On a cold and windy afternoon in Milwaukee in November 2019, Ja’Niah Henson stepped on the basketball court for her very first regular-season game for the Morgan State women’s basketball team. In the 70-48 loss to Marquette, the Baltimore native came off the bench and tallied six points for the Bears.
Fast-forward two years, Henson has become a staple for Morgan. The 5-foot-3 junior guard is now a leader on and off the court for the Bears. Her father, Jeff Henson, has long pushed academics over athletics, shaping the person she is today as an athlete and a student.
“You just keep fighting and keep pushing. That is something I grew up on,” Ja’Niah said. “My mom and my dad always told me, ‘Whatever happens, just keep going.’ You know, never give up if it’s something that you truly love and you’re truly passionate about, and that was just something that basketball was to me.”
The Road To Morgan State
Ja’Niah Henson’s eyes were on basketball from a young age. During recess at North Bend Elementary/Middle School, Henson would play basketball with kids her age and older. After school, she would practice outside of her house and garner attention, according to her father.
“While I was at work, I guess [when] she used to get home from school, she would come outside and dribble the ball,” Jeff said. “So when I would get home, the neighbors would come out and say, ‘You know, you might want to put her in a program because she’s pretty good.’ But I was so focused on books and grades that I kind of brushed it off to the side for a while.”
After Henson’s grades reached the level that Jeff felt was necessary, he signed his daughter up for a local rec league. That helped build Henson’s on-court toughness, something that still resonates at Morgan.
After that, Henson played AAU ball, where she made frequent stops with different teams, the last of which was with an Adidas Gauntlet team. She attended Roland Park Country School, where she became the fourth all-time leading scorer in program history (1,274 points). However, she was mostly overlooked in the college recruiting process.
“I really didn’t have too many offers,” Henson said.
On Nov. 15, 2018, Henson committed to Morgan State, citing a feeling of home.
“Originally, I wanted to leave the city, but … I just felt like I had to stay because it was such a family-oriented program. I felt like I would fit,” Henson said. “I ended up committing, plus I committed on my grandma’s birthday, who is deceased, so I felt like it was right.”
Henson has become a productive player at Morgan State, with range that reminds her father of NBA superstars Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving. She wasn’t in the spotlight as a freshman, though. Henson played in 30 games, starting three. She averaged 5.5 points, 1.2 rebounds and 1.5 assists.
Henson was the starting point guard for the Bears as a sophomore during the COVID-19-impacted 2020-21 season. She averaged 11.3 points per game while shooting 39.5 percent from the floor, 35 percent from 3-point range and 78.9 percent from the free-throw line. She earned second-team All-MEAC honors.
Henson was voted preseason first-team All-MEAC ahead of the 2021-22 season. When the season started, Henson picked up where she left off, scoring 10 points in a season-opening 69-53 loss to San Francisco. She then scored six points in a 91-36 loss to Stanford, but she entered concussion protocol following that contest. Henson returned in a 58-46 win against Hofstra Dec. 6.
“She is somewhat of a person that has a little chip on her shoulder, wants to always prove that she’s better than she is [perceived],” Morgan State head coach Ed Davis Jr. said. “She can get things done and I think that’s the competitive side of her that any coach would want.”
Henson explained that her dream is to play basketball professionally. The standout guard has two years of eligibility remaining after this season and has considered using both years to prepare for professional basketball, but Henson has a backup plan, too.
“I’m majoring in information systems, so if the basketball thing doesn’t work out I feel like [I’ll pursue that],” Henson said. “I’ve been playing basketball all my life, so I definitely want the basketball thing to work out, maybe go overseas, to the [WNBA] if it works out for me, but if not, I always have my major to fall back on.”
Her father has always pushed academics over athletics, but Henson has long been able to handle both. Henson has been a 4.0 student at Morgan State and a leader on her team.
“Academically, she set the bar for a lot of kids in the program,” Davis said.
Henson’s life has a lot of possible paths, and her father couldn’t be more proud.
“Just as much as people thinking about her basketball game and her skills, she’s a much a better kid,” Jeff said. “I love my daughter. I think the world loves her. I’ll just sit back and enjoy the ride and just take this journey with her.”
Photo Credit: Lawrence Johnson
Originally published Dec. 15, 2021