WASHINGTON, D.C. — Marshall Henderson was the leading scorer in the SEC, averaging 20.1 points, and was one of just 16 players to average more than 20 points last season. Erick Green of Virginia Tech was the only other player in that category to play for a team in one of the six power conferences. Henderson also set an SEC record by hitting 138 three-pointers while leading Ole Miss to their first NCAA tournament since 2002, as he won MVP honors as the Rebels took home the SEC tournament title.
All else aside, Marshall Henderson is a very, very good basketball player.
But no one knows who Henderson is because of what he is capable of doing with a basketball in his hands.
Instead, he became the most polarizing player in college hoops thanks to his on-court antics, his habits off the floor and his past run-ins with the law.
Some of it he can’t get away from. He was caught buying 57 grams of weed with $800 in counterfeit money back in May of 2009. He got probation for that charge, but eventually violated his probation when he tested positive for weed, cocaine and alcohol, landing him 25 days in jail. He flamed out at Utah — where he was dubbed the ‘villain of the Mountain West‘ in part for a punch he threw at BYU’s Jackson Emery — before landing Texas Tech, where he never he played a game. Henderson then spent a season at South Plains Junior College before winding up at Mississippi. Henderson was also kicked off of his high school team, which was coached by his father, as a senior after getting caught at a party with an open container.
Some of it Henderson brings on himself. He became a magnet for attention when a GIF his postgame gestures towards the student section after a win at Auburn went viral. He was then photographed on four different occasions with a drink in hand, one of which came at a bar at 3:30 in the afternoon in Kansas City the day after Ole Miss scored an upset over Wisconsin in the opening round of the NCAA tournament and a day before they were slated to play La Salle for the right to go to the Sweet 16.
“I kind of put myself on the map, as far as trying to get my name out there,” Henderson told NBCSports.com with a smile at the Kevin Durant Skills Academy.
This summer, Henderson has reached a crossroads in his basketball career.
He has a decision to make.
“Everyone knows who I am now.”
But who does Marshall Henderson want to be?
Marshall Henderson is not a dumb kid.
It may not appear that way when he’s running up and down the court screaming at the crowd or when he’s heaving ice cubes into the stands on national television. He comes off as a lunatic, which isn’t necessarily incorrect. But Henderson gets it. He’s self-aware enough to realize that there is nothing that he can do to change the decisions that he’s made in his past, and he understands that those mistakes are the fuel that drives drunk freshmen in opposing student sections.
“People come and attack me, and I don’t even care,” Henderson said. “I know it’s going to happen and I can’t control what people say.”
And to hear Henderson and his coach Andy Kennedy tell it, he can’t control how he reacts to those taunts, either, because it’s the chip on Henderson’s shoulder — the motivation and determination that he derives from getting jeered — that makes him such a competitor. Henderson isn’t a showboat as much as he is passionately competitive to a fault, they say, and that taking that mentally away from him would cripple him as a player.
Some of that is coach-speak, I’ll admit, but there’s a valid point to be made there. One of the complaints that critics make about amateur hoops in America is that the AAU culture has taken away this generation’s competitive spirit. Playing seven or eight games every weekend in the spring and summer in an effort to gain exposure and improve one’s ranking on Rivals has made losing an acceptable by-product of individual success. Henderson cares about his points and his individual accolades, but he’s a fiery competitor, too.
Kennedy tries to channel that passion, but he doesn’t want to suffocate it. His teammates accept it because they see the work he puts in on a day-to-day basis.
“I believe [his intensity] comes from a good place because he’s a son of a coach, he’s grown up in a gym, he loves basketball,” Kennedy told NBCSports.com. “The reason that his teammates embraced it was that they saw it every day.”
“There’s very few who actually know what we do on a day-to-day basis,” Henderson said. “Those are my teammates, my coaches, my good friends.”
Henderson’s also one of the most entertaining players in the country. He’s the bizarro Jimmer Fredette. College basketball needs characters, and if Henderson’s role is that of the villain, he plays it to perfection. It may rub some people the wrong way, but I have no qualms with how he acts on the court.
Where Henderson needs to make a change is off the court.
In the grand scheme of things, the crimes that Henderson has committed are relatively minor. He used counterfeit money to try to buy weed. He violated his probation because he got drunk and high and did some coke. You wouldn’t want to see your daughter dating a guy like that, but he’s not Aaron Hernandez or Josh Brent.
At the end of the day, Henderson is living the dream of every frat boy across the country. He’s enjoying college the way that all of the moralizers on twitter enjoyed college. He pounds Coors Light, he plays beer pong, and he just so happens to be quite proficient at firing 25-footers with reckless abandon, only his games are on ESPN, not in campus intramural leagues.
I wish I could have lived my life like that in college.
“Many times I’m envious of maybe his free spirit,” Kennedy said, “because he seems to be having more fun than I am.”
But Henderson also has a senior season to worry about and a professional career to work towards, and that’s why he needs to make a change.
“Off the floor, he’s the lone senior on a team coming back from 27 wins,” Kennedy said, “and with that comes some responsibility. In year one, you’re trying to figure things out for yourself. In year two, as a senior, you’ve got to lead by your actions. And you’ve also got to be there for the younger guys, to mentor them along if our team’s going to have a chance to be successful.”
Henderson wants to play professionally after college. He thinks he has a shot of making an NBA roster, but for that to happen, he needs to shed the image of being an out-of-control college kid. If Allen Iverson and JR Smith have proven anything, it’s that there is a place for you in the NBA if you party hard if you’re talented enough. Marshall Henderson isn’t JR Smith, and he certainly isn’t Allen Iverson.
Is Henderson ready to make that change?
“All I can do is just focus, take it one day ahead and move on,” he said. “Just keep proving to people that yes, I was a dumbass, and I may have been more extreme than others, but you can’t change that, just go one day at a time.”
And maybe not.
“I think if anything it can help me. I can kind of, maybe not exactly change my ways, but it can seen as if I did. Just keep my nose clean for the meantime, and they can be like, ‘Oh, look, he matured.'”
It’s his choice to make.
You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.