Overlooked in California, late bloomer Jaden Henley joins Gophers
A sophomore season on the JV team, followed by a growth spurt, changed the trajectory for the 6-7 wing
If a major college basketball prospect isn’t a prodigy, he’s often at least precocious, giving hints or outright signs of future stardom. Jaden Henley’s rise was dinged when he spent his sophomore season at Colony High School in Ontario, Calif., on the junior varsity squad.
“I feel like it lit a fire under me,” Henley told the Pioneer Press in an interview this week.
Over the next two years, Henley got hot alright, grew from 6-foot-2 to 6-7, starred on the varsity team over the next two seasons and signed a national letter of intent with the Gophers men’s basketball program on Wednesday.
“We’re really excited about Jaden and think he’s got a big future ahead of him,” Minnesota head coach Ben Johnson said in a statement. “What stood out to us when we recruited him was his size, length and versatility. He’s got a great first step and is a Big Ten, Power Five athlete (who) will continue to get better.”
Henley joins three Minnesota natives in the Gophers’ 2022 recruiting class: Park Center guard Braeden Carrington, Park of Cottage Grove forward Pharrel Payne and forward Joshua Ola-Joseph, who played at Osseo before transferring this season to Compass Prep in Chandler, Ariz. That trio signed in November.
Henley, again, was a bit fashionably late. He had only one scholarship offer, from San Diego State, when the Gophers showed interest in late 2021.
U assistant coach Marcus Jenkins heard about Henley from Devin Ugland, a reporter for Prep Hoops, and soon traveled to Ontario, which is 35 miles east of Los Angeles. Johnson made a follow-up visit for Colony’s Turkey Shootout the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
Johnson’s trip surprised Colony’s Jerry de Fabiis, a seasoned head coach with more than 500 wins across 22 seasons.
“I was super impressed with coach Johnson,” de Fabiis said. “I think too many coaches rely on these (recruiting) services. I think too many of these coaches rely on travel coaches, and I think what stood out to me is he told me, ‘My eyes don’t lie to me.’ …
“He didn’t need somebody else to tell him that he should take this guy. He relied on his own ability as an evaluator of talent to understand the game of basketball and to fit guys into his system.”
Henley, considered a three-star recruit, was seriously considered by only one in-state Division I program, the Aztecs.
“I think coach Johnson is a little bit more of an old-school recruiter,” de Fabiis said. “He goes to try to find some of the diamonds in the rough, some of these guys that might be overlooked. I think that is going to bode well for Minnesota (to) not worry that this kid has only been offered by this team, or this player has had such-and-such amount of offers. It’s can the kid play or not? Coach Johnson saw that he could.”
De Fabiis described Henley as a “jack of all trades,” with good shooting range, ability to drive to the basket and be a “pretty darn good passer.”
“I think I’m a guy who is fun to watch,” Henley said. “I think I’m a guy who is going to keep the energy going inside The Barn.”
As a senior, Henley averaged 17.2 points, 6.1 rebounds, 2.4 assist and 2.5 steals for Colony (25-3) and rose to be the No. 3-rated recruit in the California, per Prep Hoops.
While Henley was put on JV as a sophomore, he was still lauded on Prep Hoops’ sophomore watch list and was playing in an older age group with AAU team, Team Inland. Part of the reason he didn’t make varsity that seasons was because Colony had plenty of older talent, including Denim Dawson, a freshman at Nebraska, and Brenton Knapper, a freshman at Santa Clara.
“Like I tell a lot of the kids, go out there and prove me wrong,” de Fabiis said. “Go out there and tear it up on the JV level and make me look foolish. I have no problem with that.”
Henley said he has lived in the gym to make improvements.
“I picked (the brains of) people I saw who were going to the next level. I looked at the small things: working hard, diving on the floor for loose balls … and keeping my basketball IQ as high as possible.”
Henley upgraded his shooting ability and range from his junior to senior seasons. “His athleticism improved immensely to his senior year, to where he is catching lobs and driving and dunking on people,” de Fabiis said. “His ability to finish through contact, that was a big thing. His junior year he wasn’t as able to finish through contact.”
The growth spurts didn’t hurt, either. After being 6-2 as a sophomore, he went to 6-5 as a junior and says he is nearly 6-8 now. With another Jaden on the team, Henley, who weighs 190 pounds, earned the nickname “Stretch.”
“He kept growing,” de Fabiis said. “It was a great nickname.”
De Fabiis said the thing he will remember most about Henley was his ability to be coached.
“We are kind of in an age now where, when you get on these kids, they don’t want to take hard coaching,” de Fabiis said “Sometimes you don’t get that from a lot of kids. They look down at the ground or away from you. They are upset that you are getting on them. (But) Jaden will look you dead in the eye. He will listen to you. He will say, ‘OK, coach. I got you, coach.’ … He takes hard coaching.”
Having the support of Henley’s parents made de Fabiis’ decision to put Henley on JV easier.
“I feel like one thing that coaches always told me is that it’s not how they say it, it’s what they’re saying,” Henley shared. “Basketball is an intense game and people yell; that is just how it goes. If you listen to what they are saying and keep it going, you’ll be fine.”