ST. FRANCIS, Wis. — Jim Boylan could sense some frustration from his rookie forward. John Henson wasn’t playing much, something he’s not accustomed to.
The Bucks coach called Henson into his office roughly two weeks ago and delivered a message: If you are going to make the progress necessary to play, certain things need to change.
“It’s always interesting when young guys come into the league,” Boylan said. “They don’t understand what it takes, and it’s interesting to watch to see if they can get it during the course of the year.
“John has made a lot of progress in the last couple weeks as far as understanding what you need to do, the work ethic that you need to have especially when you are a young player and you aren’t playing that much. You’ve got to stay ready, you have to keep working.”
The message got through to Henson loud and clear.
“Just off the court, just staying a little extra, doing weights, that type of thing,” Henson said. “Just trying to get better every day.
“It was just one of those things where he was like ‘Hey, put your head down (and work). We have a lot of guys, you did well when you got a chance, and try to get ready for the playoff run. And if you get a chance, go out there and perform. That’s what I’ve been trying to do.”
Henson got his chance Wednesday night and flashed his tremendous talent. With power forward Ersan Ilyasova missing the game against Orlando with an illness and center Larry Sanders leaving in the first quarter with a back injury, Henson provided the lone bright spot in an otherwise gut-wrenching overtime loss to the lowly Magic.
The rookie’s final like was eye-popping: 17 points, 25 rebounds and seven blocked shots. Shaquille O’Neal, Dikembe Mutombo and Hakeem Olajuwon are the only other players to have at least that line in those categories in NBA history, and Henson the only one to do it off the bench.
Twenty-five rebounds were the most by a bench player since Dennis Rodman in 1995 and the most by a rookie since O’Neal in 1993. Wednesday’s performance proved the talent is there; now Henson just had to figure out how to go about his business to be ready when his time on the floor comes.
“He has a lot of improvement that he can (make),” Boylan said. “He has a lot of skills to work with. He just needs to focus his energy and attention to the details of the game, to getting himself better. He’s been doing a much better job of that recently. I think the light has gone on in understanding what he needs to do. If he does that, that’s all you can ask for.”
For Henson, it was about realizing he’s not in college anymore. He admitted the jump to the NBA from North Carolina might have been tougher than he expected. After a big game against Miami in December, former Bucks coach Scott Skiles rushed him into the starting lineup.
Henson wasn’t ready for the jump, something Skiles admitted shortly after. Henson played quite a bit during Skiles’ last three games as coach and during the beginning of Boylan’s tenure but then fell out of the rotation.
He averaged just 10.2 minutes in February and 9.7 minutes in March, mostly in garbage time.
“I think the biggest thing coach told me was you have to be a professional,” Henson said. “This is not college anymore, you are paid to do this. You have to act accordingly, and that’s what I’ve been trying to do.
“It’s tough, but that’s life as a rookie. There’s probably only three or four rookies in this whole league that are playing consistent substantial minutes. You just have to work and get better every day.”
It’s the exact same process Sanders had to go through his first two seasons in the league. He played 14.5 minutes per game as a rookie and just 12.5 per game in 52 games last season. Instead of letting frustration get the best of him, Sanders eventually figured out hard work and relentless effort were going to be his ticket to the floor.
Now he’s one of the NBA’s most improved players and is willing and able to help Henson through his learning process.
“I talk to Johnny all the time just to stay positive,” Sanders said. “Don’t let the situation rule you; you rule the situation. That’s what he’s been doing. He’s been getting better at staying positive and being ready when he does get out there on the floor. That’s going to help his progression, and he’ll be a better player next year.
“You’ve been playing all your life, starting and one of the key factors of the team. Then you get to the NBA and the position changes. It’s tough to deal with at first. I just keep telling him to stay positive and your opportunity will come.”
Since the meeting, Henson has lifted weights every day. He seems to be taking Boylan’s advice to heart. Performances like Wednesday’s also certainly go a long way toward helping a young player want to work.
“I’ve done well when I’ve got a chance,” Henson said. “There could be another game where I have to play a lot of minutes. I’ll be ready to play and play well, help the team and not hurt us.”
Whenever Milwaukee’s season ends, Henson plans to do a little court work right away but then spend the majority of his time in the weight room getting stronger. He’ll then return to Milwaukee sometime in June to start working out, getting ready for the Summer League.
What hurts him most is not knowing who his coach is going to be. Henson has established a good relationship with Boylan. The two can be open and honest with each other, but Henson may have to start over with a new coach next season.
“That’s one of those things that’s a question mark,” Henson said. “He’s done great things for me. At the beginning of the season, he sat me down and helped me out a little bit and made me feel like I can play at this level. We’ll see what happens and hope for the best.”
Regardless of whether he’s around to see it, Boylan is working for Henson’s future. It would be very easy for a coach without a contract for next season to have his sights set only on the present, but Boylan didn’t hold his meeting with Henson for this year’s team but for Bucks teams down the road.
“I always tell young guys ‘You want to be able to reach your potential,’ ” Boylan said. “Whatever that potential is, you want to be able to reach it because you are a hard worker, you are focused and you are dedicated.’ If you do that, then you become as good as you can become. If that’s an All-Star, that’s an All-Star. If that’s a guy who is a role player, then that’s who you are. Be who you can be.”