ST. FRANCIS, Wis. — Often lost in the panic a long-term injury sets off is the break somebody else’s misfortune provides to another. While nobody likes to see a teammate get hurt, an opportunity is valuable no matter how it comes.
John Henson was going to be a big part of the Milwaukee’s rotation if it was fully healthy, but injuries to Ersan Ilyasova and Larry Sanders have thrust the second-year forward into a much more prominent and consistent role.
Deemed unready to start last season by former coach Scott Skiles, Henson now seems much more prepared to handle the responsibility.
“I’ve got to stay within myself,” Henson said, “It’s always easier when you know you are going to play a lot. You can let the game come to you, and you don’t have to press the issue so much.”
Five of the nine games Henson started during his rookie season came in late November and early December of last year, while the other four starts came in the last four games of the regular season.
Henson has started at center the last two games after starting just two of Milwaukee’s first 15 contests. He scored 13 points and grabbed 13 rebounds against Boston on Saturday and had 11 points and five rebounds in Tuesday’s rematch with the Celtics.
“The other night short-handed with no Ersan and Zaza (Pachulia) still not at 100 percent, John has had to log on some minutes,” Bucks coach Larry Drew said. “Hopefully he’ll take advantage of this. It’s a big opportunity for all of these guys who haven’t been used to playing these minutes. We need him.”
The most noticeable improvement in Henson’s game has been his blocked shots, as he’s already swatted 36 shots after blocking 42 all of last year. Drew has encouraged Henson to protect the paint, as the Bucks are in desperate need of a last line of defense without Sanders.
Sanders made up for many of Milwaukee’s defensive mistakes, as he was there to erase a player getting beat off the dribble or a blown defensive rotation.
“Defensively, I want him being that anchor on the back line of defense,” Drew said. “Guys who have shot-blocking capabilities, they can erase defensive mistakes very easily. With no Larry Sanders, he’s the guy that does that for us.
“I’m going to continue to push him and try to get him better in that area. When he’s playing at a high level, we stand a good chance of having success.”
Henson was expected to be a shot blocker when he came into the league, but it took him a full season to learn how to protect the rim in the NBA.
“It’s something I was really good at in college,” Henson said. “I think I’m getting more comfortable as the season goes on, just kind of contesting shots. A couple of shots I just kind of jump and block it sometimes. I think that’s a big part in what I’m doing different from last year.
“I wasn’t giving myself a chance. I’m doing that a lot more this year, jumping around and flying around.”
Unlike Sanders, Henson has racked up his blocked shots without running into foul trouble. Drew feels it comes down to having a timing ability.
“You find a lot of leapers that leave their feet a lot,” Drew said. “They can block shots but they leave their feet a lot. He doesn’t do that. He stays grounded and times when to go up and contest. That’s something that’s very unique about him.”
Henson’s offensive game was questioned after being picked 14th overall by the Bucks in the 2012 NBA Draft, but he’s shown an ability to use his length and athleticism to become a threat on that end of the floor.
He’s averaging 10.4 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.1 blocks and shooting 51.4 percent from the field, playing 24.9 minutes per game. Drew tries to get him the ball in what he calls his “sweet spot”, the area on the floor where Henson is almost automatic to score.
“I really like John’s game,” Bucks assistant coach Scott Williams, who works with the team’s big men, said. “I like his length and his athletic ability. We’re working on his strength and timing. The scouting report is kind of out. He likes the right shoulder turn to his left-handed hook.
“I think we’re going to take the month of December and really start working on a counter move to that. We started Sunday working on a right-hand hook, more left-shoulder turn stuff.”
Williams’ message to Henson about learning a counter move was met with open arms. Henson knows he has a comfort level with his left hand and sees how teams who know that play him.
“As I watch more film on myself, it’s almost like I have a wide-open lane to my right hand when I turn,” Henson said. “I think I have trouble because I can always get the left hook off over someone, but if I would come back to my right it would be a lot easier and be an uncontested shot.
“I’ve got to find a balance. It’s building that trust in the right.”
Henson will likely continue to start at center with Sanders out, but Drew isn’t sure if the 22-year-old’s future is at the five spot.
“Possibly,” Drew said. “If he gets stronger down low, I can see that happening. There are a lot of guys in our league that are not very big from a strength and weight standpoint that play the five position. I don’t see why he couldn’t do it, he just has to get a little bit stronger.”