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14/15 Milwaukee Bucks Player Previews: John Henson looks to make his mark

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Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

With media day on Monday and training camp kicking off a day later, we're continuing to work our way through the Bucks roster by previewing what to expect from key members of the 14/15 Bucks. After previously highlighting Jabari Parker and Khris Middleton, today we turn our attentions to John Henson.

2013-14 Review

John Henson's 2013/14 season wasn't a bust by any means, but it didn't go the way many fans had hoped. Statistically it marked a clear step forward: Henson started the same amount of games as rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo (23) last season, averaging a solid 11.1 points on 53.8% shooting while adding 7.1 rebounds and a team-high 1.7 blocks in 26.5 minutes per game. Moreover, he flashed major promise from November 30 until December 20, scoring in double-digits in 10 of 11 games while averaging an impressive 16 points and 11 boards per game. But an ankle injury in late December caused him to seven games, short-circuiting arguably the best stretch of his young career.

Henson did provide the Bucks a much-needed offensive spark over the final weeks of the season, scoring 13.1 points on 62% true shooting off the bench in April, but overall the remainder of the season offered only flashes of the promise we saw in December. Concerns over Henson's defensive awareness, over-reliance on his left hand and struggles from the line continued. His percentage from the stripe fell from an-already-ugly 53% as rookie to just 51% last season, including an awful 1/14 month of February (7.1%). The Bucks were also dramatically better with him on the bench, and veteran Zaza Pachulia and half-season-rental Jeff Adrien both started ahead of Henson throughout the second half of the season.

So although the Bucks continue to count Henson as a key piece of their young roster, it was more than a little bit concerning to see him continually stuck behind less talented players down the stretch. It was never entirely clear why his role turned out the way it did last year (his relationship with former head coach Larry Drew is a natural starting point), but it did leave a lot of people questioning and wondering: Why isn't John Henson starting?

Since he came out of college, Henson's physical development has also remained under the microscope. His length has been the source of much of his success throughout his career, but if he really wants to take his game to the next level, it's a requirement he get stronger. This off-season he worked on bulking up his frame to over 230 pounds, with the hope that it will help him maintain position down low on both ends.

We'll see how he looks physically when the season opens.

- Aron Yohannes

#ANALYSIS

If the Bucks have a statistical Jekyll and Hyde, look no further than John Henson.

(Sidebar: Dr. John and Mr. Henson? No? OK...).

The good Henson was the guy who led all returning Bucks in PER (17.9), win shares/48 (.084), and true shooting percentage (54.3%) while ranking ninth in the league with 1.7 blocks per game. And while most of his key per minute numbers and advanced metrics were marginally lower than the excellent marks he posted as a rookie (18.2 PER, .109 WS/48), his numbers remained generally quite strong--especially consider the big boost in minutes he saw as a sophomore (from 827 to 1856).

And while everyone has clamored for him to "develop" his mid-range game, Henson's statistical improvements came at least in part from cutting down on his jump-shooting entirely. After taking 21% of his shots outside 10 feet as a rookie, Henson cut that figure down to just 13% as a sophomore and saw his field goal percentage jump from 48.2% to 53.8% in the process. Check out these shot charts from Nylon Calculus:

Hensonchart1213

Hensonchart1314

Despite his aversion for jumpers, Henson remained unique in that he still did much of his damage outside of the immediate basket area. A whopping 43% of his shots came from 3-10 feet, where he converted a healthy 46% of his attempts, mostly thanks to his almost unblockable lefty hook (see all the orange in the lane?). And despite his clear preference for turning every post-up opportunity into a left-handed hook shot, the theoretically right-handed Henson still managed to be an effective secondary scorer when he got the ball anywhere inside 10 feet.

The question is where Henson goes from here. His shaky jump shot and lack of obvious screening and passing skills mean he doesn't provide any real value away from the paint, but it's also tough to be a go-to post scorer when you shy away from contact, can't make free throws, and have such a strong bias towards one hand. For better or worse, his offensive game for now remains decidedly unique, which makes it a challenge fitting him into a productive lineup.

The "productive lineup" issue was particularly evident in how negatively Henson's presence appeared to affect the Bucks' lineups. Despite all those promising indications from advanced metrics such as PER and win shares, virtually every plus-minus-based measure suggested Henson had a profoundly negative effect last season. The Bucks were 6.4 points/100 possessions better with Henson on the bench in raw terms, and ESPN's real plus-minus (RPM) tells a similarly concerning story. Hint: Keep reading until you get to the bottom of the chart (all numbers in pts/100 possessions).

Bucksrpm1314table_medium

Rpm-henson

To be clear, none of this means Henson is doomed to be a poor NBA player. But it does highlight that he has a ways to go as both a team defender (blocks aren't everything) and offensive contributor to make his individual numbers translate into team success. So where to now? Well, Henson may never be a floor-stretcher or 20-point per game scorer, but developing a meaner, more ambidextrous streak around the basket and a passable stroke from the line would be a huge help (seriously, at this point shooting lefty from the stripe?). Defensively he's already a plus-shot-blocker and quality rebounder, but adding strength and being less passive as a team defender are only going to help.

- Frank Madden

I know what you did last summer...

John has been all over the place since the end of his sophomore season, tweeting about Chipotle, putting Kermit memes to good use, and (obviously) continuing to work on his game. His summer began by heading over to Tampa, Florida for The John Henson Experience, a one-day basketball clinic to bring awareness to the importance of sports youth programs.

Before that, though Henson was an avid watcher of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, and popped up in Milwaukee a few times to watch the games in big crowds on Milwaukee's East Side.

John Henson Awesome Summer Chipotle Tweet #1:

John Henson Awesome Summer Chipotle Tweet #2:

John was also one of the Bucks players that made appearances at Summerfest, and more importantly was able to pull off a bucket hat., something that is not easy to do.

John Henson Awesome Summer Chipotle Tweet #3:

After bouncing around a little bit (including a stop in Vegas for Summer League), Henson came back to Milwaukee to make an appearance at the Wisconsin State Fair.

Where he fared well at "Hoop Fever"...

...and gave Wisconsinites some advice on which fair foods were solid and which were just...nah.

Though he wasn't there for the great moment, John made sure to join his teammates in making fun of Khris Middleton's visit to the fair.

He of course took the ice bucket challenge, but probably had the most creative set-up out of any of the players.

John Henson Awesome Summer Haircut Advice Tweet #1:

If you're concerned that Henson wasn't putting in work during his summer break, you need not worry. He definitely was:

And then while he was back in Milwaukee putting in work with the team, he made an appearance to give British Ambassador Peter Westmacott a Bucks jersey during his visit.

(Note: Please give us your best caption in the above photo. I'm curious to see what we can come up with).

And finally...

John Henson Truth Bomb About Naps #1:

-Eric Buenning

Upside/Downside

No one really doubts that Henson has the talent to become a very, very good NBA player. And while small samples, can play tricks on both the mind and soul, we only need to look at his promising month of December 2013--15.2 ppg, 10.1 rpg, 2.3 bpg and 53.9% overall and 63.8% from the line--to see what Henson might be capable on a consistent basis.

So let's use that as a jumping off point for thinking about the best case scenario for Henson this season. While it's not out of the question that Henson could earn 25-30 minutes per night based on a strong camp, it may require trades and/or injuries involving the Bucks' other key big men (namely Sanders, Ilyasova and Pachulia) to provide the sort of major-minute opportunity Henson saw last December.

But a big season from Henson is of course about much more than just lowering the amount of competition he has. John Hammond publicly threw down the gauntlet for Henson back in May, challenging the 23-year-old to improve his nutrition and physical preparation while while not-so-subtly hinting that Henson has yet to show the dedication to match his natural talent. The nice-guy mindset might make him a likable teammate, but going into this summer we hadn't heard about Henson having the sort of hunger and competitiveness that guys like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Nate Wolters and Brandon Knight have shown.

Fortunately, the added weight he's reportedly put on suggests he's on the right track. He may not be able to similarly will himself into developing a jumpshot, but increasing his defensive focus and aggressiveness around the rim are a couple obvious areas where we can hopefully see improvement through experience, coaching and individual diligence. Thus it's certainly conceivable to see Henson put up 13-14 ppg and 8-9 rpg if he can get on the court enough, numbers that ironically aren't too far off his raw figures from a year ago. All of which highlights the fact that Henson's improvement might have less to do with reinventing his game and more to do with improving on the little things.

And what if things don't go right? Well, it's certainly possible that with everyone healthy, Henson could end up treading water in an 18-22 mpg role off the bench. In five years of college and pro basketball he's never shot better than 53% from the line, nor has he ever shown any consistency from outside the paint. In a reduced role, it's perhaps not out of the question that he could continue to show middling motivation and end up no better (and perhaps marginally worse) than a year ago, a fate that would likely force the Bucks to strongly consider shipping him elsewhere for a fresh start.

- Frank Madden

How It Feels To Watch John Henson

Paradoxical

It is nearly impossible to dislike John Henson. In recent times, the Bucks have made a tough push against Ricky Rubio and the Minnesota Timberwolves to become the most adorable team in the NBA. Jabari and Giannis have become the faces of this campaign, but this all started with Henson. Outfitted with wet vermicelli for limbs, a face grafted from a citizen of Sesame Street, and a love for his teammates that is only matched by his love for video game soccer, Henson is the type of gangly youngster that can instantly become a fan favorite.

Outfitted with wet vermicelli for limbs, a face grafted from a citizen of Sesame Street, and a love for his teammates that is only matched by his love for video game soccer, Henson is the type of gangly youngster that can instantly become a fan favorite.


This ability quietly glimmered his first year, when very occasional flashes of on-court brilliance and memories of his dominant performance against Wisconsin’s fun college basketball team in the past year’s Sweet 16 showed promise of Henson becoming the player Anthony Davis was too talented to be. The expectation, then, was that year two would find Henson coming into his own as a relatively steady, productive member of Milwaukee’s frontcourt. But Henson’s inability to space the floor, Larry Drew’s inability to form consistent rotations, and John Hammond’s inability to create a riparian forest from his self-induced logjam of a frontcourt leave Henson still mired in his enigma status.

Watching John Henson play, then, is a series of shifting expectations. A run of auspicious performances will convince you that nothing is more appealing than two long arms rising above the attacking masses to secure a rebound, creating beauty in the midst of chaos like a gangly Cormac McCarthy, while a run of less impressive performances will convince you that Sisyphus was a muppet. In either scenario, though, you’re likely finding yourself pulling for the guy. Eventually Henson will have to deliver, but for now, that face and that Twitter and those rebounds do well enough. It’s easy to cheer for a winner, but it’s also easy to cheer for John Henson.

- JJ Bersch

Expected Role

John Henson is not a starting center as long as Larry Sanders is active and vaguely resembling his 12/13 self. That’s not to say Henson doesn’t have value, but it does underscore a handful of signs that point to most of his 14/15 assignments coming off the bench.

In our most recent podcast, Frank and Steve bestowed upon Henson the honorary title of "First Bucks Player Ruled Out As A Potential Starter." Namely, the differences between his traditional (11 pts, 7 rbds) and advanced stats (-5.77 RPM, last among centers, including Andrea Bargnani) are so wide that, well, pretty much any "massive difference" metaphor/joke works here.

Even with Jason Kidd’s lineup card scribbled with intentional "ambiguity" and "flexibility", Henson’s no-offense redundancies (81% of his shots in 2013-14 were within 5 feet) should limit his on-court time with Sanders. Henson and Ersan Ilyasova look good on paper as an in-out combo on offense, as long as you’re willing to look the other way defensively.

Throw in the versatility of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker (we all want to see them play together, right?), and the Sanders/Henson Experience is likely to remain sparse (because shooters). The pairing was already a rare sighting over the last two years, and those teams had far less experimental freedom than Jason Kidd does.

Overall, Henson’s role figures to depend as much on the development of players around him as it will his own progression. He should start the year taking turns off the bench at both frontcourt positions, which is entirely reasonable given his skills and the team’s roster and expectations. Of course, all this could be wrong and Henson could get traded or Johnny O’Bryant III could get 30 minutes a night. We really don’t have a lot of precedence for Kidd’s coaching tendencies with a rebuilding team.

Either way, Henson is entering his third season, which usually signals the rise of "he is what he is" arguments, in the best, most malleable situation of his career. Regardless of how Henson is used, he’ll get plenty of opportunities to define that cliché, for better or worse.

- Jake McCormick