Long on Promise

Carolina’s Henson fits the bill for Pistons – if his lanky frame holds up

The biggest question about John Henson is about his size and strength.
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images Sport
(Editor’s note: True Blue Pistons continues a 14-part series leading to the June 28 draft with a look at John Henson, one of seven big men who could be on the board when the Pistons pick at No. 9. Coming Wednesday: Tyler Zeller.)

Coming out of high school in Tampa three years ago, John Henson had few peers. He was a virtually unanimous top-five prospect, right there with a group that included three players who would be top-five NBA picks after their freshman seasons: John Wall, Derrick Favors and DeMarcus Cousins.

But Henson arrived at North Carolina weighing 183 pounds on a 6-foot-10 frame and many projected him as a small forward because of that spindly build. After three largely productive seasons in Chapel Hill, perhaps the number most important to Henson is 33. That’s how many pounds he’s managed to gain since, giving NBA executives picking in the 2012 lottery at least some tangible evidence he can continue to gain the strength necessary to play power forward in the world’s most competitive basketball league, where weaknesses are soon spotted and exploited.

If the Pistons are reasonably comfortable with Henson’s ability to handle his one-on-one matchup with the likes of Josh Smith, David West, Carlos Boozer and Elton Brand – among the premier power forwards in the Eastern Conference he’d have to guard – then they probably wouldn’t endure much hesitation in picking Henson among a group of big men who figure to be in range for the No. 9 pick in the June 28 draft.

That’s about the only question mark with Henson – but it’s a whopper. He knows it.

“They don’t necessarily ask will I be strong enough to hold my position,” Henson told me at the Chicago draft combine a few weeks ago. “They want to know if I’m going to work on getting stronger and getting bigger. I think I have a lot of potential (to add weight and strength). Every year, I’ve gotten stronger; every year, I’ve gotten bigger and more comfortable.”

Henson said he played at 221 pounds as a Carolina junior, when he averaged 13.7 points and 9.9 rebounds a game despite sharing frontcourt touches with fellow lottery prospect Tyler Zeller, a 7-footer and another player the Pistons figure to consider with their pick, on a team that also featured high-scoring wing Harrison Barnes, projected by most to be gone before the Pistons’ turn.

“John is obviously very talented,” Barnes said of his teammate. “He is (on the light side), but I think he can come in and have an impact. Obviously, there will be a learning curve, but I think him being lanky and skinny adds a little to his game. If he bulked up, it might change his game; he might be a different player.”

To be sure, Henson’s frame simply didn’t seem an issue in college, where he averaged 2.9 blocked shots as a junior and 3.2 as a sophomore while almost never getting into foul trouble. In 36 junior games, Henson didn’t foul out and only reached four fouls once. That at least suggests Henson knows well how to defend without letting post players get their bodies into him and turn post play into a wrestling match.

That’s a testament not only to Henson’s incredible length – he tied Norfolk State’s Kyle O’Quinn, a potential second-round draft target of the Pistons, for No. 1 standing reach (9-foot-3½) in combine measurements – but his understanding of how to best use it to his advantage.

Henson’s strengths – rebounding and shot blocking, leading the ACC in both categories – come in the two areas that history tells us most reliably translate from one level to the next. His rebounding and shot-blocking prowess has ended all talk that Henson is destined to develop into a small forward, where his lack of bulk would have been less of a concern. But Henson’s running and ability to put the ball on the floor should make him a tough matchup for power forwards more comfortable playing near the rim, too.

Unlike some prospects the Pistons are surely contemplating in addition to Henson, he was amazingly consistent in college. Only four times did he fail to score in double figures as a junior, one of them against Maryland in the ACC tournament when he suffered a wrist injury and played just seven minutes, and in 21 games he scored between 12 and 18 points. Only four times besides the Maryland game did he fail to grab at least eight rebounds.

Did he pad his stats against weak teams? Nope. He blocked nine shots, his best, against Michigan State in the game played on a U.S. Naval carrier near San Diego. He proved durable, too, despite his apparent frailty; the only three games Henson missed in his three years in Chapel Hill came after the wrist injury against Maryland.

Henson’s biggest challenge in the NBA, beyond the strength implications, will be developing one or two bread-and-butter ways to score. He figures to be a weapon in transition and on lob passes. His length should provide him a handful of opportunities each game to get his hands on missed shots at the rim. Henson developed a surprisingly effective hook with either hand from within 10 feet over the past season, often preferring to use his left over his natural right. As a face-up jumper, he’s a work in progress, but he doesn’t appear to lack confidence as a shooter. One area that Henson must improve: free-throw shooting, where he barely cracked 50 percent as a junior.

A slight ankle sprain caused Henson to pull out of Chicago athletic testing and might have affected his surprisingly limited vertical leap of 30 inches. Even at that, Henson’s maximum vertical reach – standing reach plus the jump – put him at 11-foot-10, a top-four combine number.

Of the seven big men we’re profiling on Pistons.com for this draft series – Henson, Zeller, Arnett Moultrie, Meyers Leonard, Perry Jones III, Jared Sullinger and Terrence Jones – Henson might be the one with the best chance to be drafted ahead of the Pistons. His workout schedule after the Chicago combine included three teams with picks ahead of the Pistons: Sacramento (No. 5), Portland (6 and 11) and Golden State (7).

Henson projects intelligence and self-confidence when he speaks and comes out of Carolina with the reputation as being a low-maintenance player, fairly remarkable in this day for one who had been earmarked at an early age as an AAU phenom. He interviewed with the Pistons in Chicago and told media there that his workout with them in Auburn Hills was scheduled for June 25, three days before the draft.

Media reports have indicated that the workout will be a doozy: Henson, Sullinger, Zeller, both Joneses and Leonard. That group, in some combinations, will have seen a lot of each other by the time the draft rolls aroun. Teams are logically looking to see how Henson holds up against the brawny defenders like Sullinger, and to see whether Sullinger can get shots off against long defenders like Henson.

Henson had done his homework on the Pistons, knowing about the fruits of the last two Joe Dumars drafts.

“Greg Monroe had a great year this year and Brandon Knight really took over the reins as the leader of that team as the guy they’re going to put in position to lead them,” he said in Chicago. “They’re on the brink and they’ve got some good, young pieces. If they choose to pick me, I think I can help them out. I think I would fit great (next to Monroe). He’s kind of a back-to-the-basket guy, a down-low, gritty guy, and I think I can offset that with my athleticism.”