TUALATIN, Ore. — The rapid maturation of the young Portland Trail Blazers may not be happening were it not for the contributions of veteran Gerald Henderson.
His game-saving block on Washington Wizards’ Marcin Gortat on Tuesday was the most tangible example and although he seems like a perfect fit now, it’s an ongoing transition.
The challenges for Henderson were many: Integrate himself into a brand new team after missing training camp recovering from surgery, do so while coming off the bench and embrace a new role as the team’s veteran.
Henderson, the player with the second-most years of service in the NBA behind Chris Kaman, has had to tweak his game in more ways than one.
“We run plays but at the same time we do a lot of flow,” Henderson said. “We have a lot of guys that can score from different places. You find yourself all over the court.”
Head coach Terry Stotts’ flow offense and spacing that makes the Blazers offense great doesn’t come from their wings taking scores of midrange shots as Henderson has throughout his career.
While taking midrange shots isn’t discouraged, a 3-point threat is almost an unspoken requirement for a Blazers wing player to earn time.
In those new spaces, Henderson started to find himself and as a result, carved out his place on the team.
With 15 games left in the season, he’s set to obliterate his previous career-high in 3-point rate of 18.3, with a rate of 26.7.
He’s shooting a career-high 37 percent from long range and a career-best effective field-goal percentage of 48.5.
It hasn’t been easy to fight the urge of the player he’s always been, though.
“In the past, I’ve always been a guy that wants to get closer,” Henderson said. “My midrange has always been a strength of my game. Still is.”
But this has also helped Henderson, he says, because opponents know his preference.
“Shooting that shot, people know I want to get closer in the midrange or drive,” Henderson said. “So I’m going to have a lot of opportunities at the arc.”
While Stotts’ offense does have its principles, there is a human element to the attack and that has allowed Henderson to be himself.
“Coach Stotts has done a great job with everybody, just allowing guys to play,” Henderson said. “I’m a guy who feels like I can score a lot of different ways, so you know the way we run our offense you find yourself in different places. My thing is you just want to start on the defensive end and take that aggression to the offensive end.”
“Once he got to be 100 percent, then more comfortable with the way we play, he’s given us scoring off the bench,” Stotts said. “He’s got toughness defensively and he brings a veteran presence.”
Although the Blazers as a unit say they understand they must do the little things, it sure helps to have someone who actually does them with regularity.
Little veteran ticks like bumping a cutter before he gets to the lane, or a hip check when the ref isn’t looking to get position, are things that don’t show up in the box score but ones that Henderson does with regularity.
And the experience also helps him on plays like the block against the Wizards.
“So much in this league at the defensive end is seeing things before they happen, that comes with experience,” Stotts said.
The Blazers defense has slipped and Henderson, a defense-first player, knows that the difference is on the margins.
“It’s a point here or there, the numbers, it’s a small gap,” Henderson said. “It’s an offensive rebound here, not getting back in transition there. It’s these small steps. We need to get back to it.”
But Henderson should keep on doing what he has been.
If teams leave him in the corner, he makes them pay, hitting 50 percent of his corner 3-pointers.
“It’s phenomenal,” Henderson joked. “It’s just shorter. I honestly work on the top ones more than the corner ones because I’m better at those.”
It’s been that type of attitude as well as a professional demeanor that has led to success for Henderson and the Blazers.