ST. FRANCIS, Wis. — Consistency was certainly not a word used to describe John Henson’s rookie season with the Milwaukee Bucks. Minutes were sporadic, as was his level of play. But there also were flashes of great talent, as the first-round pick put up some incredible stat lines.
After an offseason that included many appearances on behalf of the team and countless hours working in the gym, Henson is hopeful his second season will include more consistent efforts leading to a bigger role with the Bucks.
“Hopefully that’s what happens but you never know until you get into practice and kind of establish everybody’s roles,” Henson said. “I’m going to play hard and hopefully I’ll get consistent minutes.”
Though the Bucks feel Henson’s time to shine is going to come sooner rather than later, Ersan Ilyasova is going to start at power forward. That doesn’t mean Henson isn’t going to play a major role, but he’s going to have to do it off the bench for now.
Two entirely different players, Ilyasova and Henson give the Bucks versatility at the power forward position. Bucks coach Larry Drew has the flexibility to mix in match both players and could even play them together at times.
“I think it’s a perfect 1-2 punch, to be honest,” Henson said. “Ers is one of the top stretch 4s in the league and I’m in there finishing around the basket. It’s a good contrast, and I think we’re going to be able to use that to our advantage.”
Henson turned in a strong performance in summer league for the Bucks, averaging 14.7 points and 13.7 rebounds in the three games he played. He’s carried his summer success over to training camp, earning the praise of his new coach.
“I think John is really starting to find his niche, with his size and his length,” Drew said. “Defensively, he’s really good protecting the basket, shot-blocking. Offensively, he’ll know from within where his scoring opportunities will come.”
Bursting onto the scene by scoring 17 points and grabbing 18 rebounds against Miami on Nov. 21 last season, Henson was put into the starting lineup prematurely by former coach Scott Skiles.
He quickly came out of the starting lineup and played sparingly for most of December. Though the minutes were sporadic for most of the year, Henson had some eye-opening performances. Going head-to-head with Tim Duncan and the Spurs, Henson scored 20 points with nine rebounds.
Henson had 25 rebounds on April 10 against Orlando, the most in a game by a rookie since Shaquille O’Neal in 1993. He filled the box score that night with 17 points and seven blocked shots, becoming just the fourth player in NBA history with that stat line.
“I take solace in knowing I can do that at this level,” Henson said. “I think it’s more about having consistent efforts. That’s my goal this year.
“I matured so much over the NBA season. I have a little different mindset coming into this camp. I’m not as nervous, and I’m not looking around to see what to do. I think that’s going to help me out.”
During the team’s media day last week, Henson, Larry Sanders and rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo posed for a photo along the baseline. Extending their arms, the combined wingspan of the three stretched over the width of the paint.
Though all three are in different phases, each are still a work in progress for the Bucks. Long, athletic and full of potential, the trio represents the future of the franchise.
“I think it has potential to be a championship-caliber frontline someday,” Bucks general manager John Hammond said. “I really think it has that potential. So much of it is going to depend on how good does Larry Sanders want to be? Does he want to be one of the best in the league? Same thing is true with John Henson. Same thing is true of Giannis. Those are young guys that have to prove it. If they do, sky is the limit for all three of them.”
Sanders is going to start and play the bulk of the minutes at center, while Antetokounmpo likely won’t see the floor much as he adjusts to the NBA and the United States. Henson has to find his role, one that could include him seeing time at the center position with Ilyasova playing alongside him.
Henson is leaving it up to Drew to figure out where he plays and when, as the 14th overall pick in the 2012 draft is open to playing anywhere if it means getting on the court. He played well with Ilyasova last season and also has a good chemistry with reserve forward Ekpe Udoh.
“You’re definitely going to get a different look because Ers is a guy who can stretch it out to the 3-point line, and John is more of a midrange and he’s much more effective around the basket,” Drew said. “We’ll be able to move both guys around. Their versatility can cause some problems from a matchup standpoint.
“Ersan gets a 4 guy who isn’t used to hanging around that 3-point line, he’s going to get some good looks. John gets a finesse guy that’s not used to banging too much on that low block, then we post him up.”
All four of Milwaukee’s returnees are in the frontline, signifying the team is completely comfortable with its power forward and center position. Free-agent addition Zaza Pachulia will play whenever he’s healthy, adding another body to the crowded frontcourt.
“It’s going to be exciting, man,” Henson said. “I think we’re really going to be able to protect the basket and rebound. Those are two vital things on the defensive end. If they can’t score we don’t have to score as much, and that leads to wins. That’s going to be big for us.”
At this time last year, Sanders was almost an afterthought and facing a make or break third season. One breakout campaign later, and he’s the face of the franchise with a nice contract extension. Henson watched his close friend emerge and knows his time will come if he keeps working to get better on a daily basis.
“Larry made a tremendous jump from his first two years to his third,” Henson said. “I’m just trying to improve. I’m not trying to do too much. I just want to become a contributing factor to this team on a consistent basis every night.”