Milwaukee Bucks rookie John Henson sat out the team's first 2012 Las Vegas Summer League game against the New Orleans Hornets due to illness, so every fan turned their focus to Henson's debut on Wednesday afternoon against the Washington Wizards. He did not disappoint.
In fact, he played so well that this analysis needs a companion disclaimer. Aside from the obvious warnings that (1) a single sample is never suitable to project talent and (2) summer league outcomes usually don't mean much of anything, the important point here is that (3) it's unfair to compare John Henson to Larry Sanders based on the action in Vegas, even if they are in direct competition for minutes in the regular season.
At the moment it feels like Sanders is on a long bike ride up a steep hill when it comes to his proverbial "Game." Everything looks difficult. Every next step bears the risk of causing a complete stop. Forward momentum seems impossible to generate and particularly fleeting. It wasn't always like this for Larry, but the path gets considerably more difficult over time in the NBA.
To look at John Henson is to travel backwards on that journey and explore the boundless optimism of every fan and analyst focused on potential and upside. Positive momentum is easy to generate for any lottery pick that plays well in summer league. The ride isn't ever called a downhill journey from the beginning (to extend my simile), but the flow of support from fans for a fresh first-round pick provides a generous tailwind to take a lot of the strained effort out of the process.
Before absorbing Henson's performance against the Wizards, just make sure you remember that Sanders and Henson are at very different points in their respective NBA journeys. Sanders is expected to use his uphill climb to propel a great leap forward as the No. 15 pick from the 2010 NBA Draft. The No. 14 from the 2012 Draft isn't expected to jump just yet; everyone's just happy to help him build up speed as he adjusts to the tempo of the NBA game. Now let's talk about the rookie's impressive debut.
One look at Henson's box score production -- 20 points on 8-17 from the field, nine rebounds (four offensive) and zero personal fouls -- and you can get the basic idea: he played well. He looked comfortable, too. Here's what I noticed from him on offense, defense and the glass against Washington.
John Henson on offense: The offensive themes for game one were "variety" and "freedom." Henson seemingly sampled all available offensive options in his debut. He operated in the following ways when the Bucks had the ball: the roll man and/or the pop option in high pick-and-roll, a spot-up shooter from the 18-23 foot range for secondary action on plays, an off-ball screener for shooters, a post-iso option, a face-up option and a garbage man on the glass.
He enjoyed the freedom of a very long leash as well. Henson had a license to shoot from the opening tip. The North Carolina product calmly nailed a smooth 20-foot jumper on his first shot and never backed down from an open look on the perimeter for the rest of the game.
Bucks GM John Hammond once again spoke with the broadcast team during the game, and he mentioned the team basically expects playable defense and rebounding from Henson right away, but that he still needs to become comfortable on offense in the post and on the perimeter. The game plan on Wednesday certainly looked as if it had been tailored to make Henson feel comfortable with the ball.
The No. 14 overall pick made quick decisions (although he did get loose with his passes at times, which led to some of his five turnovers) and displayed good touch on his hook shot and fluid form on his jump shots. A reliable set of hands would be a welcome addition to the Bucks' frontcourt, and it appears Henson has them. He handled difficult passes well and quickly gathered rebounds for put back opportunities, which is where you'd expect most of his offense to come from when the real games begin.
John Henson on defense: It's probably not possible to convincingly display a good feel for NBA-level defense in just one summer league game, but the new kid on the block made his best effort to do so. At times he looked Ekpe Udoh-ian in his ability to completely disrupt ballhandlers as a hedge man on pick-and-roll and still recover to his man, but not everything went exactly according to plan.
As a weak side shot blocker, Henson didn't make the impact he will be expected to generate in the future. He always seemed close to the proper position on his rotations, but the speed of the game and the advanced skill level his competition neutralized his ability to disrupt shots at the rim for most of the day. He stalked guards and wings as they penetrated into the restricted area, but never quite found the angle or extension to disrupt finishes before the opponent got the ball up on the rim. It's merely a timing and anticipation issue for a young man adjusting to a new speed of play, so there's no need to be concerned, Bucks fans.
On the plus side, Henson showed quickness to defend on the perimeter and the smarts to position himself for plays in the paint, all while avoiding foul trouble. In 34:39 of action, he didn't commit a single personal foul. Not one. He still mixed it up in the paint, however, which came through in his performance on the glass.
John Henson on the glass: The four offensive rebounds stick out more than the five defensive boards to me, but the basic point is that the Bucks likely have another solid rebounder on their team. He didn't struggle to rebound against bigger players like Shavlik Randolph (listed at 236 pounds) or Garett Siler (listed at 305 pounds) because he consistently used a low, wide base for box outs and supplemented that with great arm extension to accentuate his freakish length.
Henson often plays as if the restricted area exerts a keen gravitational pull on him. I rarely spotted the rookie outside the paint when the ball hit the rim, which may be the most impressive thing about his rebounding performance. Despite numerous offensive and defensive assignments on the perimeter, he always worked back to the rim as the shot clock wound down and often got his hands on the ball. I'm excited that he will get to learn how to better use his lean frame in the NBA from a top-notch, lanky rebounder like Samuel Dalembert.
In fact, I'm excited about quite a bit when it comes to John Henson, and I can't imagine anyone disagrees at this point. That's the mark of a good first impression. It almost reminds me of what Larry Sanders did way back when in Summer League.