was averaging 10.8 points (on 37/25/78 shooting splits), 4.1 assists against 3.1 turnovers and 2.7 rebounds in 26.1 minutes per game.

This was not the work of a potentially transformative floor general. Maybe this was to be expected from a first-year playmaker for a team built to lose. Perhaps our expectations were too great for having seen him on this Rising Stars stage twice before. Whatever the reason, Henderson has not seized stardom … yet.

So, who, exactly, has ensured Henderson still believes in his ability to get there?

“S***,” he told Yahoo Sports, “my damn self. Knowing shots aren’t falling and knowing how to make them go in — that’s technique, and that’s getting back to how I train at home. Mentally, I just make sure I’m always locked in — reading books, rather than playing a game all day. Things like that really just keep me locked in to a tee. That confidence comes from me understanding that I am who I am, and I’m still a dog.”

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Earlier Friday, Henderson called Allen Iverson the player from the past he’d most like to have played with, and his “Welcome to the NBA” moment came opposite Russell Westbrook, another model for his game.

“They whooped us,” Henderson said of a 123-111 loss to Westbrook’s Los Angeles Clippers on the opening night of their season, “and I was like, ‘All right, I’m here now, so let’s turn it up a notch.'”

Efficiency didn’t come so quick for Iverson or Westbrook, either. It takes time, especially for young point guards, and nobody knows that better than Blazers head coach Chauncey Billups, who played for five different teams before he developed into an All-Star — and potential future Hall of Famer — at age 29.

“Having Chauncey as a coach and a mentor, he tells me I can go to him whenever,” Henderson told Yahoo Sports. “Having that on my side, having him as a head coach, it means a lot, because I can trust him. I can trust the information he’s giving me. I can trust where he’s coming from, because he told me he was me.”

Even if it means Billups might be a little harder on him than he is on players at other positions.

“I take hard coaching very well,” added Henderson, two weeks removed from his 20th birthday. “When I was growing up, my dad was really hard on me. He taught me lessons, and I’m glad I went through things when I was younger, rather than learning them now. I had Coach [Jason] Hart last year, and he’s not easy to be coached by. Chauncey is coaching me hard, but it’s more information rather than just pounding on me.”

Henderson is absorbing that information. The results are beginning to show. Since Christmas, he is averaging 18.9 points (on 35.4% shooting from distance), 6.7 assists and 4.1 rebounds per 36 minutes. He just earned the starting job back, Billups declared on Thursday, even when Brogdon returns from injury.

The combination of it all — the pedigree, the body, the confidence and (slowly) the results — are enough for Henderson to believe that the next time he makes his way to All-Star Weekend, it will be to play on Sunday.

“I think that’s just going to come with time and the process,” Henderson told Yahoo Sports. “It’s in God’s hands. All I can do is put in the work and trust the man above, so that’s what I’m going to keep doing.”

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