Gerald Henderson was back in the starting lineup Wednesday night against Georgia Tech. Two hours later, the Blue Devils also found themselves back in familiar territory-in the win column in ACC play and tied with North Carolina atop the league's standings.
Those facts are not necessarily cause and effect-both Henderson and Jon Scheyer, Henderson's erstwhile replacement, had strong games in Duke's short break from conference play against St. John's. But with Duke searching for answers after a two-game slide in league play, Henderson, back as a starter against the Yellow Jackets, re-emerged as the star player the Blue Devils need as they march toward postseason play.
Over the first four games after Henderson injured his wrist against North Carolina, the sophomore averaged just six points per game while the Blue Devils went 2-2 in conference play. After dropping 13 off the bench on St. John's, Henderson pitched in for 15 against Georgia Tech, tying DeMarcus Nelson for the game high in a contest in which points were far from easy to come by.
After taking some time to adjust to the lingering soreness in his right wrist, Henderson appears to be back on track-and so does Duke.
"After you practice a little while and play enough games, you realize that you can play with it," Henderson said of the injury, which head coach Mike Krzyzewski has said would require surgery after the season. "It's not keeping me from doing really anything on the court."
That was apparent Wednesday night, as Henderson showed no bashfulness in attacking the rim and shooting the ball. The sophomore punctuated Duke's 10-0 run in the first half with consecutive dunks, one on an alley-oop from Greg Paulus and the next on a putback jam after Paulus missed a shot inside. The plays brought the crowd to its feet and caused Georgia Tech head coach Paul Hewitt to call a timeout.
That type of aggressive athleticism was apparent as Duke rose to No. 2 in the polls but had been missing during the team's recent swoon. After sustaining the injury, Henderson passed up open jump shots and lost his knack for finding his way to the basket. But after four dunks against Georgia Tech, there is plenty of evidence that Henderson's confidence has returned.
More than the resurgence of his acrobatics on offense, though, Henderson's commitment on the defensive end was what proved most impressive.
On three straight possessions early in the second half, Henderson challenged the Georgia Tech passing lanes and caused deflections. On one of them, he stole a pass coming across the top of the key, taking it all the way to the other end for an emphatic one-handed dunk. At the first timeout afterward, Krzyzewski embraced Henderson in the Duke huddle, celebrating a coming-of-age for the sophomore's defensive abilities.
"I was kind of surprised," Henderson said of Krzyzewski's response. "Being around him, he gets real intense and is real passionate about a lot of things. He just got real excited because I made a couple plays there that were key plays in the game."
Krzyzewski praised Henderson's play after the game, saying that his string of defensive plays in the second half were important in Duke pulling away from the Yellow Jackets and coasting for most of the second half.
"That's the best Gerald has ever done," Krzyzewski said. "G made about three plays in a row that kind of broke it open for us. One was the drunk, but then he got a couple steals, too. Those are plays that he hasn't made in the past and it was like all of a sudden the birth of a new talent. It's so exciting when you see a kid do that."
Henderson may not be 100 percent physically-he is still wearing a brace on his right wrist-but he said after the game that he has learned to put the injury out of his mind. That could pay big dividends down the stretch for Duke, which showed in its previous two conference games what can happen without the sophomore playing at his best.
"He hasn't been 100 percent, but he's giving 100-percent effort, and that's all you need," Paulus said. "He was really dynamic out there. Some of his finishes and his plays defensively really gave us a lot of momentum."
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