His lungs were on fire.
He had run from baseline to baseline, on a court that had splashes of black and red and the printed words of his mantra: Overly Determined to Dominate. At each end of the court, he had caught a pass and taken a shot. He needed this one to slice through the net.
As a trainer passed to him, Scoot Henderson imagined that it was the end of a playoff game and that he had just stolen the basketball. He could barely breathe, so he could barely jump to shoot. The ball bounced off the rim.
He replayed the scenario, and this time he made the shot. He sank onto the first row of aluminum stands lining the court at his family’s gym north of Atlanta.
Henderson had resisted the teenage urge to hit the snooze button on his 7:30 alarm that morning just so he could feel this way. He was exhausted and excited, focused on building “grown-man strength” for his looming transition to the N.B.A.
At 19 years old, Henderson had already been a professional basketball player for two years by this day in the middle of May. He graduated from high school in 2021, a year early, to start an apprenticeship with the Ignite, a pro team for elite prospects in the N.B.A.’s developmental G League. Now he was finished with that and getting ready to head to Chicago for the N.B.A. draft combine and lottery with his family.
The lottery, which awarded the first four picks to San Antonio, Charlotte, Portland and Houston, offered a glimpse of his future. Henderson, a 6-foot-2 guard, has long been projected as the No. 2 pick in Thursday’s draft, after the 7-4 French star Victor Wembanyama. Henderson thinks he should be No. 1. His workout showed hints of why.
Minutes after his shooting drill, he was lying on a purple yoga mat, shirtless in beige athletic shorts and black Puma sneakers. He placed one leg against the aluminum stands, raised the other leg at a right angle and lifted his core.
“This one right here will wake you with a cramp in the middle of the night while you’re sleeping,” Brandon Payne, a trainer who has worked with Stephen Curry for years, said of the exercise. Another trainer who was shadowing Payne kept the time on an iPad.
“Forty seconds,” the timer said. Henderson breathed deeply.
“Thirty seconds.” Henderson clenched his fists.
Get stronger, Henderson thought. The game, he had learned over the past two years, was more physical, more urgent when it involved men trying to feed their families instead of high schoolers out for fun.
“Fifteen seconds.” Henderson furrowed his brow.
After two more reps, the trainer shadowing Payne collected Henderson’s sweat-soaked mat and quipped, “Turned that thing into a towel.”
A Path to the N.B.A.
Henderson slid into the driver’s seat of his black Chevrolet Tahoe and closed the door beside him. He was on his way to the barbershop after his grueling workout at Next Play 360, the gym his parents, Chris and Crystal, own in Marietta, Ga. He was used to the physical and mental pressure of lifting weights and perfecting his jump shot. Driving his Tahoe was another thing.
He had passed his driver’s license test the year before, but now cutting across two lanes of traffic to turn left onto Canton Road gave him pause. Henderson edged the S.U.V. into the intersection, thought twice and reversed. He waited until traffic cleared in both directions and then hit the gas.
He is one of seven children, ages 17 to 31, and Chris and Crystal always tell them not to be timid. Be the bold person making mistakes, they said, not the one slouched over at home with regrets. That’s what Scoot was thinking when he finished high school at 17 and skipped college for the G League.
Never before have so many arteries been open for basketball prodigies — college, the G League, Overtime Elite, overseas teams — to journey into the N.B.A. A picture near the front doors of the Hendersons’ gym memorializes Scoot’s choice: He’s playing in an Ignite game last season, his arms a little leaner. He had walked past it on his way to the barbershop, today’s more chiseled arms hidden beneath the long sleeves of a fresh black shirt with the word “trailblazer” on the front next to a skeleton riding a motorcycle.
Skipping college wasn’t the easy choice (though it surely helped that the Ignite reportedly paid him $1 million for his two seasons). But it will pay off in a big way if, as expected, his name is one of the first few N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver calls at the draft on Thursday and he signs a deal for tens of millions of dollars. But that also adds to the pressure.
While Scoot had been working out, a recent No. 2 draft pick, Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant, came up in conversation at the gym. The day before, the Grizzlies had suspended Morant indefinitely after he had displayed a gun during an Instagram Live video for the second time in just over two months. Morant had apologized and been suspended for the first incident. Scoot and his friend questioned why Morant would ever need to hold a gun.
“That looks bad,” Scoot said of the latest incident, “after you say you changed.”
The Henderson Family
Around noon, Scoot pulled into a shopping center in downtown Marietta. He eased into a parking spot and then walked to a barbershop between a deli and a martial arts studio. The inside of the shop smelled of leather and lavender, and a fan circulated the humid air. “SportsCenter” played highlights in the background.
Henderson had wanted to get his hair braided, but time before his flight was running short.
“Are you or do you know anyone interested in buying or selling a home?” read a sign above the chair of Ervin Williams Jr., who is also a real estate agent, as he used clippers to taper the edges of Henderson’s hair and shape up his hairline.
Henderson scrolled through his iPhone.
“Who you got in the finals?” Williams asked.
“Denver versus Philly,” Henderson said. “Sorry, I meant Boston.”
Williams finished nearly a half-hour later, though it mostly looked as if he had never begun. No matter: Henderson felt that fresh-cut confidence, ready to be on television the next day.
He stopped at home to finish packing and met his family back at the gym.
Scoot has surrounded himself with family members. Moochie, Scoot’s youngest sister, was at the gym practicing her shot; she will be playing at Georgia State University in the fall. Crystal rushed between her house and the gym so many times that she seemed to be at both places at once. One sister is Scoot’s stylist. One is his assistant. Another is helping him build up his social media profile. A brother lives and often trains with him.
Onyx, the assistant, and Diamond, the social media strategist who was now carrying one of her brother’s suits, climbed into an awaiting Mercedes Sprinter van with their parents. Scoot hopped in, carrying a bag of chips and a sports drink.
Tall red maple and oak trees ebbed as Atlanta’s downtown skyscrapers appeared and disappeared along Interstate 75.
Chris and Crystal are Long Islanders raised under the sirens of the rap group Public Enemy. Chris is the type of New Yorker whose Timberland steel-toed boots crunched snow-covered asphalt as he hooped with his brood of cousins. But he had visited relatives in Georgia, and the area’s affordability and weather pulled him south. Crystal, who thought the trek from Long Island to Harlem was too far, had to be persuaded to join him.
Now they are getting accustomed to hopping onto airplanes as easily as they once crammed into the family car.
Crystal asked Scoot if he had his ID.
Scoot patted his gray sweatpants as though he had forgotten it.
“Stop playing,” Crystal said.
The Hendersons only sort of remember how they got their distinctive nicknames like Scoot, Bootchie and Moochie, and they rarely miss a chance to make fun of one another.
The siblings kidded Chris about being out of shape. He said he had meant to start working out harder, but he had messed up his shoulder.
“This is y’all fault,” he declared, rubbing his right arm. “This is years and years of rebounding.”
Left unsaid as the van neared the airport was the importance of the trip — that Scoot was inching ever closer to his destination — that his life, and in turn, theirs, would be upended, a little bit of the unknown finally becoming known.
Instead, the van’s conversation mostly revolved around food.
No one understands why Scoot still won’t eat red sauces, an abstinence that began when he was a toddler and his older brother Jade had chased him around with a ketchup bottle.
Spaghetti? Makes his stomach curl.
Bolognese? Can’t stand the smell.
All dishes are inevitably compared with food in New York.
“Might have to go back to Long Island,” Scoot said of when the family attends the draft in Brooklyn, eyeing an opportunity to visit his favorite pastrami spot. “Might have to make that trip again.”
‘Gives Me Confidence’
The Hendersons emptied out of the van at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport around 4 p.m.
The buttery scent of pretzels lured Scoot to Auntie Anne’s — “They always get me,” he said — and he then found a seat outside Gate 21 for United Airlines. Aside from his black Louis Vuitton backpack, covered in a fluorescent teal pattern of the brand’s logo, Scoot almost looked like any other teenager taking a trip with his family.
He asked Crystal if he could borrow her phone charger.
“Listen, son, that is mine,” she said. “Do I need to put my Social Security on it?”
“It’s mine,” Scoot said. “You borrowed it from me a long time ago.”
“Don’t be like that,” she said, handing it to him.
Scoot slid his headphones over his head, and listened to the Georgia rappers Kash Kani and Lil Crank.
“They don’t rap about good things, but it kind of just makes me turn up a little bit, gives me confidence,” he said sheepishly.
After a short delay, the plane was ready for boarding a little after 6 p.m. Scoot found his first-class seat, 3F, and slipped a mask over his face. He said a couple of teammates had caught the coronavirus on a flight during the season. He listened to music and drifted to sleep shortly after takeoff.
About two hours later, he was at O’Hare International Airport, and a pack of autograph seekers were calling his name.
He waited for his luggage at Baggage Claim 14, startled that they knew who he was. Crystal side-eyed a few of them as they approached, but Scoot politely and hastily scribbled his name with Sharpie pens on hats and basketballs.
A sky the color of cotton candy greeted the family outside the airport.
“We all made it here safe and sound,” Chris said.
“That’s all that matters,” Crystal said.
The sky fell into different shades of dark blue as the van climbed through congestion, marching toward Chicago’s skyscrapers. The discussion returned to food and, most pressing, what they would eat that evening.
The van turned off the highway and onto surface streets. An elevated train rumbled above.
They phoned an Asian cuisine bistro called Tao. Scoot ordered lamb.
“Scoot, you eat lamb chops now?” Diamond asked.
“It’s steak,” he said.
“It’s not steak,” she said. “It’s literally lamb.”
More signature seekers awaited Scoot when he arrived a little after 9 p.m. at the entrance to his hotel. Scoot offered to take selfies but found no takers and made his way inside.
He checked in at the reception desk and then took the elevator to his room on the 27th floor. He had asked for a high floor, and his windows revealed a slice of Lake Michigan. Heights bother him somewhat, but not enough to bypass this view.
He would spend the next day doing interviews and talking with Silver, the commissioner, before the draft lottery at night. He had heard enough of the chatter about Wembanyama, who everyone said was the de facto first pick. It was the same chirping that had filled TV and social media when Scoot and Wembanyama met in two exhibition games in Nevada in October.
In the first game, Wembanyama scored 37 points for his French team, Metropolitans 92. Scoot dropped a team-high 28 points for the Ignite and departed with a win.
All the talk made Scoot want to hurry back into the gym.