It seemed a foregone conclusion entering this season that somebody from Milwaukee's crop of power forwards would have to step aside (or ship out) for the benefit of the rest. There was just too much redundancy among them, we thought. Who's going to stand out? Can anybody claim the bulk of whatever minutes will be available behind Ersan Ilyasova, who is sure to take an expanded role on the team after signing his big new contract (yeah, about that...)?
As it turns out, things have worked out much better than expected. Larry Sanders got off to a terrific start, claiming the de facto backup center position (frequently outplaying starter Samuel Dalembert) thanks to improved rebounding and his characteristically disruptive defense. Ekpe Udoh paired with him at power forward to give Milwaukee a stunningly effective interior pairing on defense, giving rise to the Tube Men moniker. As if those two weren't enough, John Henson blew up for a 17-point, 18-rebound double-double against Miami on November 21, and has since claimed a few starts at the PF spot and showed off an offensive game that suggests he might have the highest potential of the three.
As long as Ilyasova remains in a funk, there are going to be opportunities for the backup forwards. Drew Gooden's willingness to accept an inactive designation every night (it really can't be overstated how cooperative he's been this season) opened up a lot more room for the Tube Men to operate each night, but it's still been a bit of a crap shoot trying to predict who will play well on a given night. Will Larry Sanders rack up a triple-double or foul out late in the 3rd quarter? Will Ekpe Udoh lock up the paint or watch countless rebounds sail over his head? Will John Henson...play?
In the interest of clearing things up, let's take a closer look at the responsibilities these guys face on the court and dissect who excels where.
In contrast to each's shot-blocking prowess and defensive potential, Larry Sanders and Ekpe Udoh have both been underwhelming rebounders over their respective careers. Whether it was an inability to hold off stronger forwards or just finding themselves out of position after a wild block attempt, the Bucks had a hard time playing either guy heavy minutes for fear of getting battered on the boards. John Henson was a good rebounder in college, but risked falling victim to Jon Leuer-syndrome in the pros: getting pushed too far under the basket to challenge opponents on the glass.
In a surprising turn of events, Larry Sanders has magically morphed into an elite defensive rebounder this season, ranking 9th in the NBA in defensive rebound percentage. He appears to have discovered how to use his length for the forces of good, grabbing balls far above the heads of his opponents with hands that don't seem nearly as frozen as in years past. Ekpe Udoh's individual board work remains suspect (his total rebound rate is below 10), but his mysterious trend of helping his team grab more defensive rebounds has continued: according to 82games.com, the Bucks' DRR is 3 points higher with Udoh on the court versus the bench (for reference, Sanders' on/off court DRR differential is +1.3). John Henson has been roughly average on the defensive glass, but in his short court time he's put up an astounding 18.5 ORR, which would be tops in the NBA if he qualified. He's also making the most of his putback attempts, hitting 8 of 11 such shots. Those success rates are sure to regress, but Henson's timing and soft touch are already apparent.
So who's best? Larry Sanders has to take the crown here. His improved board work eliminated one more obstacle toward expanded playing time, leaving only his propensity to foul in the way of potentially grabbing the starting center spot. Henson should be a solid rebounder in time as he bulks up, but Ekpe Udoh may always remain a mystery. For now, Sanders is King of the Glass.
The Bucks billed their stable of lengthy young forwards as the making of a happenin' block party, expressing excitement at the notion of nearly always having two elite shot-blockers on the court. But there's a lot more to defense than blocking shots, especially for big men. It's all about rotations, hedging, shading, and more.
That's exactly where Ekpe Udoh earns his cult status. Udoh's defensive instincts evoke the sensational ability of Andrew Bogut, constantly adjusting his positioning and breaking up offensive plans before they get rolling. But are those instincts enough to overcome the sheer physical talent of Larry Sanders? Sanders seems quicker on his feet, and his slight height advantage translates into an absurd ability to cover ground in the blink of an eye, a trait seemingly shared by Henson. But Sanders' help defense is too often accompanied by wild flailing and subsequent free throws, bailing out the offense even when its intent is known. Henson was great at avoiding fouls in college and isn't as bad as Sanders, but he occasionally falls victim to another frequent tormentor of young bigs: overhelping. Rotations on defense are key to slowing penetration and ball movement, but leaving a guy wide-open in the paint will get you burned more often than not in the NBA.
As a unit, the Tube Men present a formidable challenge to opponents when they patrol the paint. It's no surprise Sanders and Udoh feature in some of Milwaukee's best lineups (not to mention some of the best pure defensive lineups in the NBA). but Ekpe Udoh earns highest honors here. His -10.8 on/off-court defensive rating differential rates a bit behind Sanders' -12, but his ability to avoid fouls and defend a wide variety of play types (he's probably Milwaukee's best pick and roll defender) push him over the top.
The conventional wisdom would suggest the slight frames of Milwaukee's young bigs opens them up to being battered around by some of the bulkier post scorers in the NBA. And such wisdom would be right, to a certain extent. The Bucks got manhandled inside by the Memphis frontline of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, and had a hard time containing Carlos Boozer on the glass and in the paint during their two-game series with Chicago. But in an age of smallball offense and aggresive interior help defense, teams are relying less and less on dumping the ball inside and powering it down. This evolution in style makes players like Sanders and Udoh more viable as straight-up post defenders, so long as they play smart.
Sanders has split his time between the 4 and 5 this season, but most would tend to think of him as a center first. According to 82games.com, Sanders gives up an 18.7 PER to opposing centers, a bad number no matter how you slice it. But it might not tell the most accurate story. For one, only 42% of his opposing counterpart's shot attempts are classified as "inside" by 82games. Second, most of his counterpart efficiency comes from the copious free-throw attempts. If he can hold the fouls down like he has the last few games, his opponent's production should follow. Udoh's opposing PER, meanwhile, suggests he locks down centers (12.6 allowed) but has a tougher time with 4s (23.6). But he still holds centers to about 44% shooting and actually draws fouls at a reasonable rate (5.8 per 48 minutes). John Henson's numbers still look wacky due to his low minute totals, so it's tough to draw much of a statistical conclusion.
In the post, where he can more effectively control his fouling and use his length to tightly contest shots, Larry Sanders comes out on top once again. Sanders isn't bulky by any means, but he's stronger than he looks and uses his athleticism and length well to force opponents to shoot over the top of him. It's not too surprising to hear Scott Skiles offered Sanders a spot in the starting lineup against Boston on Saturday night. The real question might be how long Skiles will continue to take "no" for an answer.
There's no question the Tube Men derive most of their value on the defensive end. To date, that's been the primary responsibility of these guys. Udoh and Sanders have never been major parts of their teams' offenses (career 13.3 and 17.0 usage percentages, respectively), and Henson's offensive potential was mostly an addendum to his draft profile. But there have been major steps taken by each of the vets this season, and Henson has flashed a more developed game than many expected.
For Sanders, it begins and ends with shot selection. We heard this summer about Larry's renewed dedication to staying close to the basket and taking smarter shots. If anyone dismissed such assertions as cheap talk, the early season was surely a pleasant surprise. Sanders attacked the basket in the half-court and showed an improved court awareness that opened up lots of easy dunks. He's sliced his long jumper attempts nearly in half and greatly improved his accuracy from within 9 feet, resulting in a 10-point jump in TS% from last season. Ekpe Udoh still lags behind most of his contemporaries in shooting at the rim, but improved accuracy from 3-9 feet has also yielded a career-high TS%. In addition, he takes fantastic care of the ball, with a turnover rate below 12.0 this season.
Yet in what little time he's been around, it doesn't feel crazy to suggest John Henson is the best of the three when Milwaukee has the ball. The ever-mysterious concept of "basketball IQ" gets a shining, concrete example in the form of Henson's positioning, where he's already shown himself adept at finding soft spots in the defense for open jumpers or uncontested slides to the rim. He's not turning the ball over, he's making 75% of his tip-in attempts, and he's shooting over 50% on all shots within 15 feet. And nothing is prettier than that legendary lefty hook that remains largely unblockable. The future looks bright with this one.