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John Henson’s Journey to Feeling Needed

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Not all of us are superstars.

Players like LeBron James and Kevin Durant are breathtaking players to watch without a doubt. They’re less mortals and more something created from a comic book, but that doesn’t make them any less entertaining. Whether it’s a shot, dunk, block, or any other play, they redefine the word “possible” in our vocabulary. It’s a big reason why we love the game of basketball, but that doesn’t mean they’re the most relatable players in the league.

We’ve all met people in life who, in one way or another, seem like this. They walk with a sense of direction, speak with purpose, and generally feel like they know the next step the world is going to take before society even takes it. You generally like those people, they’re pleasant, but it’s hard to feel that deep emotional connection to them. We naturally tend to build deeper connections with those that we see struggle through life and grow. We empathize with them. When they finally reach a goal or destination that we think is a desired outcome for them, we’re proud of them.

Because like them, we’re probably not superstars either. All of us are scratching and clawing our way to some desired outcome. Often times we look at others through the scope of our experiences, fairly and unfairly. We do that because, in a way, we feel that we can learn about ourselves by looking at others. There are so many questions in life that feel open-ended that people tend to grab any kind of data to find the truth that lies behind that very same question. And often times others are the best sources.

In the NBA, it’s very similar. For every LeBron, Durant, or even Giannis, there’s a few hundred players trying to navigate their careers in the best manner possible for them. While the elite superstars are able to try and divide and conquer by building a Justice League type crew of super athletes, the working class heroes of the NBA are much more the flow of the everyday man. Not every decision is the right one, and sometimes big money deals can be regressive for a player career instead of progressing towards the next step. Tying your future to the wrong situation could mean a team never looks at you as a potential star, or even a starter. In a career where many are done by the time they’re thirty, that’s a harsh reality.

It’s John Henson’s sixth season on the Bucks. In a way, that feels incredible. Henson played a feature role on the Bucks in 2013-14 when he was a sophomore. Even then, Henson was at times a background character. Larry Sanders was expected to take a featured role at center for the Bucks that season, coming off his 2012-13 where he finished second in blocks and third in Most Improved Player of the Year voting. Sanders signed an $11 million per year extension and was slated to be the Bucks center for the time to come, but unfortunately everyone saw his following season spiral in ways previously unimaginable.

That didn’t leave the center position primed for Henson to take over by his lonesome however. Freshly-signed Zaza Pachulia also stood in his way, and was the nominal starter most nights. Still, Henson found a way into more minutes than his veteran counterpart and had a stronger statistical profile. Unfortunately, whether by way of lineups or by young big men being done in by their own defensive awareness, the Bucks were better both in defensive rating and net rating with John as a spectator. In a way, that’s fine for a 15-67 team that wasn’t going anywhere. Yet when the next season rolled around and the Bucks went from bottom feeder to a team fighting for a playoff spot, Henson saw his minutes dip in comparison to the older Pachulia. Larry Sanders made some spot appearances as well before a sudden retirement, but that only made the minutes for the third year Henson even thinner.

The team was still worse when John was on the floor rather than off in his third season, but they were a better defensive unit with him. A good indicator of improvement from a guy whose best assets were his length and athleticism at his height. He still seemed prime to potentially become the center of the future when Zaza left for a new destination, but it wasn’t meant to be. On July 9th, the Bucks spent big money on Greg Monroe, a man ousted by his own team for a younger center in Andre Drummond. Despite signing a decently big extension in October, Henson started only one game in his fourth season and played even less. Again, the defense was better with him, but the offense was terrible. Not a big surprise as Monroe has always been a huge part of Milwaukee’s success on that side of the floor.

The Bucks spent their first round pick on 7-footer Thon Maker the following summer, again leaving John to a platoon role. Fortunately, Jason Kidd and company figured that Greg Monroe would be better off as a sixth man, which gave Henson some time with the starters. Unfortunately, an injury paved the way for Maker to take over in John’s place. The rookie did every part of a role player well, leaving fans to believe that a sophomoric rise was in the works.

That’s how John Henson was on the outside looking in entering this season. Six years into the league, and somehow a young and talented player was still almost a bit of an unknown. We’ve seen the flashes of a very good player out of him, but they have been so widely spread across time that it’s hard to remember them. It was theorized that he’d likely be dealt in a salary dump to a team that just...simply needed him more.

In the first 19 games of the season, however, the Bucks have needed Henson now more than ever. Monroe was dealt to the Suns to acquire the more salivating potential of Eric Bledsoe, clearing up some space. Furthermore, Maker’s second year rise has been more of a sophomore slump to begin the season. The defense with Maker has been soft, and the floor spacing prowess he provided when he progressed of the second half of last season hasn’t been there. Suddenly, the squad needed John Henson, and they’ve needed him to start.

He hasn’t been a superstar, that’s far from what’s required from him. He just needs to solidify the defense in the middle, and he’s done exactly that. The Bucks defense so far this season has been poor, to say the least, ranking 22nd in defensive rating at 109.6. Only three players on the roster have had a positive impact to that rating in on/off splits, Giannis, Eric Bledsoe, and John Henson. Also, the offensive rating of the team with Henson on the floor is 113.2 — a mark that would be good enough for 3rd in the NBA — while without him it’s 102.2.

With Middleton, Bledsoe, and Giannis — and eventually Jabari — in the fold, the Bucks don’t need massive production from their center. They just need someone who makes the players and team better around them. That’s what Henson is providing every time he’s on the floor this season. The Bucks have found ways to get by without him featuring before, but he’s answering the call in the season the franchise might need him the most. Regardless of the point in human history, patience always gets rewarded.