The uncompromising ambition of Scoot Henderson

"This was a cool moment watching the photoshoot happen; it felt like it was happening in slow motion. This was right before fans realized who he was -- things kind of unraveled around him." - H.A. Jasmin Shah for ESPN

SCOOT HENDERSON WILL have to earn his buckets the hard way tonight, it seems.

At the Gateway Center in College Park, Georgia, there are almost 1,500 people scattered around the arena's 3,500 seats, some with their legs hanging down onto the seat in front of them, and at least two people stretched out horizontally across multiple seats. It's quiet enough to hear the symphonic nuances of the game with alarming clarity: The squeaky starts and stops of sneakers; the trash talk; the frustrated exchanges between teammates; and also the ferocity of a foul. One that, in this specific case, sends Henderson crashing to the floor, relaying a small echo throughout the arena.

It's early March, and the G League season is winding down. It has been a long one for Henderson, now in his second season with G League's Ignite. Everyone knows this is his last go with the Ignite before he becomes a top-three pick in the NBA draft that has enough talent to redefine the league's future for the next decade. Accordingly, there was an energy in the arena before the game, an energy that rang familiar to me, an Ohioan of a similar age to LeBron James who would sometimes arrive early to watch his high school team warm up. People had arrived at College Park early today, too, to get as close as they could to the loosely guarded baselines, hoping to catch a look at Henderson, the 6-foot-2, 196-pound guard who played high school ball at Carlton J. Kell.

To their disappointment, he didn't show his face until right before game time, and he emerged seemingly locked in, impervious to the noise. Now, an hour later, what little buzz was palpable in the arena is gone as we've hit the second half of a game that has offered little in the way of defense. After being helped up following the foul, Henderson makes both free throws, and the game drearily carries on. Both the Ignite and their opponent, the College Park Skyhawks, show the wear of the season, though the Ignite players are cloaked in it a bit more heavily. They are 9-15, and have lost their last two by double figures. Tonight is careening toward a similar result.

It's worth unraveling the how and why of Scoot Henderson, what he's even doing here, and where he's headed. He's the youngest American player in history to ever go pro, joining the Ignite at 17. He comes from a familial basketball lineage that suggested that he'd never been anyone other than who he is now. A brand-building teenager who can't imagine any world where he isn't the No. 1 pick, who isn't reading your columns and analysis that suggests otherwise. He knows he's got it, alternate realities and Victor Wembanyama be damned.

Despite the fact that the past five NBA MVPs have gone to three players 6-11 or taller, despite the fact that Wembanyama is a marvel, sending the mind wandering with flights of fascination -- the guards will always say it is a guard's game. And so yes, while Victor will go first, and will do so at a level of hype and expectation that will guarantee some form of immortality or infamy, just know that Scoot Henderson too has big plans. Plans to redefine his position, and by extension the game. Plans to redefine the path to the NBA in the first place.

He's here now, in College Park, putting those plans to the test. Because to play in the G League is to play against grown men. Some of whom have been to the league and know what it takes. Some of whom are fighting to get back, no matter the stakes. Some of whom are distinctly aware that in a game with a young, future NBA star, there are going to be scouts watching. Henderson has to get everything the hard way.

In the paint, Silva and Tyrese Martin collapse on him immediately, not letting him reach a takeoff point. He's dared to shoot beyond the 3-point line. He's double-teamed on the perimeter. Even when the game is seemingly out of reach, Henderson is still fighting, and the Skyhawks are still fighting him. He finishes with 17 points, seven assists, and five rebounds, but he's also got five turnovers, and his 17 points came on 19 shots.

None of the fans filing out of the arena know this yet, but they've just watched Scoot Henderson play in a G League Ignite uniform for the final time.

IN THE LOBBY of the team's hotel the next morning, shortly before the Ignite announce they are shutting down Henderson for the season, he looks exhausted. But as he stretches out his legs along the carpet in a conference room now, there's also a sense of relief that he is close to home.

We're less than 30 miles from Marietta, Georgia, where Henderson was born and raised. From his locker room, he watched his younger sister, Moochie, play in her high school game before playing in his own game. When I tell him that I hear she broke his school scoring record, Henderson laughs a little, and then beams with pride. "Yeah, well. My record wasn't that many points. I wanna say it was like 1,700," he shrugs, before slowly shaking his head, the smile returning. "But she got over two bands though. 2,300."

Basketball is the planet the Henderson family revolves around. Scoot is one of seven siblings: Two older brothers, CJ and Jade, three older sisters, Diamond, Onyx and China, and a younger sister, Crystal (who goes by "Moochie"). His sisters Onyx and China played at Cal State Fullerton, and his sister Diamond played at Tennessee Tech and Syracuse. All of his sisters now assist him in building his brand: Onyx helps in keeping up his social media, China in styling his outfits, and Diamond acting as his "chief of staff." Meanwhile, Moochie is a top-rated point guard in her class. All of them were coached by their father, Chris.

"You know Joe Jackson, like the Jackson Five dad?" Chris Henderson asks me over the phone. When I confirm that, yes, the name rings a bell, Chris replies. "Well, I'm kinda like the Joe Jackson of basketball." And then, through a raucous laugh, he follows up, "Less severe, but yeah."

The benefit of raising a family of high-level basketball players, Chris and his wife Crystal both tell me, is that you don't have to work hard to build up their competitiveness. If enough of your kids are already doing one specific thing at a high level, the others won't want to be left behind. "Scoot was always a student of the game," Crystal says. "At two years old, he had to come with us to his older sister's games, and he would watch, and it helped his IQ a lot. When Chris started training him, he already had picked up so much of the game just from watching at a young age."

Chris weighs in. "And look, when we train, we're not just training to train. I tell all my kids, if you're not doing it to be the best, we're not going to do it. I didn't want any second-place trophies in my house. If we went to a tournament and got a second-place trophy, it wasn't coming home with us. I had to create that culture in my household. Either we are going to be the best or we're just going to be everybody else."

Despite now being one of the most highly sought-after trainers in his area, Chris didn't play high school basketball. And, according to Scoot, he only ever played casually with friends. "He's just a real student," Scoot says. "I'll wake up, go upstairs, and then I see him just watch a lot of basketball. He got a little notepad that I seen him just working in. He's a student in the game, it's real scary how locked in he is -- it be all night."

When he was going into ninth grade, Henderson's parents established a gym, Next Play 360, in Marietta, which became a hub for developing all of the Henderson siblings. This marked a turning point for Scoot. Before then, he had been playing both basketball and football. After the gym opened, he turned completely to basketball, spending all of his time after school and during summers in the Next Play 360 gym, working with his father. By his junior year, he'd reclassified to the 2021 class, and signed a two-year, $1 million contract with G League Ignite, making him the youngest player in the league's history.

His teammates are blown away by his talent. Erik Mika was a star at BYU in 2017 and had largely bounced around overseas until the Ignite recruited him to play this season. He tells a story of a play in practice that "lives rent-free in my brain," when one of his teammates went up for a layup during a two-on-one drill. As Mika tells it: "The layup was high-arching, it had to be at least twelve feet in the air. And Scoot just -- I swear, he came out of nowhere -- got all the way up and just smashed it against the backboard. And THEN, he gets the ball, comes back down to the other end for the two-on-one, takes off one foot inside the free throw line and just floats to the basket for a dunk. So, in the span of 20 seconds, I saw two of the most athletic plays I've seen in my entire life."

John Jenkins, who had stints in Atlanta, Dallas, Phoenix, Washington and New York before playing with the Ignite this season, is from the same area as Scoot, and had heard the stories of him about how driven he was. He says that Henderson lived up to his rep, showing up to gym four hours before game time, rebounding his own misses, working on defensive footwork. Not coincidentally, Jenkins says: "His playmaking has taken a leap this year. He knows when to pick his spots, slow down, pick his spots, when to get someone else involved. All the things he needs in the league, he got better at."

Stretching out in the hotel lobby now, Henderson insists that the journey with Ignite has been long, but the time has simultaneously gone by very quickly. When we talk, he speaks of the time in a past tense, which, perhaps, should have been some foreshadowing. He expresses gratitude to Pooh Jeter, a player-coach of sorts, who mentored him through the two years. "I've been blessed to have these opportunities, to get extra access to places, to be in buildings that other draft prospects would love to be in. But it's still a grind, especially more off the court. We get schooled at the business of basketball. We have to learn stuff that a lot of people don't know about." He pauses for a moment, and leans back reflectively. "And sometimes it is annoying if you really think about it. But it's what you need to know going into your job for the next 10-plus years."

Turning pro as a 17-year-old is a fulfillment of a reality that many young basketball players know: Basketball is your job, often your only job. But basketball as the only job, serves Henderson well in this moment, where his laser focus is sparing him from any of the several whirlwinds of media analysis and speculation. He insists that he hasn't looked at any draft boards because there's no need. It doesn't matter what they say. He wants to go No. 1, and so the math is simple. He's working on his leadership, being more vocal when his team is in a drought. He only listens to people who are a part of NBA teams, or who have been there before. He doesn't really follow many of his peers in this draft class. He knows Brandon Miller, Anthony Black, Nick Smith. He checks in on them but doesn't get too involved.

While Henderson repeats the same refrain ("I want to go No. 1. I don't want anyone to think I'm solid at No. 2") there is the towering, ever-present threat to that goal: Victor Wembanyama, who projects unanimously to be the first pick in the draft. Henderson and Wembanyama famously faced off in October. Wembanyama stole the headlines, scoring 37 points on a series of impressive shots for someone of his 7-2 size. But the Ignite got the win, and Henderson put up 28 points on 11-for-21 shooting. When I bring up Wembanyama, Henderson is more ambivalent than dismissive.

"I mean, he's just like another draft prospect. Obviously, his height and unique ability to shoot the ball at that size is ... I don't know, I'm not guarding him, so I can't say too much."

When I ask Henderson what it was like to be on the court with Wembanyama, he shrugs.

"It was cool, I guess. Pretty sure it's cool to be on the court with me too, though."

OUTSIDE OF THE WINTRUST CENTER in Chicago, a man waves a large photo of Scoot Henderson in frustration, while being gently talked down and walked back onto the sidewalk. "I have been out here waiting," he says, exasperated. "I just got a few more things, just one more thing." A member of Henderson's team politely repeats: "You've already got two, he's already signed two, that's it, come on man."

When the exchange eventually dies down, the man sulks off, defeated, before looking at the two Scoot Henderson signatures already in his possession and nodding with satisfaction. The member of Scoot's team looks over at me and sighs. "We shouldn't have come outside."

It is the first day of the NBA draft combine and also the day of the NBA draft lottery, and Henderson had been largely sequestered in the gym, watching some of his Ignite teammates go through their individual measurements, vertical jump, shuttle, things of that nature. He emerged from the side door of the arena concourse briefly, onto a sparsely populated sidewalk that wouldn't remain sparsely populated for long. He stopped, first, for one autograph. And then, due to his stopping, people simply began to accumulate from places that I couldn't even locate. I'd look down for a moment, look up, and there would be three more people, Scoot at the center of the crowd, smiling and graciously thanking people for their time while signing his name and handing cards, and posters, and scraps of paper back through the mass of hands.

After leaving behind the slightly disappointed straggler, Scoot and I sit in a quiet corner of the food court where he can shrink a bit more and get to work on some leftover Chipotle. When I ask him how much of that attention he's been getting, he shakes his head, smiling. "First time I got to the airport, they was there. Last night when we got back from getting food. Dang, it's been a lot."

It has been almost exactly two months since we'd last spoken, and in the time between, Henderson briefly shut down all media access while he worked and got ready for the draft. He's lighter today than he was in March, walking with a bounce in his step, talking in longer, more circuitous routes where he'll sometimes stop himself mid-story and talk himself into or out of an aside.

"I'm just trying to continue a legacy," he says, nodding while sifting through rice with a plastic fork. "My siblings all left legacies behind their name. If you go back home to Marietta, everybody know who my sister Diamond is before they know me. I always looked up to my brother CJ. I looked up to how hard he worked. That comes out in my workouts now. Being so young, watching them grow up and watching them train. ..." He trails off here, stopping for a moment to drop his fork in his bowl. "It's kinda like I'm watching myself right now. So, it's fun."

Henderson says that with the help of his sisters, he's building "a whole enterprise, a whole empire." He tugs at his red button-up shirt and tells me "My sister China, she's my stylist, she put together this whole fit I got on right now." Diamond helps with his social media, growing his fanbase. He refers to his sister Onyx as his chief of staff, the person he keeps close to keep his days in check, remind him when to eat, drink, when it's time to go to bed. Brother CJ joins their father in helping Scoot train.

Any path to the top is going to come with his family beside him, he insists. He's trademarked a motto, "O.D.D." ("Only Determined to Dominate") which he hopes will define his arc. "I'm on an odd pathway that nobody has ever been on. And I'm prepared for the job. I think everyone should be O.D.D., mentally-wise. Be overly determined to dominate whatever it is in life you want to do."

There are moments, like this, where Henderson can veer into what some could read as motivational speaker-talk, but there's no real put-on; he genuinely believes in his approach to the world because he's basking in the results of them. At one point, in the midst of talking age and numbers, he gets granular: "Most guys start on this kind of path of building things at around 25. And I'm starting out at 19, which is a blessing, but also I have the right people around me."

Of course, draft boards have shifted since we last spoke too, with Brandon Miller now the odds-on favorite to go No. 2 after Wemby. But Henderson claims to not be concerned with any of that. He's in a mode where he's controlling what he can control and letting the rest wash away. He's locking in on his attention to detail, his shooting. He's working on his leadership, taking lessons that he learned from his time at Ignite with Pooh Jeter, who he refers to as his "Brother/Uncle." He insists that he has spent time practicing talking while dribbling, or talking out loud, very literally finding his leadership voice.

But the work isn't all there is. There's also the more frivolous branches of Scoot Henderson's massive tree of dreaming. The kind of things that you might expect a 19-year-old on the verge of (even further) life-changing financial gain to be eager about. Henderson, couldn't drive two years ago, for example. "I never really had to drive anywhere," he says. He got his driver's permit after his first G League season, a test which he claims he passed easily, without even having to study. He practiced driving with his mom, which he laughs about now ("She'd always be on me to slow down, you know how it be when your parents with you. It's so chaotic.") All of this, finally, resulting in him getting his driver's license, for which he's got big plans.

"My DREAM car???" he exclaims, when I casually mention that he can now drive and will soon have the ability to fill a driveway with vehicles. "My DREAM car..." he says again, as though he's just considering it for the first time, tapping his fingers on the table in small, measured beats.

"Rolls Royce Cullinan. I'mma get me one of those one day." He grins wide, staring a bit beyond me, into the empty street over my shoulder.

These are the personality points that, as a fan, you hope Scoot Henderson never loses. There's an intensity that cloaks his on-court presence and persona. He locks in, using a simple approach: People are out there working hard, and I've got to work harder than they are. No one can work harder than me. But off the court, there's a switch that flips, and he's a kid living a miracle, enjoying the sweetness of it. The first time we talked, he wanted to talk to me about the books he was reading ("The Secret," among them.) He wanted to talk about his two dogs, two young pitbulls he takes care of. He wanted to talk about how he'd just finished the Harry Potter movies, and was diving into the Hogwarts video game. In Chicago, when I ask him if he found the time to beat the game, he nods and tells me he's on to Dead Island. We commiserate on how slow-moving the game is ("It's like a long way to get a gun just to kill the zombies," he mutters, shaking his head.)

He's also been playing 2K and joyfully wrestling with the surreal nature that he's going to be in the game himself next year. He excitedly goes on a sprint of language and arm movements, telling me about how he and his brother used to create custom teams and create players. Then, there's a switch that cuts off the slightly unbridled nature of reminiscing. "It's gonna be surreal, but ... I work for it, so it isn't a surprise. I knew I was going to be in 2K because I knew I was going to work hard to be in the league."

And all of that is true. There is certainly a mindset (and a work ethic aligning with that mindset) that will serve Scoot Henderson well. But in the moments between now and whatever happens on the night of the draft, he's still propelled by a type of charming disbelief that I hope never fully washes away.

There was a brief moment, after he was hustled inside and away from the autograph seekers, when we sat down across from each other, and before I asked anything, he laughed, and put his head in both his hands for a moment, his fingers stretching up into his neatly piled hair.

"It's so crazy, bro. Life is so crazy. I would have never thought in a billion years...I knew I was going to do SOMETHING, but I ... I just never thought I was going to come to be the person I am to people."