CHICAGO — For most of his career, John Henson has been an enigma.
His talent and physical gifts are apparent, but his inconsistent play over his first three years in the NBA left it fair to question whether he’d ever put it all together.
But in what really is his first taste of the playoffs, Henson is playing some of the best basketball of his career and is one of the reasons why the Milwaukee Bucks have forced a Game 6 in their best-of-seven first-round series with the Chicago Bulls.
"In this series, he’s been one of our best players on both ends, offensively and defensively," Bucks coach Jason Kidd said. "I think he protects a lot of these guys on the perimeter. He understands his role and is playing at a very high level right now."
Henson is averaging 9.8 points, 9.2 rebounds and 2.0 blocks while playing 27.8 minutes per game in the series.
He finished with 15 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks in Milwaukee’s double-overtime loss in Game 3 and grabbed 10 fourth-quarter rebounds (14 overall) in the Bucks’ Game 5 win.
"Just rebound, man," Henson said. "One shot, one rebound, and that’s what we tried to do in the fourth quarter is hold them to one shot. We made them take some tough shots so we had to finish the play."
Henson’s length and activity level has made him a much more impactful option at center than starter Zaza Pachulia for most of the series against the Bulls.
Chicago is shooting just 34.0 percent when Henson is the primary defender, while players are shooting 13.0 percent worse than their normal field-goal percentage against the 6-foot-11 center.
"He’s been huge for us. He brings a lot of energy off that bench. He’s a long, athletic big that can challenge guys at the rim," Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton said. "When he’s engaged in the game and just playing hard, playing with energy he just gives us a whole other look out there and makes us a lot more aggressive."
Henson, who finished fifth in the NBA in blocks per game (2.01) and first in blocks per 48 minutes (5.28), has swatted multiple shots in three of the five games in the series. He was credited with just one block in Game 5, but he altered numerous shots as the Bulls went 3-of-20 in the paint during the fourth quarter.
Giannis Antetokounmpo had four blocks Monday, while Michael Carter-Williams rejected three.
"Giannis had some big ones," Henson said. "I think that is a little discouraging. It makes them look over their shoulder. They missed a few easy chip shots. I’d like to think that’s because we were flying around. That’s what our defense does."
After averaging 11.1 points, 7.1 rebounds and 1.7 blocks in 26.5 minutes per game last season, Henson saw his playing time dip to just 18.3 minutes per game in 2014-15.
He began the season behind Larry Sanders and Zaza Pachulia at center and Jabari Parker and Ersan Ilyasova at power forward. Once Sanders left the team, Henson became Milwaukee’s primary backup center and only rim protecting big man.
A high-left ankle sprain cost Henson a month during the regular season, but his time away from the court allowed for self-reflection. Henson realized he had to consistently play with a higher level of energy and effort in order for his physical ability to have an impact.
He returned to average 9.0 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.3 blocks in 20.9 minutes over a 30-game stretch spanning the end of December through February. But Henson’s inconsistency was on display in March when he averaged just 5.5 points and 5.3 rebounds.
Henson has turned it up in the playoffs, however. According to NBA.com’s Player Impact Estimate, the 24-year-old has been Milwaukee’s most impactful player in its series against Chicago.
"The playoffs are a new season — everybody has a lot of energy," Henson said. "A lot of extra effort is going to be needed to beat a team like the Bulls. I’m just trying to do my part.
"(We have) nothing to lose. This is like an NCAA tournament game. You win or go home. There’s a different type of feel, and it was good to be out there playing for your life, playing for your season. We don’t have anything to do this summer, so we’re trying to stay here as long as we can."