DURHAM, N.C. Duke’s Gerald Henderson doesn’t like change.
On game days, the 6-4, 215-pound junior wakes up at the same time, eats the same food and follows the same routine every time.
“It’s something I learned from [former associate head coach Johnny] Dawkins,” Henderson said. “After the [Nov. 21, 2007] Illinois game in Maui, when I had one of my best games, I remember him telling me, If I were you, I’d be thinking of everything I did prior to that game of what I did in my preparation so I could repeat how I played.’
“That’s the kind of the approach I take now. I try to do everything the same.”
Henderson’s pre-game ritual has paid off on the court as the Blue Devil tri-captain has emerged as one of the best players in college basketball. After a slow start this season, he’ll enter February on an impressive 11-game streak. Over that span, he’s averaged 17.8 points, 5.2 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 2.4 steals, while shooting almost 57 percent from the floor, including 48.6 percent from beyond the 3-point arch.
“He’s the one kid on our team who can create his own shot,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “As he’s now getting better, we can go to him in tough situations where we may call a set, but if it breaks down he can still go get a shot or make a pass out of that because a lot of people are attracted to him when he’s making the move.”
N.C. State coach Sidney Lowe got to see the full range of Henderson’s skills when the Pack visited Cameron last week. Lowe’s team was very much in the game until Henderson exploded in the second half, finishing with 21 points (17 in the second half), seven rebounds, five steals and four assists.
“He’s a unique player in that he’s strong enough to put it on the floor and get by you and use his body,” Lowe said in the postgame press conference. “He can jump over you and he’s really knocking that jump shot down which makes him even tougher. You get up on him, he’s got that first step. He did exactly what a player of his caliber is supposed to do. He can change the game and he did it again tonight. That’s what he expects of himself and I’m sure that’s what his team expected. He did exactly what a leader is supposed to do. He took over.”
Krzyzewski suggested that one of Henderson’s strengths is mental.
“G has the best attitude on our team that he’s good, that he belongs, that he wants to be in the moment,” Coach K said. “Not that other kids are afraid, but he really wants to be there. He has a good ego for the game, a tremendous ego for the game.”
That’s not surprising. Henderson grew up in a basketball environment. His father Gerald Henderson Sr. -- was a 13-year NBA veteran who won three championship rings (two with the Celtics, one with the Pistons). Gerald Jr. was a prep All-America at Episcopal Academy in Merion, Pa., where he teamed with future UNC standout Wayne Ellington on a state championship team.
Ellington was the shooter on that team, while Henderson did everything else he was a strong, quick and high-flying player who was expected to become Duke’s most athletic player since Corey Maggette in 1999.
Henderson only showed flashes of that talent as a freshman. A number of minor injuries slowed his progress, largely by preventing him from getting into shape. He did finish the season on an up-tick, playing consistently well in February and early March. Ironically, his best game that season a 16 point, six-rebound performance at North Carolina was marred by his (unintentional) late-game blow to UNC’s Tyler Hansbrough, who suffered a broken nose.
Duke fans got to see a very different Gerald Henderson in 2007-08. Finally healthy and in shape, he announced his arrival as a great player in the Maui win over Illinois 23 points, five rebounds, two blocked shots.
“He just took over the game,” Krzyzewski said.
Henderson continued to play at a high level until suffering a wrist injury in Duke’s victory at North Carolina in early February.
“Gerald was really good before he hurt his wrist averaging 15-16 per game,” Krzyzewski pointed out.
The injury, which involved torn tendons in his right wrist, clearly set him back. After hitting double figures in 17 of Duke’s first 21 games, he averaged just 6.0 points and shot 26.3 percent as the Devils lost two of the next four games.
“It was tough because I had never dealt with a hand injury,” Henderson said. “It’s unique because in basketball, you use your hands for everything especially being a guard and having the ball in your hands. That was probably the toughest thing I had to adjust to. Even catching the ball is painful. Shooting and dribbling were tough.”
Although the injury would require post-season surgery, Henderson figured out a way to deal with the problem late in the 2008 season. He finished strong, averaging just under 14 points and shooting 49.9 percent in Duke’s final nine games. Indeed, he was probably the team’s best player in two NCAA games his 21-point, seven-rebound, five-steal performance saved the Devils in the first round against Belmont, while his 18 points led the team in the losing effort against West Virginia.
Henderson was finally able to get the injured wrist repaired immediately after the season an operation that slowed his post-season work schedule.
“It took about a week or two weeks before I could do anything physically,” Henderson said. “Guys were doing post-season workouts. I was able to do ballhandling on my left hand and lift with my legs. When got back to Philly for the summer, I started rehab on it just getting movement, trying to get the range of motion good. [I did] some strength stuff.”
He didn’t return to the basketball court for pickup games until he returned to Duke in July for summer school. Even then, he was limited.
“I was not playing every day,” he said. “I was just trying to take it slow because it was still kind of fragile. At the start, I really couldn’t do a lot of shooting. A lot of reps and it would just be sore and I’d get weak after a while, so I had to kind of build up each day the kind of shots I could take. It was really important to do that. Shooting is a big part of my game and the way we play, so I had to get my motion and stroke back.”
Henderson insists that he was at 100 percent when Duke opened preseason practice in October. But as Duke opened the season, something seemed to be holding the gifted junior back. Through the team’s first eight games, he hit double figures just four times and was barely averaging 10 points a game on 42.9 percent shooting.
Krzyzewski suggested that Henderson was unconsciously affected by his wrist. Henderson admits there was a mental aspect to his problem.
“In practice I had really played well,” he said. “I had some practices in the preseason where I couldn’t miss where my shot was really good and I was scoring a lot of points in practice. It was nothing physically that was holding me back. Mentally, it was taking that same approach into a game is something that I really wasn’t doing. That was mostly the reason I wasn’t offensively producing as much.”
It was a really an odd stretch of games since Henderson was actually playing pretty well other than his scoring. For instance, in the Purdue game, when he missed seven of eight shots and scored just two points, he contributed nine rebounds, five assists, two blocked shots and a steal, while putting the defensive clamps on Boilermaker star Etwaun Moore.
Henderson suggested that the Michigan loss, which followed the win at Purdue, was the wake-up call that ignited his offensive game.
“Up to that point, we hadn’t lost a game and I had played okay,” he said. “We were never really threatened, except by Rhode Island. Then we lost to Michigan and I didn’t play that well. I felt that I could contribute a lot more. After that, I decided I needed to give more to our team.”
Henderson responded with 19 points against both Xavier and Loyola. He opened ACC play with a 15-point, eight-rebound, four-assist performance against Virginia Tech. At Florida State, he hit a career-high 25 points. Indeed, his offensive stats in his first six ACC games are astonishing: 19.5 points on 60 percent shooting, including 66.7 percent from the 3-point line. And it’s not just scoring he’s averaging 7.0 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 2.5 steals in ACC play.
His scoring average could be higher, except for Duke’s balance. Along with sophomore Kyle Singler, Henderson has given Duke the best one-two punch in the league.
“We just know that any time during the game, we can put the ball in his hands and he can get a bucket for us if we’re struggling offensively,” sophomore point guard Nolan Smith said of Henderson. “His athletic ability helps us defensively because he can alter shots and block shots. His presence on the court is always felt.”
In addition to his personal performance, Henderson has taken on an additional load this season as one of Duke’s three tri-captains.
“It’s not a job title, it’s just more responsibility,” he said. “Of the older guys, I think I’m the closest to some of the freshmen ... especially Elliot [Williams], who is on the perimeter with me at lot in practice. I stay in his ear all the time on and off the court. I always try to stay positive with him and tell him to stay ready because there’s going to be a game where he has to play important minutes.”
Henderson can sympathize with Williams’ adjustment process because he went through the same thing as a freshman. He learned a lot from DeMarcus Nelson, who in turn was tutored by Daniel Ewing a process that dates back to when Johnny Dawkins and Tommy Amaker helped establish the program in the mid-1980s.
“Some players come into college and they just have it like a [Michael] Beasley or a [Kevin] Durant,” Henderson said. “For most guys, it’s a process. I can just go back to DeMarcus. I looked up to him. When I got here, he wasn’t the same player that he left being. He also had a lot to grow.”
Henderson has grown to the point where he’s become one of the most exciting, effective players in college basketball. But he’s not quite satisfied.
“I’ve played well for a while now that’s how I want to play,” he said. “I still feel like I have a lot to improve on. When I was in high school and I thought about myself at Duke, that’s how I envisioned myself. Why would I not want to continue to play like that?”
The rest of the season will determine whether or not Henderson is merely riding an extended hot streak or if he has truly elevated his game.
“For different guys during the season, guys will be playing great and at different points, guys will be off,” he said. “I’m experiencing that now I’m very confident on both ends of the floor. I’m playing my best basketball that I’ve played since I’ve been here. I just hope to maintain that and stay consistent.”