Just a month ago, John Henson was an NBA curiosity — a long-armed mystery lost amid a crowded Milwalukee big-man rotation, the sort of player smart NBA teams try to swipe on the cheap. The predators were circling.
And then, since this is Milwaukee and these are the Bucks, crazy stuff started happening. Jabari Parker, playing mostly at power forward, tore his ACL. Ersan Ilyasova, a favorite of Jason Kidd’s, broke his nose, returned for one game, and suffered a concussion. Larry Sanders is going through whatever Larry Sanders is going through.
Henson returned from the longest injury-related absence of his basketball life and found himself suddenly essential to a playoff contender. On Christmas, the Bucks were in position to at least take calls on Henson — to see if some team desperate for rim protection might pony up something better than a second-round pick or two. Now, they’re close to declaring Henson part of the team’s long-term core.
“We’ve never had any interest in trading John Henson,” says John Hammond, the Bucks’ GM. “He’s the kind of player you want in your organization for a long time.”
Henson has shot 58 percent since coming back, and the Bucks have outscored opponents by nearly eight points per 48 minutes with Henson on the floor in that stretch, per NBA.com. They’ve been better overall with Henson on the court this season, a reversal from 2013-14, and managed to stick around .500 as their schedule stiffened in mid-December. He’s taken to Jason Kidd’s amped-up defensive scheme and worked his tail off to repair his bricky free throw stroke. Henson’s ceiling looks higher today than it did just a few weeks ago.
He’s thriving on offense in almost entirely new ways, which is both encouraging and cause for some concern about how easy it will be to blend Henson into different sorts of lineups. Henson barely posts up anymore; he’s just 1-of-9 on shots from the post this season after going 81-of-180 last season, per Synergy Sports. Kidd has turned Henson into what the Bucks wish Sanders would be — a Tyson Chandler/Andre Drummond/Mason Plumlee–style center who sets picks, dives to the rim, dunks lob passes, and sucks defenders away from Milwaukee shooters around the arc.
It’s a smart use of Henson’s skill set. He’s not a great post-up player; he’s almost totally dependent on his lefty hook, and his string bean frame makes it hard for him to carve out deep position and draw fouls. He’s a decent passer, but that skill has limited utility if defenses aren’t primed to double him.
But as a roll man, Henson inspires fear. He’s insanely long, with a borderline comical 7-5 wing span, and those go-go-gadget arms allow him to catch and finish in one motion almost from the foul line:
Note that Henson doesn’t even come close to setting an actual pick on that play. He anticipates how Indiana will react to the threat of a pick-and-roll, baits the defense into setting up for it, and then darts to the rim when he senses an opening — both for his cut, and for Kendall Marshall to sneak a pocket pass through a workable window.
That kind of a read is an acquired skill. A big guy who rushes to the rim without creating any kind of passing window or driving lane is just making random noise on the court. A big guy who leans on the same strategy every time is predictable and easy to defend.
Henson since his return has been smarter about both reading defenses, knowing opponent personnel, and mixing up his tactics. If he knows his defender is the type who will leap out hard to trap Milwaukee’s point guard, Henson will slice quickly toward the rim — slipping into open space while his defender is busy lurching out toward midcourt:
Henson understands that strategy doesn’t work against defenders who like to hang back in the paint on the pick-and-roll — guys like Roy Hibbert and Andrew Bogut. Slip a screen against those players and you’ll just run right into them. Worse yet: A point guard needs a good head of steam to attack a Hibbert/Bogut type, and they can’t get that if their big man bails on the pick before making any contact.
“If it’s a guy like Hibbert, I have to really set that screen for my point guard,” Henson says. “It’s a sacrifice thing. I know in those games I won’t get as many opportunities to score.”
This is a safe, efficient way for Henson to attack defenses and steer away from his weaknesses. He doesn’t have an NBA-ready jumper, so he can’t space the floor or pick and pop for midrangers. It’s hard to turn the ball over when your job is to catch and finish near the basket, though Henson’s turnover rate is still higher than it should be. He can dish to shooters on the fly if defenders crash hard on him, and he has developed patient, one-dribble moves; he can catch the ball in traffic, put it on the floor, lean into a defender’s chest, and then launch his pet lefty hook.
That doesn’t mean the transition has been easy. It might take Henson a half-dozen hard rim runs before he gets to touch the ball; his job is more about drawing attention for others than scoring for himself.
Henson can’t score without touches, and guys on rookie contracts know points help you get paid down the line. “I miss posting up a little bit, man,” Henson says, laughing. “It’s an easy way to get a few points every game. But this is a new era of centers. If you can catch and finish, you really help your team out. It’s about role acceptance for me.”
Here’s the trickiest part: Henson has done such a good Chandler impression of late in part because he’s playing almost all his minutes in small-ball lineups with four shooters around him. There is no second big man in Henson’s way when he rolls to the rim. Help defenders have to travel longer distances to reach him, and that means both cleaner lanes for him and better looks for Milwaukee’s bench outside shooters — O.J. Mayo, Jerryd Bayless, Jared Dudley, and others.
Opponents can counter by going small themselves, but that guarantees the last line of help defense against any Henson catch will be a small guy — a wing player or a guard, helpless to challenge Henson in the paint.
Henson has logged just 17 minutes combined this season with Zaza Pachulia and Larry Sanders. The Henson-Sanders duo, once considered a potential four-armed rim-protection machine, has logged just 73 minutes over the last two seasons. Milwaukee has mostly floundered over that time when Henson shares the floor with another big man of any stripe.
Henson’s recent play may not be infinitely portable. That’s not necessarily a bad or fatal thing; not every big man can be a chameleon in a league in which spacing becomes more important every season. Utah is in the infant stages of deciding whether Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors can play together, and Favors’s midrange jumper is worlds better than those of Henson or Sanders. Detroit has flown into the stratosphere without Josh Smith in part because Stan Van Gundy has given his minutes to shooting power forwards — Jonas Jerebko and Anthony Tolliver — who allow Detroit to slot four shooters around whichever of Greg Monroe and Drummond mans the center spot.
It may be that Henson needs to partner full-time with that sort of player, and share minutes only with an inside-oriented big when the Bucks need some situational defense. And that’s fine. The Bucks have two such players in Parker and Ilyasova, and finding a passable stretch 4 isn’t all that hard. A high-volume marksman like Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Love, or Ryan Anderson (before this season’s slump, anyway) is a rare thing, but if the surrounding parts are strong enough, a poor man’s facsimile like Jerebko or Ilyasova can do the job.
Henson isn’t worried about these contextual issues. Slot him alongside another pick-and-roll big and Henson is confident that he could duck along the baseline for easy cutting baskets, he says.
Another issue to watch: The Bucks have struggled in each of the last two seasons when Henson shares the floor with Brandon Knight, per NBA.com. Knight gets better every season, but he’s still a score-first type who struggles at times to slow down, read the floor, and create for teammates in the half court. Henson needs to play with ball handlers who can do those things.
On defense, Henson’s a problem at the rim, and he’ll only become a more serious one as he grasps the nuance and timing of the NBA. Opponents are shooting around 47 percent with Henson nearby, a solid number for a defensive player, per SportVU tracking data.
Henson has to move a ton within Kidd’s scheme. Kidd asks his big men to scurry up to the level of the screen on the pick-and-roll, deter any drive, and then rush back toward their man in the paint. Henson has the mobility for that:
The Bucks coaching staff charts “high hands,” Hammond says — the percentage of time a defender has his hands reaching into potential passing lanes when he should. Henson has been killing that metric since his return, and he’s so damn long, passing over him isn’t easy. I, mean, seriously, you almost want to laugh:
If an offensive player has to launch a pass a foot or two higher than he’d like, that gives Milwaukee’s scrambling defenders more time to recover.
It’s not all rosy. Henson admits things can be tough for him when offenses put him through two or three pick-and-rolls in a row, and he can literally turn himself around trying to track speedy guards:
“That situation — with someone like Eric Bledsoe or Isaiah Thomas coming downhill — that’s tough,” Henson says. “Not many guys can stop them.”
The timing of his lunges toward the ball can get out of whack:
Bullies can move him around on the block for post-ups and offensive rebounds; Milwaukee is 24th in defensive rebounding rate, and they’ve been even worse with Henson on the floor. The small-ball lineups explain some of that — Henson doesn’t have much help — but burly rebounders can shove him under the basket and clear prime real estate.
“That’s a battle for me,” Henson says. “Some guys can stand their ground, and nobody can move them. For me, I have to hit a guy early and go get the ball.”
There is something here. We can say that with more certainty today than we could a month ago. What that something might be is unclear. The easiest comparison is Brandan Wright, a lanky lefty who feasted in Dallas as a pick-and-roll finisher amid pristine spacing. That hasn’t translated to Boston, where Wright no longer has Dirk Nowitzki, Rick Carlisle, or the Mavs’ cadre of witty ball handlers. Gobert is younger and without Henson’s touch, but he’s bigger and beefier than Henson on the block.
Still: Wright proved he could be a key rotation player in the right environment, and Henson projects as a better rim protector. Henson will be a free agent in the summer of 2016, when the cap is set to jump by a mammoth amount. The league is watching.