Q+A: John Henson

by January 22, 2014

by Leo Sepkowitz | @LSepkowitzSLAM

If you don’t mind, please open up your Milwaukee Bucks 2013-14 program. Flip to the page where it gives the basic player information for everybody on the team—you know, stats, age, years in the L, etc. On that page is where you’ll find the 15-man roster for the only team in the NBA with fewer than 10 wins.

On that page is where you’ll find nothing but promise from one of the League’s youngest cores.

On that page, you’ll read about Larry Sanders, a fourth-year rim-protector in its finest and most electric form. You’ll read about Giannis Antetokounmpo, an 19-year-old athletic marvel who’s already producing in a big way while failing to scratch the surface of what he can do years down the line. You’ll read about Brandon Knight, a third-year guard who nearly averaged 20, 5 and 5 for December, his first healthy month as a Buck. You’ll read about Khris Middleton, a sophomore throw-in to the deal that brought Knight to Milwaukee in July, who the Pistons surely wish they had back. You’ll read about an impressive amount of skilled young players on that one page, perhaps none more rapidly improving or vital to Milwaukee’s long-term plans than John Henson.

The 14th overall pick in the 2012 Draft, Henson had a typical rookie season: some big nights, stretches with inconsistent minutes and stretches with inconsistent play. He got his feet under him in the season’s final five games, where he averaged 15 points and 15 rebounds while sending back nearly 3 shots per contest.

John HensonHenson has carried that momentum into this season, where he ranks behind only Anthony Davis, Roy Hibbert, Serge Ibaka and DeAndre Jordan in blocks per game. He’s averaging roughly 12 points (52.5 percent) and 8 boards to go with his 2.3 rejections, and his PER (if you’re into that sorta stuff) ranks just below Tim Duncan and above the likes of David Lee, Al Jefferson and Chris Bosh.

Needless to say, Milwaukee has a building block in the 23-year-old big man, who was kind enough to talk to SLAM about his days at North Carolina, going up against the League’s toughest bigs, where the Bucks go from here and much more.

SLAM: You were very highly recruited out of high school. You grew up in North Carolina. Were you always going to go to UNC if you could, or did you give any though to Duke or any other schools?

John Henson: It was between UNC and Texas. At the time, I was living in Austin, which is really close to Texas, so that was kind of my favorite. But you know, UNC came in and kind of swept me off my feet so to say, and that’s the choice I took.

SLAM: Did you think about staying for your senior year?

JH: No, not really, man. It was my time to go. We made a run at a championship, unfortunately, we didn’t get as far as we wanted. But it was kind of one of those last things that I think me, Z (Tyler Zeller), Kendall [Marshall] and Harrison [Barnes] kind of decided that, you know, it was time to move on.

SLAM: Marshall has had the toughest road among you guys, but it seems like Mike D’Antoni’s system has been great for him.

JH: Yeah, he’s playing well. I shot him a text before he got his first start like, ‘Hey man, this is your opportunity to show the NBA that you’re here to stay,’ and I think he’s done that.

SLAM: What did you learn from Roy Williams in your three years at UNC?

JH: It was a lot of off-the-court—you know, discipline. Being on time, being respectful, being a man of your word—that type of thing. Just growing up as a young man. I think that’s one of the biggest takeaways from the college level you could get, in terms of players leaving early. You know, I think the longer you stay the more mature you become, and it definitely helps you when you get to this next level in the NBA.

SLAM: Your first game as a rookie, you got the Grizzlies—Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph—probably the toughest frontcourt in the NBA, certainly one of the most physical. How was that for a ‘Welcome to the League?’

JH: It was kind of surreal just being out there. I had been injured for a little and just trying to get my feet under me and I think when I scored that first basket and got that first rebound, I kind of settled down. But having Z-Bo as your first guy to guard is pretty tough, but I think I handled it well.

SLAM: In your fourth game, you went into Miami against LeBron and Bosh and everyone else and you exploded for 17 points and 18 boards. What was that like for your confidence?

JH: Oh man, it was great for my confidence. I think to the day it’s still one of the things I look back on as one of the reasons I play the way I’m playing and have this kind of effect on the game. It was kind of one of those, ‘I belong, I can do this’ type of thing. I think confidence is a big thing for young players.

SLAM: You guys have struggled early on this season, but you and Larry Sanders are getting healthy. Is there a feeling that you can get this thing going in the right direction?

JH: Yeah, you know, the East is not doing too well [laughs], so I think if we can kinda steadily start winning games, we can put ourselves back into the Playoff race and it wouldn’t take much. But, you know, we need to start quick because the gap is widening every game that we lose.

SLAM: You’ve got a lot of young talent now. I’m gonna run some names by you and I want a quick scouting report—what the guy does well, what he does that impresses you, that kind of thing…Larry Sanders.

JH: Oh! He’s obviously one of the best defenders in this League and he’s still trying to get his rhythm back, missing 20-something games. He’s a finisher and rebounder. At the center position these days, that’s kinda what you need to be successful, so if we can kinda build on the parts around him, I think we’ll be fine.

SLAM: How about Brandon Knight?

JH: Oh man, he’s scoring the ball right now. That’s just a credit to how hard of a worker he is and I think he’s going to be a key piece for us. When he plays well, we play well.

SLAM: Khris Middleton…

JH: Oh yeah, you know, Khris, he’s a great shooter, and he works on that everyday as well—before practice, after practice, shows up before the games. And I think he’s an underrated defender too, man. I don’t think people give him credit for that.

SLAM: And what about the rookie, Giannis Antetokounmpo?

JH: [Laughs at poor pronunciation of last name] Giannis, man, he’s learning everyday and he’s getting better everyday. I think he has a bright future, he’s only 18 years old. He’ll be on his second contract when he’s my age, and I’m on my rookie contract. I can’t wait to see him in four years.

SLAM: What do you guys call him in the locker room?

JH: Giannis, man. Just call him Giannis. Or ‘rook’ or something. With the last name…we just kinda stay away from that.

SLAM: He seems like a guy who’s really got a knack for playing—has a sense for where guys are on the floor, can rebound, can take the ball down court easily, no sweat.

JH: I think as he gets older you’ll start to see it more: he’s a playmaker, so, you know, when the ball’s in his hands he makes plays, whether it’s scoring, passing, shooting, throwing lobs. So, as he gets older we’re probably going to start facilitating more through him because he makes good decisions and he can kind of see over the defense as well.

SLAM: Between you, Giannis and Sanders, unofficially that’s gotta be the longest frontcourt in NBA history, wing-span wise. How excited are you to play alongside those guys going forward?

JH: I can’t wait, man. It’s going to be fun and it’s coming soon, so tell everybody to be patient and it’s gonna hopefully look good and hopefully we could get some wins, too… That’s kinda the goal, man. Just have us grow together and stay together and I think down the line, we all can get it together, I think it could be one of the more fearsome frontcourts, especially defensively, that are out there.

SLAM: Personally, you came into the League mostly known for your defense and rebounding. Your offense has come around though. Are you looking for your shot more this year?

JH: You know, I’m not the greatest low-post scorer, but I think that’s something we’re missing on the team right now, and coach [Larry] Drew has kinda entrusted me with being the guy that he wants to go to in the post. I think that’s given me confidence and helped me out offensively, and it’s kinda snowballed into something that’s actually ended up being pretty successful for me.

SLAM: In Drew’s system in Atlanta, Josh Smith and Al Horford had so much success working off of each other. Do you think, in time, you and Larry can replicate that?

JH: Oh yeah, I think we can, man. We’re both gonna improve as the years go on and over the summers we work out together and stuff like that. So there’s a chance for us to be really good and hopefully we can keep on that path and also you wanna win, and that creates confidence, and in return helps everybody out.

SLAM: Defensively, do you see yourself as more of a Roy Hibbert or Sanders-type rim protector, or a guy who can go out on the perimeter and make plays there?

JH: I see myself as a rim-protector. Especially with Larry down there, it’s gonna be tough to get to the rim. So then it becomes a matter of judging which shots to go at and which shots to box out on, because when you got two shot-blockers going for the shot, you leave somebody open on the board. So that’s just something we gotta figure out as we play with each other and I think it’ll be fine.

SLAM: About a month ago, you wore a shirt with the NCAA logo, only it had ‘SCAM’ written on it instead, presumably a reference to the situations surrounding Leslie McDonald, who you came to UNC with your freshman year, and PJ Hairston, who was a freshman when you were a junior. How important was it to you to make a statement, and why that shirt? Why do you feel the NCAA is a scam?

JH: It was just one of those things where how I felt—the shirt kind of said it all. I don’t know if it’s necessarily a ‘scam,’ but that kind of sent the message, you know, some things I disagree with in what they do. That’s kinda the statement I wanted to make, and hopefully in the future they can make changes and get things better. It’s unfortunate what happened to PJ, but that really wasn’t an NCAA thing—the school didn’t send a reinstatement letter, so it happens, and hopefully he’ll be fine and move on with his career.

SLAM: Last thing—you’ve played a lot of positions already, some time at small forward, power forward, center…who’s the toughest guy to guard at any position?

JH: [Thinking] Ummm…It’s funny, there are a lot of guys that are tough to guard, man. Out of respect for one of the all-time greats, I think Tim Duncan was one of the hardest guys to guard. He’s his old self and he’s still so tough to guard, I can’t even imagine him in his prime, so that’s what I’m thinking.

SLAM: How about an unknown guy, maybe an up-and-comer who people wouldn’t put in that upper-echelon yet?

JH: [Thinking] You know what? Andrew Nicholson is tough down low. People wouldn’t really think about it, but he’s got some stuff down low.