UNCASVILLE, CONNECTICUT — There’s a reason they call him ‘Buckets.’
And if you’re a fan of the Providence Friars, or if you watched LaDontae Henton tear through high school opponents in Lansing, Michigan, for four years, you can probably figure out why: the dude can flat out score the ball.
What you may not know, however, is how he earned that nickname. It dates back almost a decade, back to when Henton was in seventh grade and playing with the U-16 Michigan Mustangs AAU team, back when Henton couldn’t really do all that much on a basketball court. He played exactly the way you would expect a seventh grader to play if he’s thrust onto a floor with 16 year olds. He couldn’t really defend, he couldn’t really rebound, he couldn’t really handle the ball.
What he could do, however, was score, which is why the coaching staff starting calling him Buckets. You know, as in, “that’s the only reason you’re here right now, young’n.”
The name stuck — talk to anyone involved in basketball in the midwest and you’ll never hear him called anything else — as did the ability to score. The 6-foot-6 forward was named first-team all-state four times in high school. He scored more than 2,000 points as a schoolboy — one of just four players from mid-Michigan to do so; Magic Johnson is another — and averaged 22.2 points for his career. He also finished as the fourth-leading rebounder in the history of high school basketball in the state, never averaging less than 14.5 boards in four seasons.
But that wasn’t enough for Henton to garner attention from the big boys from his home state. Michigan never offered. Michigan State never offered, either. Henton was set to head to Dayton to play his college ball, but then Brian Gregory was fired, which is how Ed Cooley was able to land his very first recruit as the head coach at Providence.
It carried over into college, too.
All of it.
Henton has never averaged less than 13.0 points in a season while a Friar, blossoming into arguably the best player in the Big East this season. On Sunday afternoon, in the final of the Hall of Fame Tip-Off at Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut, Henton poured in a career-high 38 points, shooting 14-for-19 from the floor in a 75-74 win over Notre Dame.
He wasn’t just the points, either, as Henton made four critical plays in the final two minutes to lead the Friars to victory. With 1:45 left, he hit a jumper to cut Notre Dame’s lead to 71-70. A minute late, Henton hit a three that put Providence up 73-71. After Notre Dame’s Jerian Grant scored an and-one at the other end to put the Irish back in front, Henton got into the paint and drew a foul, hitting both free throws to put the Friars ahead by the final margin.
Oh, and should I mention that he was able to block Pat Connaughton’s would-be game-winning jumper?
“I’m proud of him,” Cooley said of Henton, who is now averaging 23.5 points on the season. “Today it all came together for him and he had one of those senior moments, and I’m sentimental because of how much I’ve seen this kid grow.”
Henton is growing into the role vacated by Bryce Cotton, who graduated after a similarly under-the-radar career as a Friar. He doesn’t play the same position as Cotton, but he’s the Providence go-to guy. He’s the veteran that they lean on to take a shot in crunch time. He’s the guy they run a play for when the team they’re playing is making a run.
But that doesn’t matter, because just as he was in high school and as he was on the recruiting trail, Henton is still overlooked nationally. We’re no less at fault than anyone. How many preseason all-american teams did Henton get put on? How many times was he mentioned on a ranking of the top 100 players in the country? How many people outside of the confines of the Big East have even heard of him?
“He’s the most underrated kid in the country,” Cooley said.
But Buckets won’t tell you that. He doesn’t want to talk about how underrated he is. He’ll tell a reporter that getting overlooked by the in-state programs while in high school is “a little bit of fuel to the fire” or that he thinks that he’s probably better than his national perception would have you believe, but it’s not something that he wants to discuss at length, not when he gets asked about it all the time.
And he doesn’t need to talk about himself to get people to notice.
“38 points,” he said, “speaks for itself.”