LAS VEGAS – A lot can happen in a year, and John Henson only had to glance at the end of the Milwaukee Bucks’ Summer League bench Tuesday for a reminder.
One year ago, Henson’s teammate Larry Sanders was trying to claw his way into a role with the Bucks. His summer work wasn’t all that special, though, and some scouts questioned his long-term viability – not just in Milwaukee but in the NBA – as training camp opened in October.
And then …
“I remember in a preseason game, Cleveland, the switch went on and he just took off,” Henson said.
Sanders’ game blew up in 2012-13 as he became a rebounding and shot-blocking menace in Milwaukee’s middle. He wound up third in balloting for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award and seventh for Defensive Player of the Year, and he’s in Vegas this week waiting for the USA Basketball Men’s National Team mini-camp to which he earned an invitation.
One year can make a huge difference, and Henson is eager to walk in his buddy’s shoes. In the Bucks’ opener Saturday, the 6-foot-11 forward from North Carolina had 19 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks. After missing the next game with a groin strain, Henson nearly got a “triple-double” Tuesday against Golden State – 15 rebounds (nine in the first quarter) with nine points and (gulp) eight turnovers. He blocked three shots again but shot 3-of-10 and got a little sidetracked in physical but fun matchup with the Warriors’ Draymond Green. Their rivalry dates back to college when Green was at Michigan State.
Green, who shot 2-of-12 himself, blamed Golden State teammate Harrison Barnes (another USA camp invitee) for “talking junk” to both Green and Henson to further stoke the matchup. Still, each got something out of it – Green coping with Henson’s length and Henson dealing with Green’s endless summer-league supply of bruising fouls.
“We both shot awful,” Green said. “But he’s always been active. He’s longer than a lot of guys in this league. He uses it well on the defensive end and offensive rebounds. We were able to kind of limit him in the post and he got a few turnovers, but overall I think John’s going to be a very good player.”
Said Henson of Green’s heavy contact: “That’s the summer league. I need that, so it’s cool. Just the physicality and crashing the boards and holding my position on the post. That’s all you can ask for.”
The Bucks are going to be asking Henson for a lot in his second season. He, Sanders, Ersan Ilyasova and raw draftee Giannis Antetokounmpo now form the core of their young front line. Veterans Samuel Dalembert and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute won’t be back, and while the Bucks battled the Warriors, warehoused big man Drew Gooden got shed via the collective bargaining agreement’s amnesty provision.
“Drew is gone? Aw [bleep],” Henson said, learning the news a few minutes after the game. “That’s kind of what’s going on. It’s everybody’s ‘first year’ with a new coach now [Larry Drew]. So we’ve all got to learn new stuff. It’s a new era.”
Henson doesn’t need a Sanders-like switch to flip in his game. His challenge was opportunity – he averaged 16.5 points and 12.9 boards pro-rated to 36 minutes. Problem was, he only had two games in which he played that much (17 points and 25 rebounds at Orlando in April and one week later 28 points and 16 boards at Oklahoma City). He averaged just 13.1 points for coaches Scott Skiles, then Jim Boylan.
This season, under Drew, the minutes should be there.
“He’s really working,” Sanders said. “He’s been working on his body, been working on his game. His awareness is really catching up to his body. So he’s figuring out where he is on defense, getting those boards. I think with experience he’ll keep getting better and better.”
Said Henson: “Some players like Larry, it happens [suddenly].”
He snapped his fingers, and continued: “Some people gradually build up to that level. I think I’m building up. Couple more years in, I hope I can be a force in this league. That’s kind of my goal.”