Once Sixers general manager Bryan Colangelo evaluated the roster after taking the job in April, acquiring some help on the wings was certainly near the top of his to do list.
It’s been almost four years since Philadelphia has had any semblance of consistency at the two or the three, dating back to when Damien Wilkins cost the Sixers a high lottery pick by dragging that corpse of a team through the final two months of the 2012-13 season.
Out of all the names Philadelphia has cycled through over the past few years, Robert Covington and Hollis Thompson are the only ones who have stuck, but they’re not without serious flaws. Both have a shooting stroke that tends to disappear for weeks at a time, and they’ve yet to pose any threat off the dribble. Nik Stauskas — whose roster spot is up in the air — can’t be relied upon to pick up any offensive slack based off a disappointing 2015-16 campaign. Expectations are also low for first-round pick Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot this season, as he’ll need time to adjust from Serbia to the NBA.
So when Colangelo went out and signed former Episcopal Academy product Gerald Henderson to a two-year, $18 million contract in July, it was just what the Sixers offense ordered. The eight-year veteran has been a solid contributor throughout his career, and should give Philadelphia a much needed, dependable wing scorer.
After supplying a large portion of the Charlotte Hornets’ offense from 2011-2015, Henderson started zero games last year, filling more of a complimentary role during his only season with the Portland Trail Blazers. He played the fewest minutes of his career since his rookie season, averaging 8.7 points on 43.9 percent shooting from the floor while coming off the bench. The Blazers were lacking in guards like the Sixers lack in big men, making it harder for Henderson to find the floor, but his proven skill set makes him an easy fit in the first or second unit.
While the Sixers are certainly not lacking in competent ball handlers, Henderson is another guy who’s effective with the rock in his hands. He shot an acceptable 39.1 percent on pull up jumpers last year, according to NBA.com, although Henderson has shown during the course of his career that he is capable of creating open looks for himself when necessary. That’ll be a helpful tool when surrounded by a bunch of young players who will inevitably deal with slumps during the course of the season. Off ball, Henderson is a good slasher who works tirelessly to find holes in the defense, and his effectiveness in the paint is supplemented by his ability to play above the rim. He shot 70.4 percent on cuts last season, and as a whole, Henderson scored well above the league average at the hoop.
What may be most surprising about Henderson’s game is his late blooming abilities from beyond the arc. A career 31.9 percent three-point shooter, Henderson has been right around the league average in two of the past three seasons, including last year when he shot a career high 35.3 percent on 136 attempts.
Portland head coach Terry Stotts gave the 28-year-old the green light to expand his range, and it worked relatively well, especially on corner threes. The Trail Blazers have two of the best attacking guards in the league in Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, and they obviously attract the attention of opposing defenses. When those two drove the lane, most wing defenders would pinch, leaving Henderson open in the corner to get his shot off.
His effectiveness doesn’t seem to be a fluke. Although the sample size isn’t huge, Henderson has shot at least 40 percent from both corners the past three seasons.
Philadelphia may not have scorers like Lillard or McCollum, but they do have a proficient playmaker in Ben Simmons, who can create the same kind of opportunities for Henderson by making plays like this.
Whether Henderson is inserted into the starting lineup alongside Simmons (and perhaps another great passer in Dario Saric), or comes off the bench with floor general extraordinaire Sergio Rodriguez, there will be someone on the court to help set Henderson up for these type of plays.
Outside of his on court role, Henderson will certainly be a mentor for some of the more youthful guys on the team, just like he was in Portland last year. That can only be benefit players like Covington, Thompson, and Luwawu-Cabarrot, who can gain a lot from Henderson’s knowledge of the game.
Until the Sixers young guns are ready to command a serious role on a legitimate NBA roster, the Sixers can count on Henderson’s dependable play to help guide the team through the end of the rebuild and towards the playoffs.