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Hoop prodigy’s journey takes detour to Las Vegas

Scoot Henderson can practically rip the rim off a standard 10-foot basketball hoop. But he still dunks imaginary balls into goals he envisions on the wall, extending his 6-foot-3-inch, 195-pound frame high over helpless defenders.

At 18 years old, basketball is not only his profession. It’s his obsession.

“He’s falling so much in love with the game of basketball that he finds it in everything that he does,” said Henderson’s sister, Onyx, whom he “dunked” over countless times in the living room of their childhood home.

Henderson is preparing to play his second season for NBA G League Ignite, a developmental program unveiled by the league in 2020 designed to expedite the development of top prospects on and away from the basketball court. The team relocated this year to the Las Vegas Valley from Walnut Creek, California, a San Francisco suburb where he lived last year as the youngest professional basketball player in American history.

Instead of spending his senior year at Kell High School in suburban Atlanta, Henderson averaged 14.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and 4.7 assists in 21 games — often outperforming NBA-caliber G League players 10 to 15 years his senior.

He’ll likely be the No. 1 or No. 2 overall pick in the 2023 NBA draft. But first he’ll play 50 more games for Ignite in 2022-23, including 25 at the Dollar Loan Center in Henderson.

Plus exhibitions Tuesday and Thursday against Metropolitans 92, a French franchise that features the other premier prospect in Henderson’s draft class, Victor Wenbanyama.

“If the world doesn’t know who he is now, then they’ll know (Tuesday),” said Chuck Person, who played 14 seasons in the NBA, coached 13 and privately trains Henderson through his company, Chuck Person Next Level Development.

”He’s just driven to be the best he can be. He’s generational.”

Family first

His given name is Sterling but he’s always gone by Scoot, christened as a baby for the way he would scoot across the floor on his bottom. He’s the second youngest of seven born to Chris and Crystal, though he seems much older than 18 — inspired by five older siblings who also live by their mother’s mantra.

“Never be a mediocre person or a follower,” Scoot says inside the Henderson apartment complex he shares with his brother, CJ.

Older sisters Diamond (30), Chyna (27) and Onyx (24) played Division I basketball. Younger sister Crystal (17), aka Moochie, is one of the top basketball recruits in Georgia and his favorite player. Elder brother Jade (29) fancied football, CJ (21) used to play basketball for Kell.

“We’re very family-oriented people and he’s the vessel,” says Henderson’s mother, who teams with her husband to run Next Play 360°, a full-scale gym and performance facility in Henderson’s native Marietta, Georgia.

His parents moved there 20 years ago from New York’s Long Island and the hilly Georgia landscape would function as the ideal training grounds for their children. Their father is a longtime coach and trainer who would guide his offspring through drills designed to improve their skill, strength and coordination.

Scoot would sprint uphill as a first- and second-grader with 20-pound weights tied to his ankles. He’d perform several series of pushups to fortify the functional strength he still plays with today.

He’d even study film of his favorite football and basketball players to emulate techniques he admired in the front yard — dominating so thoroughly at the elementary level that opposing parents would often ask his to brandish a birth certificate on his behalf.

Everything at Henderson’s household was a competition, including how quickly he could complete any given chore he was assigned. Competition trickled into the cul-de-sac, where a basketball hoop could entertain for hours on end.

“There were a lot of backyard fights and blacktop wrestling, going at it because everybody wanted to win, win win. That’s all he knows,” said Diamond, who first wore the number zero because she didn’t believe anybody could guard her.

Blazing a trail

Henderson was an accomplished peewee football player. But he’d discard the shoulder pads for good before his freshman year of 2018-19, the lone season he would play basketball at Kell with CJ.

By year’s end, Henderson was dominating playoff games with his poise and physicality — drawing hoards of Division I offers the ensuing summer after outplaying several top prospects at showcase. But there wasn’t a college he envisioned playing basketball for like there was for football.

He envisioned playing professionally instead.

So Henderson prepared accordingly, awaking before 5 a.m. to train like his idol, Kobe Bryant. He’d practice three times on his own during the season: once before school, once after practice and once again after dinner — perfecting the routine he brought with him to Las Vegas.

Kell coach Jermaine Sellers was actually concerned that Henderson would run himself ragged before the season began, realizing rather quickly that there was a method to the madness.

“He was training his body. ‘This is what it’s going to be and I’ve got to push through it until my body is used to it,’” Sellers recalled, knowing Henderson would often train past midnight. “It’s not about him making it to the NBA. It’s about being the best. That’s what’s driving him.”

Henderson was far too good to continue to play against public schools in Georgia, averaging 32 points, seven rebounds and six assists during a junior season he knew would be his last at Kell. He doubled his course load during the 2020-21 academic year to graduate a year early with a 3.5 grade-point average.

Alabama and Auburn were among the schools courting Henderson. Overtime Elite, a New York-based company that recruits — and pays — top-ranked high school and teenaged basketball players from around the world to play at its academy in Atlanta, offered to make him the face of the league during its inaugural season of 2021-22.

But one of Henderson’s club basketball coaches, Desmond Eastmond, had another idea — drawing on a longstanding relationship with G League president and fellow Marietta native Shareef Abdur-Rahim.

Eastmond had also coached Abdur-Rahim and telephoned him, suggesting he recruit Henderson to play for Ignite. COVID-19 prevented Abdur-Rahim from watching Henderson play in person.

But he studied his highlights and relayed a message to Eastmond. “I need him,” Abdur-Rahim said, “and I’m going to find a way to get him for two years.”

Eastmond subsequently notified Henderson’s parents, who explained the significance of the opportunity to Scoot inside the office at Next Play 360°. He ducked his head into his hands, pausing momentarily before tilting it upward toward his parents.

“Let’s go,” he said assuredly, inking a two-year, $1 million deal before graduating weeks later from Kell.

Never satisfied

G League Ignite coach Jason Hart said he couldn’t believe Henderson was 17 when they first met — both in demeanor and performance. He scored 31 points in his second G League game, following with 22 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists in his third and 27 points, eight rebounds and four assists in his fourth.

Opposing defenses began tilting their schemes to stop the 17-year-old by the second month of the season.

He won’t hesitate to ask questions about prospective counters.

He’s a blur in transition and a force in the halfcourt, powering his way into the lane where he can explode to the basket and finish or draw help defenders to free teammates.

Amir Johnson played 14 NBA seasons before spending the last two with Ignite as a veteran and mentor to the prospects on the roster like Henderson, whom he compared to another phenom.

“He’s lifting weights, he’s doing the bench press, he’s doing stuff that I’m doing — out of high school,” said Johnson, listed at 6-9 and 240 pounds. “He’s just that unbelievable. I haven’t seen another high school kid probably since LeBron (James) as physically strong as Scoot is.”

That said, Henderson is self-aware enough to know that his jumper needs improvement and committed enough to hoist hundreds of shots per day to do so. He shot 44.9 percent from the floor and 21.6 percent from 3-point range last season, marks that figure to rise amid the improvements he made during an offseason in which he inked a seven-figure apparel deal with Puma.

Yet Henderson doesn’t lust for the spoils that basketball will surely bring, wanting first and foremost to support his family, “win the (NBA) Finals” and “whatever God blesses me with” along the way.

Take it from Person, who played every day against Michael Jordan in 1984 during USA Basketball’s Olympic trials and coached Bryant for four years as an assistant with the Los Angeles Lakers.

“I see the same drive for success. Every day he’s got to go out there and get some kind of basketball in,” Person said. “He’s like those guys. He has that kind of drive. I can say that with pure sincerity because I’ve seen all three of them.”

Contact Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.

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