Aaron Henry was once one of college basketball's best-kept secrets. Two years ago, when he stepped unwillingly into the spotlight and content factory after being screamed at by Tom Izzo, the 6-foot-6 swingman was portrayed as this doe-eyed shrinking violet who needed to be protected from cruel and unusual motivational tactics. But that white-knighting was always misguided, driven by those who see the tip of an iceberg and think they can map the entirety of the underlying ocean.
When Henry speaks, it's not with a booming bass that rattles windows. Instead his self-assuredness drips through with the confident and measured tone of a player who has always been mature beyond his years and destined for bigger things than most realized.
Then a freshman, the lefty from Indianapolis responded to that viral incident by scoring nine points and grabbing nine rebounds in a game against Minnesota in the second round. In the Sweet 16, he exploded for a then career-high against LSU, pouring in 20 points to go with eight boards and six assists. He provided lockdown defense against Duke and was one of the few competent weapons in a Final Four loss to Texas Tech.
On a deep team featuring Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman, it was tough to realize that the best pro prospect was this supporting player, but those who pegged it as such will be vindicated. From the moment he stepped on the court, Henry showcased an ability to create his own shot and create opportunities for others out of whole cloth, a willingness to defend the other team's top weapon, and seamlessly slide into whatever type of role the Spartans needed him to handle.
In this unusual and frustrating year, Izzo has needed him to carry a limited team to the NCAA Tournament — a finish line the program has crossed 22 consecutive times. A finish line that seemed too far too reach even 11 days ago, before Henry exploded for 27 desperate points in Bloomington to breathe life back in postseason-hopeful lungs. He added 38 combined in a 48-hour stretch that saw the Spartans sweep two Top-5 teams and emerge back on the bubble.
With backs against the wall and hearts in throats last night, Henry usurped control of a de facto elimination game against Indiana and willed his team to a jubilant locker room, scoring 12 points over the final 4:34 to secure a 64-58 victory that may be enough to vault this proud program back to its familiar March digs.
Henry, a somewhat quiet kid who has found his voice as a leader, is the engine that drives this team. And no, the ultimate destination may not in the Final Four or even second round. But preserving the streak and persevering through the myriad roadblocks to secure a berth into the tournament is a success story.
MSU may not be there yet but we've seen more than enough to make a larger proclamation.
Aaron Henry is a winner. Period. A vital cog in a title team two years ago and the pilot of one that somehow has found a runway through dense fog and engine failure. He can do a bit of everything and do it well. If needed, he can be the primary option and take over a game. His clutch gene is dominant.
He has every tangible and intangible needed to make him a winner at the next level too. It's alarmingly easy to close one's eyes and envision him as the third- or fourth-best player on a championship team who can exert his control when needed and blend in when necessary.
In East Lansing his ascension has been gradual yet undeniable. From a role player on a championship contender to the best player on a team that has to scratch and claw for every gain. His Spartan blueprint — and potential professional blueprint — has been hiding in plain sight this whole time.
It's Draymond Green. And yes that comparison may seem absurd on its face. It's not. Green slowly climbed to a takeover player during his time with Izzo. The two had public run-ins and a symbiotic relationship based on hard truths. Green relished his time as a leader and had a penchant for delivering in key moments. A confidence that never wavered.
Henry can be Green at the next level too. A late- first or second-round pick that provides essential service to a title squad by impacting all aspects of the game. A glue guy who can also be leaned on in high-leverage situations. Someone you want on the floor when it matters.
He's always been the best pro prospect in a green-and-white uniform. As was Green. Quietly. Sneakily.
The secret's out now.