Portland Trail Blazers rookie point guard Scoot Henderson enjoyed his best week as a pro to close out December. The same can be said for Trail Blazers second-year forward Jabari Walker. The duo was instrumental in a 2-1 holiday homestand to help Portland head into 2024 with some newfound confidence in a season defined by development and bruised by losses.
In the 130-113 win against the Sacramento Kings on Tuesday and the 134-128 win versus the San Antonio Spurs on Friday, Henderson averaged 19.5 points, 11 assists and four rebounds, while shooting 41.5%. In those wins, Walker averaged 21 points and 7.5 rebounds, while shooting a fantastic 69%. While Henderson and Walker showcased great individual performances, the pair played a big hand in each other’s success.
The hyped No. 3 overall pick of the 2023 NBA Draft and the under-the-radar No. 57 pick in the 2022 draft are forming a palpable chemistry on the floor. That chemistry shows in an effective pick-and-roll partnership and an organic synchronicity when the offense is in improv. Henderson serves as the idealistic pass-first point guard, eager to utilize his elite athleticism and strength to hit cutting teammates on time and in position to score. Walker plays as the blue collar hero, earning his minutes through hard-nosed screen setting and finishing, underlined by endless activity on the glass and through cuts.
Together, each player complements the other’s strengths to maximize their respective potential. The breakouts of Henderson and Walker, and their blossoming connection, represent one of the best developments of the Trail Blazers’ season.
True to the blue collar way, Walker isn’t much of a play creator. He doesn’t have a great handle or a smooth pull-up jumper to create isolation shots for himself or teammates. Yet, Walker is becoming a magnificent play finisher, converting through contact on put-backs and assists from teammates.
Case in point: All of Walker’s 13 made field goals against the Kings and Spurs came off put-backs or assists from teammates; or to put it another way, Walker took only four dribbles to score all of those buckets.
Even if Walker doesn’t receive the ball, his endless activity includes the double whammy of freeing up space for teammates. Timely cuts from role players like Walker and forward Toumani Camara have frequently shifted the defense to set up shots for Portland 3-point shooters this season. Take the play shown below for example: Even if Sacramento guard Kevin Huerter stayed in position to close out on Matisse Thybulle, Walker’s cut dragged Harrison Barnes and Keegan Murray into the paint, which would’ve freed up the extra pass from Thybulle to Anfernee Simons.
Walker put forth the best performance of his career Friday against the Spurs. In 30 minutes off the bench as the backup center, the 6-foot-7 Walker registered 25 points on 7-of-11 shooting from the floor and nine rebounds, including six on the offensive end. When Zach Collins and the Spurs didn’t stop Walker, they often fouled him, as Walker shot 10-of-13 from the free throw line. Walker was so effective in the paint, Portland coach Chauncey Billups inserted Walker into the starting lineup for the second half.
“That’s the one thing you’re scared of when you play smaller, is the rebounding thing,” said Billups after the game. “You lose some size, but you don’t lose the toughness and rebounding when ‘Bari is out there.”
There to capitalize on that toughness and strong finishing ability is all of Portland’s guards, but in particular a much more composed Scoot Henderson. Six of Henderson’s 22 assists in the two wins set up Walker buckets. Henderson passes also set up Walker with three trips to the free throw line in the third quarter during Walker’s big game against the Spurs.
Evident in a few of the passes shown in the highlight reel above — especially that bounce pass to Walker in transition after Henderson initially pulled up near the baseline — the 19-year-old point guard is starting to assert his tempo and control on the game. Rather than playing at an out-of-control pace or looking discombobulated against NBA defenses, Henderson is manipulating defenses to set up scoring angles for teammates. As his confidence grows with each dime, the flashes of playmaking brilliance are flowing more frequently.
DO Y'ALL SEE THE VISION pic.twitter.com/LmNEL1BFeg— Portland Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) December 30, 2023
One could argue Henderson’s performance against the Spurs was also the best of his young career. Henderson put up 22 points on 9-of-21 shooting from the field, 11 assists and seven rebounds. He also shot 3-of-5 on 3-pointers.
“You’re seeing him now start to play free and loose, and let the game kind of just happen out there as opposed to thinking it before it happens,” Billups said. “... So you’re seeing the game slow down for Scoot a little bit. It will continue to do that.”
Even when Henderson makes simple passes around the arc to set up shots, they feel more effective and strategic. Henderson hit a hot-shooting Jerami Grant in the shooting pocket for multiple quick-release 3s against the Spurs in the first half. Against the Kings, Henderson saw Domantas Sabonis pinching in to help and gave a quick dish to Walker at the perfect moment to set up a baseline drive. A month ago, these quick passes from Scoot on the perimeter looked more like bail-out passes to teammates who weren’t exactly open, rather than the more intentional string-pulling taking place now.
Since Billups took the Trail Blazers head coaching job in 2021, he has daydreamed aloud about installing a fluid, selfless offense based on connectivity and sharing the ball. Billups has preached that one of the grand advantages of this style of basketball is any player can pop off for big scoring nights.
Henderson, with his athletic gifts and pass-first mentality, may be the ideal archetype to orchestrate this style of play. Walker, with his activity and play-finishing abilities, serves as one of the ideal archetypes to benefit from it.
The trajectories for both young players are pointing up. In part, they can thank each other for that.