Adam Huffman knows Jashon Henry better than almost anyone.
He coached the Saskatoon player on Saskatchewan’s under-16 basketball team and the next year on the province’s under-17 team. He saw a scary-good athlete, and a young man who was dealing with adversity.
He’s not surprised Henry will be playing this week in March Madness, the granddaddy of all college basketball tournaments in the United States.
“Jashon was a freak athletically,” Huffman said from Calgary, where he coaches elite young players after three years at Notre Dame in Wilcox. “He was the strongest kid I had seen at that age ever. He was explosive, but kind of leaning on athletic ability. I looked at him and really felt if he was given more in his tool kit he could reach levels no one in Saskatchewan that I’d seen in the last 15 years could reach.”
It was tough love.
“With our provincial team of U-17, we had a rough end to the summer. I benched him for the whole second half in the final game and he was a few points away from setting the scoring record.
“He wasn’t rebounding, saving his energy to score. I subbed him . . . and he sulked. We were down 20 and made an exciting comeback with Jashon on
the bench. We brought it within six, but couldn’t get over the hump. There’s no doubt in my mind we would have won had I put him back in, but I felt the lesson would have been lost.
“I found out later he was a few points away from the tournament record. I still don’t regret it.”
Away from the court, Henry’s father, Claude, was dying of cancer. It was taking a toll on Henry, as it would with anybody, let alone a teenager. Claude was more than a father. He was Henry’s coach, mentor and friend.
Henry considered giving up basketball as his father’s illness progressed. He decided to leave St. Joseph High School in Saskatoon after his Grade 11 year and enroll down the street at Centennial Collegiate, where he would have been ineligible to play, Huffman said.
Huffman told Henry about the National Prep Association that Notre Dame was entering.
“I said here is your chance to do something big with your potential.”
Huffman said there were hard feelings in Saskatoon when Henry enrolled at Notre Dame. Huffman was accused of stealing Henry. Those people didn’t know the full story, he said. Without Huffman reaching out, Henry’s high school basketball career was over.
“He was in a place where he was really struggling with his dad’s health and his future in the sport,” Huffman said. “Did he really want it? Jashon was so talented, but did he really love it. Everyone looked at him and said, ‘Does he know how good he could be?’”
Huffman was happy his decision to bench Henry in that U-17 game didn’t come back to bite him.
“I took a huge risk by really trying to hold him to a high standard and I risked losing him, the No. 1 prospect on my recruiting list. But I was trying to do what was right by the kid. Ultimately, he still came.”
Henry’s Grade 12 season was good on the court, but he lost his father in May 2017, two weeks before graduating.
As he battled through the sadness, calls started coming from recruiters far and wide.
“Everyone wanted Jashon; every prep school in the States was trying to get their hands on him. He had every (Canadian university) trying to get him to come out early.”
The young man had a decision to make. His mother, Stacey Schneider, Huffman and Henry sat down and discussed his options.
“We thought he really needed support, someone who was going to be in his corner, like regularly, every day. That is what they thought I could provide for him.”
Henry decided to play his prep season — the year after graduating from high school — at Notre Dame.
The coach and player became close. So close, in fact, that Henry facetimed Huffman minutes after the Bradley Braves advanced to March Madness. In the screen grab, Henry is wearing a championship hat that was doled out at the buzzer. A piece of netting is hanging from it. It is a photo of pure joy; a goofy teenager sharing the moment with his friend.
Henry has said Huffman — or Huff, as he calls him — has been like a father to him. He said he and his family are grateful that Huffman was there to help them through their adversity.
Huffman said the summer after Henry’s Grade 12 season brought another turning point in the young man’s basketball career and in life. Henry became Huffman’s assistant coach on an under-15 provincial boys’ team that would ultimately win a bronze medal at nationals.
Henry had been offered spots on all these teams in North America. The sponsored teams would pay his expenses. Yet there he was, proudly coaching 15-year-old boys in his home province.
“Winning that bronze medal was the happiest I had seen him on a basketball court. And he was a coach.”
The prep league is for travelling teams. With most of the teams based in Ontario, it meant flying to tournaments for the Saskatchewan team. With a limited budget, Notre Dame didn’t get out on the road and play as often as the Eastern teams. They spent time honing their games in a gym.
Henry had a big year, averaging 28 points, seven rebounds and 2.4 assists per game. He was virtually unstoppable when he drove to the hoop — YouTube him. He was named the league’s MVP.
After that season, Henry was rated the No. 9 player in Canada. It seemed like a sure thing that he would be wined and dined, and offered scholarships from all kinds Division I schools in the U.S. Take your pick, Jashon.
Henry’s mother and Huffman stepped out of their comfort zones to try to make it happen.
“We didn’t know a lot about being an NCAA qualifier, we didn’t know about the expectations, how hard it is to get a scholarship in the States,” Huffman said. “Like, man, all these schools kept passing him by and we just kept waiting and waiting.
“I talked to over 70 NCAA programs. Everyone wanted to know who else is recruiting him, because if you didn’t say someone else had offered him, they’d assume he was damaged goods.”
It was frustrating for Huffman.
“I can’t get the MVP in our league an offer and seven kids in our league have been offered.”
Huffman was feeling guilty. Maybe he should have recommended Henry play his prep year in the United States or Eastern Canada.
“I felt like I was failing him. I knew how good he was and I couldn’t believe teams kept passing him by.”
Then Bradley, a tiny university in Peoria, Illinois, called. It is a private school with an enrolment in the neighbourhood of 5,500. He received a four-year, full-ride scholarship. This type of scholarship can be worth up to $400,000.
“Kudos to Bradley they saw real talent and knew how to develop it,” Huffman said. “They weren’t asking who else was looking at him. They said that’s a kid who fits our style. It’s like a storybook how it’s all played out. This is something Claude really would have been happy about and been proud about.”
The season has had its ups and downs for Henry.
“Jashon actually hit a low in October where he wasn’t sure he was built for this level. He talked to me about returning to Canada. I said, ‘Your dad would want you to finish one year.’”
Henry was used to being the top scorer on his teams. He is a highlight reel of drives and dunks.
Huffman has used an app to watch every minute of Henry’s play this year. He gave his star pupil some advice, with the blessing of Bradley coaches.
Huffman reminded Henry of his talent.
“‘You’re such a freak; you are such an athlete and you are so strong and you have lateral quickness like nobody I have ever seen.’”
He told Henry his role had to change.
“‘Why don’t you just go after every single rebound? You can literally change games just by rebounding.’ I said, ‘What is your career high? And he said three.’ I said, ‘Give me five tonight,’ and he had five boards and his minutes (of playing time) went up. The next night he got six and then the next night he got seven.
“He was playing 10 to 15 minutes, and now the team that started 1-4 in the conference was on a roll. He averaged close to 20 minutes a game over his last seven or eight. He’s really, really come on and it’s because of his rebounding and doing the dirty work.”
He’s not the scoring leader or the MVP, at least for now.
“He actually struggled to score down there, but at this level you are playing other giant athletes. What has got him minutes and has grown his role and grown the strength of the team is that he has bought in as a defender and a rebounder.”
The underdog Bradley Braves pulled two upsets in their conference championship. In the final game of the Missouri Valley Conference championship, Bradley came back from an 18-point deficit to defeat Northern Iowa 57-54 and earn its spot in March Madness.
Huffman said Henry, who is 6-foot-6 and 225 pounds, has a pro body and pro abilities.
But that will wait. In the short term, Henry and Huffman will get together after the season.
“I see him really wanting self-improvement. He is coming up to Calgary and he really wants to work on his left hand and on his skill set. That’s what’s really exciting for me; it’s the first time he’s really wanting it for himself.”
And Henry has become a role model for young players, like the ones on the under-15 team.
“Kids have a self-belief because he did it. Everyone believes they can be Jashon now. It is neat to see the belief he is installing in so many kids.”
And it’s neat to see a kid from Saskatoon playing in March Madness.