John Henson is a fisherman. In 2015, he hooked his finest haul yet, a 4-year, $44 million dollar extension signed with his smile to end all smiles. An affable card-carrying member of the North Carolina Tar Heel alumni club, Henson spent enough years in Milwaukee that by the end of his era, he was considered the local elder statesman. On a team defined by young talent and intent on owning the future, Henson’s calm demeanor carried through the years with modest numbers and quippy postgame pressers to boot. He lived through two different iterations of “Team All Length,” six different coaches, two general mangers, two ownership groups. Henson became the franchise cockroach. It was tragic that as success finally lapped in from Lake Michigan with Coach Bud surfing in, GM Jon Horst managed to snag the bug spray and send Henson packing to Cleveland in exchange for George Hill and some eventual salary relief.
Henson was a teammate of the former Buck Tyler Zeller, who went just three picks after Henson was selected 14th in the 2012 NBA Draft. A recruit from Tampa, he left after his junior year and winning back-to-back ACC Defensive Player of the Year awards. He ranked in the top ten in blocks his latter two years in college, but his offensive game remained raw. His jumpshot was a work in progress, and his primary established move was a left-handed hook shot, unusual in that he was naturally right-handed.
Like Tony Snell before him, this accurate depiction of his game at North Carolina from DraftExpress proved, sadly, a tad too prophetic once he entered the big leagues. His rookie year under Scott Skiles and Jim Boylen, Henson got just 13 minutes per game, lodging just six points per contest and shooting 60% in the restricted area, only the 50th percentile among bigs per Cleaning The Glass. In the tire-fire of 2013-14, he got more run under Larry Drew, upping to 11.1 points per game, 7.1 boards, 1.5 assists and 1.7 blocks. Finally, his defensive presence started to have a tangible impact too. It was even more true the following season under Jason Kidd, when Henson averaged 2.0 blocks per game in just 18 minutes a contest. His block percentage from 2014-2017 was in the 95th percentile or better among bigs.
Flashing back to that 2014-15 season though, it really was his expanded defensive impact that made him seem like he could be a capable backup anchor on the defensive line. Opponents shot ~55% at the rim against him that season. He remained a hallmark of those poor Bucks defensive rebounding teams though, an issue that seemed to plague the franchise regardless of coach until Bud came around. He went through that season the clear backup to Zaza Pachulia, a common issue that seemed to bug Henson throughout his career in Milwaukee. Every season he would seemingly have a chance to snag a starting spot as a big entering training camp, every year he would get beat out by some older veteran (Zaza, others) or newfound signing (Greg Monroe).
He still hadn’t developed any semblance of a midrange game, his best move remained a turnaround hook shot from his off hand, and the Bucks had a better net rating with him off the court than on for all three of his seasons heading into the 2015 Fall when his extension eligibility was waning. So what gives? Why dole out this type of contract to a player whose impact was in question and whose game remained staggeringly full of holes? To this day, I believe that the 2015 Playoff series against the Bulls, with the infamous “Angry Henson” performances, played an outsized role in this extension.
Here are his per-36 stat lines for the regular season vs. Playoffs in 2014-15:
Henson Per-36 Production (Regular Season v. Playoffs)
Not all that impressive huh? Well, I still think Henson’s emergence as a dependable Playoff guy in that comeback against the Bulls played a major role in his re-signing. With a cap spike in 2016 looming, surely $11 million wouldn’t look nearly as gaudy as it had in year’s past too. And so, Henson inked the deal. In 2015-16, the final year of his rookie deal, he remained a bit player on a franchise that backslid after acquiring Greg Monroe that summer. Henson was an impressive rim protector that year though, holding opponents to 48.9% on 3.9 attempts defended per game, one of the stingiest marks in the league among bigs. Still, it was a similar story to year’s past. The team didn’t play markedly better with him on the court besides defensively, but I’d chalk some of that up to the baseline figure with Greg Monroe patrolling the paint. He started just one game, still wasn’t venturing much outside the paint (only five shots attempted outside ~14 feet per CTG) and averaged seven points per game.
The next year, 2016-17, his defensive impact slid back to normal levels. He finally got to start half the games as Greg Monroe moved to the bench...but he averaged an anemic 6.8 points per game. He shot some midrange jumpers finally...but he went just 23% (7-31) on them. The ying and yang of Henson always seemed to pull him back to a player who was never destined to emerge from the shell of a bit player, despite the contract afforded him by Milwaukee. In retrospect, the horrific signings of the 2016 summer certainly let him off the hook for this exercise.
Still, he ranked fifth in terms of PER for 2016-17, albeit playing a position that can boost that metric with rebounds, and ranking third on the team in salary. Henson eventually took a backseat to Thon Maker, especially as Playoff Thon emerged unexpectedly in the Raptors Playoff series that year.
Henson finally got the full-scale starting nod in 2017-18, as Greg Monroe got shipped off to Phoenix in exchange for Eric Bledose. He finally found the stringbean center he could beat out in Thon Maker, only to ultimately be supplanted by Maker as the season wore down. In the Playoffs, Henson played in only two games due to injury. Suddenly, Playoff Thon emerged again, and it seemed as if Henson was due once more to fall into the shadows as merely a capable backup. Under Bud, his 3-point renaissance was short-lived. He hit 11 of his 31 threes (35.5%) during the 14 appearances he had with Bud. That eclipsed his career total from deep to that point. Bud alas, it wasn’t to last as Horst shipped him off with Delly to Cleveland.
John Henson was never the best center on the team. Nor the worst. He was never the most overpaid player on the team, largely by virtue of the cap spike, but he certainly wasn’t underpaid. He never seemed the most intense, besides in his love for Chipotle, but he never seemed dispassionate about being a Buck. John, even if you never quite lived up to your deal, we all can agree on one thing: at least it wasn’t the most crappie.
Brew Hoop Worst Contract of the Last Decade Ranking
10. Ersan Ilyasova (2012; 5-year, $40M; team option last year)
9. O.J. Mayo (2013; 3-year, $24M)
8. Mirza Teletovic (2016; 3-year, $31.5M)
7. Tony Snell (2017; 4-year, $44M)
6. John Salmons (2010; 5-year, $39M)
5. John Henson (2015; 4-year, $44M)
We’re down to the final four! Here’s the next poll:
What is the BEST Bucks contract out of this bad bunch?
This poll is closed
2010 Drew Gooden (5-year, $32M)
2013 Larry Sanders (4-year, $44M)
2016 Matthew Dellavedova (4-year, $38.5M)
2016 Miles Plumlee (4-year, $52M)
This poll will close on Wednesday, May 20 at noon CST.