The 2013-14 Lakers season was doomed from the start. Dwight Howard had left for Houston during the offseason, it was unclear if Steve Nash would ever be properly healthy again, and Kobe Bryant was out indefinitely after tearing his Achilles the previous April.
For the first time in a long time, not only were the Lakers not contenders, but it was unclear if they were even playoff material.
To top it off, the Lakers’ first game of the season was a nationally-televised bout against their Staples Center brethren. While the basketball gods had spent the entire summer conspiring against the Lakers, the Clippers looked poised to compete for a title after trading for head coach Doc Rivers from Boston.
It was going to be a long year, and it was probably going to start with an ugly defeat at the hands of the Clippers and a former Celtics coach.
And yet, something magical happened that Tuesday night: Xavier Henry came to life.
Henry was playing in his first game with the Lakers, but he hadn’t exactly impressed in his NBA career to that point. He entered the league after one year at Kansas, and he had two short stints with Memphis and New Orleans before arriving in Los Angeles. He was close to washing out of the league three years after being a lottery pick.
Nevertheless, there was reason to be excited about Henry. He was long, athletic as can be, and still very young. He absolutely passed the eye test, and there were minutes to be had on a Lakers team that was about to start rebuilding, even if they hadn’t yet come to terms with it. Mike D’Antoni was exactly the right coach for him as well — someone who would make the Lakers play with pace and let Henry do his thing in the open court.
That template came to fruition almost immediately. About a minute after Henry entered the game, the Lakers got a fast-break opportunity, and Henry delivered a spectacular slam.
For that one game, Henry teased the full package. He could get to the rim at will (remember the sorry state of the Clippers small forward position back in the day?) and create for himself and others. He showed flashes of an outside jumper, hitting 3-of-4 threes, though he tempered those expectations by making only 3-of-8 free throws.
Most importantly, he showed out in a big moment. In a TNT game against Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan, Henry was the best player on the floor. His 22 points led all scorers, and his energy sparked a 41-24 fourth quarter for the Lakers, leading them to an upset.
I remember that game vividly. I was at my aunt’s house, and she and her husband are very much not Laker fans. They thought this would be a chance to finally relish in mine and my brother’s misery, but it was the exact opposite. For one game at least, Henry was our hero.
Henry mostly came back down to earth after that night, settling in as a 10 point per game scorer. As his poor free-throw shooting on opening night indicated, Henry wasn’t a great shooter, so he just kept attacking the basket, which meant he was often in position to college offensive rebounds. And Henry’s one great skill was drawing fouls — he ranked in the 100th percentile of shooting fouls drawn when he was with the Lakers, even if he couldn’t always convert those points at the line. The Lakers had a minus-2.9 point differential when he was on the court, but that was still 5.1 points per 100 possessions better than when he was off the court.
Perhaps Henry could have continued to develop into a consistent contributor while in Los Angeles, but a severe bone bruise in his knee sapped most of the momentum of his first season. Then, Byron Scott wiped out any hope he had left before Henry tore his Achilles in November of 2014. For an athletic phenom like Henry, there was no coming back from that.
It was a true shame, because at his best, Henry could fly. He elevated quickly and soared above defenders. There wasn’t a ton of variety — he always got the ball back to his left and flushed with one hand, but he was masterful at that finish.
Unfortunately, Henry’s career never took off in the same way. Like the Lakers that season, he had a few highlights (it’s still criminal what he did to Jeff Withey, his former college teammate!), but not much success otherwise. He did have one great game, though, and one moment I’ll never forget. For that, he is a Laker worth appreciating.