The Bucks need defense. After ranking fourth in defensive efficiency two seasons ago, the team dropped to 16th last season. On draft night, the Bucks selected noted defensive standout John Henson at #14 overall. But don’t connect those dots so quickly. The team did not draft Henson simply because they needed defense.
After draft night, I chatted with Billy McKinney, the Director of Scouting for the Bucks.
“Here is the phrase that we frequently use. When you are trading, you trade for need. When you draft, you are drafting for talent.”
So the Bucks drafted Henson because he was the top talent on the team’s draft board.
Henson’s availability arrived as a pleasant surprise to McKinney and staff. While that might read like the typical story that emerges from teams after selecting a player, McKinney was on record raving about Henson before the draft, even saying that he did not expect him to be available at #12 – much less #14.
After the draft, McKinney explained how the team traded for need and drafted for talent.
“So, this year for example, we were able to fill our need with a trade, to bring in Samuel Dalembert, a starting center. However, with the draft, while we had several power forwards on our team, we felt that John Henson was the best player. We expected him to go in the draft between five and nine. So he was the highest rated player on our board, one that we didn’t think would get to us. And I had even said that in a television interview after he worked out for us that I didn’t think there was any way Henson would get to us. But the draft changed. Michael Kidd-Gilchrest went second, and then Dion Waiters went fourth, and that upset the whole balance of the draft in terms of where players were drafted.”
In the NBA, the need for talent supersedes all other needs. With Henson, the Bucks found a talent – but what will Henson do with that talent, and what will the Bucks do with that talent?
In three seasons at North Carolina, Henson developed in some pretty obvious and key areas. He progressed as a scorer, improving his points per game (and points per 40 minutes) numbers each season, averaging 13.7 per game and 17.1 per 40 minutes as a junior. At the same time that his scoring responsibilities increased, so too did his true shooting percentage – and his PER went up each year as well.
What makes his offensive improvements even more encouraging is that Henson cut way down on turning the ball over as a junior (from 3.1 turnovers per 40 minutes in each of his first two seasons to just 1.8 turnovers per 40 minutes), at the same time he featured most prominently on offense.
And despite winning back-to-back ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors in his final two seasons at North Carolina, Henson progressively fouled less and less during his collegiate career, averaging just 1.6 fouls per game (2.2 fouls per 40 minutes) as a junior. The Bucks sent opponents to the free throw line eighth most in the NBA last season, so a defensive-focused player who tends to avoid fouls is a welcome addition.
Last season, rookies Tobias Harris and Jon Leuer both succeeded offensively with surprising efficiency, and that helped earn them minutes – and even starts. But head coach Scott Skiles did not always feature them for long stretches, and the reasoning was always the same: Defensively, the rookies had much to learn at the NBA level.
Likewise, Henson will need to make major adjustments defensively, particularly since at 6’11” and 216 pounds, he will be lighter than almost every opposing power forward and center in the league. Nonetheless, McKinney believes that Henson is primed for success on defense.
“He is ahead of the curve defensively, which is tougher for players to adjust to (in the NBA) from the college level. Most players come in with their offensive game I would say ahead of their defensive game. Here is a guy who understands his role and understands what his strengths are.”
Henson led the ACC in blocked shots per game as a sophomore and junior, but perhaps even more important for the Bucks is that he finished second and first in rebounding in the conference over his final two seasons. The Bucks ranked 25th in defensive rebound rate last season, allowing the opposition far too many extra chances to score. Whether or not you consider defensive rebounding technically as part of defense, it is absolutely a massive factor in determining how many points a team allows.
Hopefully Henson’s shot-blocking and rebounding translates well, no matter where he plays.
Henson is a power forward. He will tell you as much. But McKinney reiterated to me that Henson could slide over and play some spot-duty at center.
“Absolutely. When you look at the pro game now and you talk about the center position, that is a position that has changed quite a bit over the years. You don’t have the positional back-to-the-basket, Shaquille O’Neal-type of centers. So teams play with a smaller lineup, and so, yes, in certain situations John could be the center.”
With a relatively crowded stable of power forwards, possessing the versatility to play multiple positions lends Henson extra value.
“We look at guys who can play at multiple positions in (Scott) Skiles’ schemes, and John is one of those guys. He can play center sometimes and he can play power forward. Just like Larry Sanders. He can play backup center sometimes and sometimes he is a power forward.”
Whether he plays the four or the five, the hoop will still reach ten feet high, and the free-throw line will still be 15 feet away, and Henson will still need to refine his shooting.
Good or bad news first? The bad news is that Henson shot 51.1 % on free throws as a junior. The good news is that Henson improved each season at the line following his 43.8 % mark as a freshman. Not that he will be a focal point of the offense anyway, but the improvements are encouraging, and McKinney feels like Henson will only get better shooting the ball from here on.
“One thing we have noticed, as we have watched Henson, and as our staff has watched him develop over the years, is that he is a better shooter than he has been able to show at North Carolina because he is in their system. While we are not going to be looking for him to be a main scorer, we know that is something that he will continue to improve.”
This goes far beyond simply free throw shooting, of course. Blessed with agility and soft hands, Henson has the capacity to develop into a nice offensive contributor. And now he has all of the time in the world to do so.
“When we have watched him play in the postseason venues or the workout, he was able to step out on the floor and he shot the ball pretty well. And now the difference is between the college and pro game is that he can devote his time to improving his skill, whereas in college there is a certain amount of practice time players can have. So he won’t be limited by that. And he is aware of the time that he will need to put in to improve in that area.”
Henson is set to make his debut with the Bucks this month at the 2012 NBA Summer League in Las Vegas. Playing with fellow current teammates Harris, Larry Sanders, and Doron Lamb, along with three other players with NBA experience, the games will function as a first step of sorts in preparing him for NBA competition. By the time the regular season arrives, McKinney anticipates that Henson will draw on enough experiences to be ready – at least as ready as a rookie can be.
“Much like any rookie player, there are going to be games where he looks 100 percent ready to play and there are going to be games where he struggles. But given that he has played on such a big stage at North Carolina, with big-time games, ACC Tournament championships, mentally he is going to be ready for that. He is going to be ready and willing, as is Lamb, because they both played at championship-level teams. So they both understand what it is going to require for them to work hard, be a good teammate, and what it is going to take to be a great player.”
The Bucks don’t need Henson to be a great player in his first year – they just need him to maximize that talent.
My passions? Writing and the Bucks, to start. So it is good to be here. I have reported on media row for just about every Bucks home game since 2009-10 – almost all of that time writing for BrewHoop. I have also written for the Milwaukee Brewers Baseball Club, SB Nation, ESPN Milwaukee, Slam Online, etc. You can follow me on Twitter @alexboeder or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.