Can John Henson and a talented freshman class get UNC back to the Final Four?
Last week John Henson found himself in the middle of a pickup game with some of his new North Carolina teammates. While the majority of the scrimmages the freshman has participated in during his first two weeks on campus have been amongst the players on the Tar Heels roster, on this day, Henson found himself facing up against the likes of Raymond Felton and Brendan Haywood.
“It’s great playing those guys because you get to be at that high level of competition and see what they do,” Henson says.
Like so many other summers, former UNC greats return to Chapel Hill for these legendary games of pick up, and each year the current Tar Heels get an opportunity to learn from some of the best. This offseason those lessons could prove to be more important than in recent years with a roster that has been depleted of an exceptional amount of talent. The reigning national champs lost four players to the NBA during last week’s draft, so now much of the pressure to perform a strong follow up act will fall on the shoulders of Henson and the other members of yet another impressive recruiting class for Carolina.
Roy Williams signed five players for the 2009 season, all of them ranked in the top 40 nationally by ESPN. The group includes New Jersey guard Dexter Strickland, California twins David and Travis Wear and Tennessee shooting guard Leslie McDonald. While all of these players have impressive resumes and seemingly bright futures, none of them present the type of intrigue that Henson does. Arguably the top incoming power forward in the country, the 6-10 Henson has a combination of size, skill and athleticism that is rarely seen from players at his age.
“He’s a hybrid, when you have a guy that’s 6-10 who can run the floor, shoot the jump shot and have a 7-5 wingspan on the defensive end, that’s something right there,” says former high school coach Curtis Knight. “It’s just a matter of time before this kid becomes something really special.”
Knight coached Henson for three years at Round Rock High in Texas where he saw the youngster develop and grow into a star by his junior season. As a freshman Henson was a 6-3 guard whose game consistent of spotting up and shooting from the top of the key and nothing else.
“He didn’t want to mix it up, bump around or any of that, he was just thin, but his IQ and drive were there,” says Knight.
At the time, Henson was one of the tallest players on the team and while many were calling for the freshman to be put in the post, Knight saw potential in him as a perimeter player. Henson was drilled in all aspects of the game and saw his skills quickly improve in his first year. As a sophomore he began to come into his own, showing an impressive ability to handle the ball and finish with either hand at a young age, but his real awakening as a basketball player didn’t occur until that summer. By the time he returned for his junior year Henson had sprouted five inches and stood 6-8, towering over his teammates, but still possessing the skills of a guard.
From that point on Henson became a force to be reckoned with at the high school level. His sudden increase in size and length made him a nightmare for opposing offenses, sometimes blocking as many as 15 shots in a game. Major programs started to take notice and North Carolina was no exception, heading west to pursue the rising star. Henson took an official visit to the campus as a junior and found himself right at home in Chapel Hill.
“I felt the most at home here,” he says. “The players personalities here just kind of fit with me and who I am as a person. It of course didn’t hurt that it was North Carolina either.”
Henson continued by saying that he feels privileged to be joining a program with as much history and tradition as North Carolina, and that playing for Roy Williams will help him reach greater heights as a player. The first assignment Henson’s new coach has given him has been to add more weight to his rail thin frame.
At 6-10, but just 200 pounds, strength and bulk have always been issues for Henson, and he’s been answering questions about them for the past several years. He knows it may be a while before those kinds of questions start to die down, but he hopes many hours spent in the weight room with UNC’s strength and conditioning coaches this summer will start to help him add size to his frame. While Henson points to his versatility as a big man as his greatest asset to his new team, he knows his weight, or lack thereof, is his biggest weakness.
“My strength that has much been holding me back from being that awesome player that everyone thinks I can be and hopefully will be,” he says. “If I can get stronger than the sky is the limit.”
At least that’s what the Tar Heel faithful are hoping for. Certainly there will be a tremendous amount of talent back in the frontcourt with the returns of Deon Thompson, Tyler Zeller and super sophomore Ed Davis, but there isn’t as much certainty in a backcourt that lacks a tremendous amount of experience. Still, the thought of Davis and Henson patrolling the paint with their enormous wingspans has to be a little more than unsettling for ACC opponents.
Henson and his freshman teammates are aware that they will be expected to contribute in a significant way almost immediately and according to the power forward, they are ready for the challenge.
“At North Carolina there’s always going to be expectations, that’s what we’re coming into,” Henson says. “This season we have a young team so maybe there won’t be as much pressure, but we’re still trying to win and get to that national championship. We’re going to have to put together a follow up act that is good.”
With such a surplus of gifted big men set to see playing time in Chapel Hill come November, Henson is still unclear of what his role with the team is going to be. He certainly won’t be strong enough to be strictly a post player from day one and his skill set is too valuable to waste by simply sticking him on the block. The coaching staff has yet to give the freshman a real idea of where he will be utilized, but he does expect to spend time on the perimeter as the season progresses.
Curtis Knight doesn’t have any more of an idea than Henson does about where his former star player will line up once the season gets underway, but he knows that in some way or another, the newest Tar Heel blue chipper will make his presence felt.
“As an offensive player he’s going to grow just like any other freshman player,” Knight says. “When you come to a top five program like UNC, offensively you’re constantly trying to find your niche. If you look at his lines though in the McDonald’s, Jordan and USA games, his stat line per minute were fantastic. He isn’t one of these players who has to dominate the ball to impact that game.”
“People don’t count the number of altered shots in a game, but with a guy like John they should. They don’t keep those stats, but if you have a good eye for the game you see his impact because of plays like that. He can shoot over the average small forward and take a power forward off the bounce; he can block anyone’s shot.”
It’s abilities like that (and the fact that he’s only 18 years old) that already have NBA scouts eyeing Henson as a potential draft pick in the upcoming future. While the freshman has already been spending some of his summer going head-to-head with current pros, he has his mind on the college game for now.
“I mean of course it’s going to cross your mind, that’s something everyone dreams about. But right now I’m excited to be in Chapel Hill. The NBA is something that if it happens in the future than great. If it’s something that comes up I’ll have to look at it, but right now I’m just trying to enjoy college and have fun.”
If Henson and the rest of UNC’s incoming freshman are able to have fun and focus on their game, it could be mean another deep run into March for the Tar Heels and their fans.