From every indication, John Henson is ready to play defense in the NBA.
For his sake, I hope that’s true. Because his capability to play defense this year could have quite an impact on his career.
Henson is probably going to land on his feet no matter what. He was a very highly regarded high school talent and an excellent college player. Plus he has the physical characteristics of a very good NBA player, even if he is a bit slight. But for him to reach his full potential, it seems like he’s going to have to find a way to start earning minutes with more volume and speed than either Larry Sanders or Tobias Harris did as rookies.
Why did Sanders and Harris struggle for minutes? Inexperience (Sanders started playing ball in high school and Harris spent but a year at Tennessee) and a general lack of awareness on the defensive end. Both struggled to guard their position and, with the Bucks constantly heading full speed into the playoff race, could not be trusted with many minutes. Scott Skiles plays the players who give him the best chance to win. That’s why we saw Brandon Jennings snatch away the starting position from Luke Ridnour before the season even became regular. He was a better player more prepared to help the Bucks.
And we’ve seen some pretty positive strides from Jennings over the past few seasons. He was incapable of finishing at the rim or going right as a rookie. Now, he’s a nearly average finisher at the rim … even if he still isn’t a dynamo with his right hand. But he has certainly developed. He’s gotten closer and closer to being the players the Bucks need him to be every season since his rookie year.
According to David Thorpe, that should be no surprise.
David Thorpe has been making similar points for years. He talks all the time about “the royal jelly.” Literally, that’s what worker bees feed a chosen baby bee to make her the queen. But it’s also, says Thorpe, what coaches and others can feed players to help them achieve their potential. A lot of it has to do with building confidence. Throughout his career, Thorpe has been accused of hyping up his players up and giving them big heads, to which he replies, jokingly, “guilty!” Thorpe is convinced that “the royal jelly” can and has fundamentally changed the careers of countless players. The gold standard of helping a player evolve, he says, starts with playing time.
“Playing time is the first part,” says Thorpe. “A coach’s support is another thing — it helps you grow as a player if you know you’re not going to get yanked the first time you miss a shot. That gives you the confidence to be creative and expand your game. And then the final aspect of the ideal set-up is coaching you up on the new things you’re adding to your game. A great recent example of this was Trevor Ariza with the Lakers last season. In the spring, everyone was wondering why they’d let him shoot all those 3s. It wasn’t productive. But they needed him to be able to do that, they let him do that, they didn’t yank him for doing that, and they coached him how to do that better. And in the playoffs he was amazing at that and helped them win a championship.”On a lot of teams, Ariza would have been condemned to the low-earning life of a non-shooter, but the coaching situation, and minutes, turned him into a sniper.
Maybe the Bucks were forced to make it work with Jennings because he was the first player with a bit of wow to come through Milwaukee in quite a while, but they certainly fed him some “royal jelly” over his first three seasons. From day one, he was a starter given a long leash. He was mocked for failing to eclipse 40% shooting in each of his first two seasons. But the Bucks stuck with him. He earned that with his ability and adherence to what the Bucks wanted. Even when he struggled and the Bucks had alternatives, Ridnour mainly, they stuck with him.
His situation was different than the one Henson is walking into of course.
The Bucks appeared to be heading into tank mode when Jennings was brought on. Expectations were low. The franchise had plenty of time to let him grow as they added other pieces. Well, partly because of Jennings, the Bucks never tanked. They made the playoffs that year and have been fighting to get back ever since. Expectations have been high every year and competition across the roster has gotten stiffer. Now Henson finds himself surrounded by six other big men of all ages, sizes and abilities. I don’t suspect Henson will be able to make the same mistakes Jennings did a few years ago and find himself playing extensive minutes.
So Henson isn’t going to get the royal jelly just for the hell of it. Not with games to be won and playoff expectations to be met. Not if his defense isn’t up to his coach’s lofty demands. Not unless he leaves some of his big men teammates in the dust from a performance standpoint.
So he better just be good right away. For his own sake.