Why doesn’t John Henson play more?

Henson, battling Jonas Valanciunas. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps)
Henson, battling Jonas Valanciunas. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps)

A text came through my phone around 9 PM Wednesday night:

Henson might be softer than Drake


A friend of mine was at the Milwaukee Bucks – Indiana Pacers game and she had seen enough out of John Henson. To be fair, she’s probably attended more games than any other friend of mine, so she’s working with some experience. And she had enough. It was time for her to take a stance on John Henson, one much more firm than any I can remember her taking before.

With her words in my head, I decided I needed to ask Larry Drew about Henson after the game. He had played only 20 minutes, despite logging 39 minutes and producing 23 points, nine rebounds, six assists and three blocks in his last game. If this guy is something of a core player for the team moving forward, how is it that he’s unable to consistently grab more minutes than … Jeff Adrien and Zaza Pachulia?

“Well … he’s just gotta keep playing hard, for one thing,” Drew said after Wednesday’s game. “And he’s gotta bring … I don’t want to say a total physical presence, but he’s gotta let it be known that he’s out there besides on the offensive end.”

One thing everyone has said about Adrien, from the moment he stepped on the court for Milwaukee is that he has a “presence”. What does that mean really? I think it’s the way most of us say that he’s out there knocking everyone out the way on his way to get the ball. He is one of the most physical big men the Bucks have had in quite some time. When cutters are moving by Adrien, he’s bumping them. When a shot goes up he isn’t watching for where it’s going to hit on the rim, he’s looking for someone to grind into the ground. He’s far more concerned about other players on the court and how he can make them uncomfortable than he is about where the ball is.

That’s a huge difference between Adrien and Henson. Not that Adrien is a perfect player by any means. Early on against the Pacers Wednesday Evan Turner a spindly sort of guard with a fair amount of craft in his game took on Adrien, who was slow to react in a pick and roll. He got Adrien off balance and used his body to push the big man under the hoop, allowing for a layup. A play or two later, Adrien again was slow on a rotation and it left Ian Mahinmi open for an easy dunk. As physical and intimidating as Adrien is on the offensive glass, he isn’t always the quickest or best reactor on defense.

But he always seems to be going as hard as he can. He doesn’t seem to quit on plays. Coaches love that sort of thing. It’s what kept Jon Brockman in the league for as long as he lasted, despite his lack of skill and size. Where Adrien always looks like he’s running on 10, Henson often looks like he’s laboring up and down the court on cruise control. Fair or not, that could bother a coach or a teammate that’s committed to running through a wall with his effort level.

Drew understands they are different players and will have different experiences on the court. That being said, he still wants Henson to be more physical.

“You know, I think, with Jeff Adrien, I think everybody sees that when he’s out on the floor, you know he’s out there and it doesn’t have to be on the offensive end,” Drew said. “He plays with a tenacity when he’s out there. I know they are two totally different players, but still, presence has to be felt when you’re out on the court when you’re a big man.”

Larry Drew doesn’t expect Henson to turn into Adrien. It didn’t sound like he wanted that either. But he wants Henson to be more of an intimidator and an embodiment of intensity, the way that both Adrien and Pachulia are. Those guys slap people around, while Henson seems more hesitant to knock a player off the block or focus on boxing someone out.

“I talk a lot about the culture and I talk a lot about, even though we are a young team we can still carry ourselves in a very professional manner in a very veteran manner,” Drew said. “And guys who are playing the minutes and guys who I am relying to be leaders of our team, I want those guys to make sure every time we step out on the floor that we go out there and we play hard. I want those guys to be mad at one another if they see one of their teammates not playing hard. Loose ball or have an opportunity to take a charge or a missed blockout, I want those guys to be upset with one another and hold each other accountable.

“That’s how the culture is built. With four games left, we’ll continue to try to keep things moving in a positive direction as far as us stepping on the floor and competing.”


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  1. I think the 3 month tank a thon is killing Henson. The first 2 and a half months of the season Henson was BY FAR our best player. No one talked about his lack of hustle, intensity, skill set or anything like that. All anybody talked about was his upside.

    Now it’s April and Henson sucks, right? Here’s why. The organization is and has been trying to lose games since late January. Fact: does it really make sense to play Za Za, Adrien and even Chris Wright during crunch time every night rather than Henson or Giannis? Why? We are still losing. It makes all the sense in the world to play Henson and Giannis for the experience etc .. and if we still lose- so what? We already know what Za Za and Adrein can do.

    No, what happened is the organization told Henson they are tanking and he would get his 20 or so minutes the rest of the season and it is killing his motivation. He doesn’t look anything like the player we saw in Nov, Dec, Jan. In fact, he looks downright bored. Could you play with focus and intensity knowing your the better player but “right now” you have to sit down while we play league journeymen night after night?

    Prediction: as soon as the season ends the team will be sold, the front office and coach will be fired and the new breed will be backing John Henson 100% going forward.

    • I’m not sure it’s necessary to construct elaborate tanking narratives when we’ve literally just been presented with a plausible explanation directly from the person responsible for the decision.

  2. Bobby Big Balls

    If only being tough translated to wins. We would have a championship contender with Zaza and Adrien.

    In the real world you have to have skills and be able to score the ball in order to win games. Unfortunately, the “tough” guys don’t possess that skill.

    Reminds me of the goons in hockey. Great to have on your team, but only if a fight breaks out.

  3. A little bit of my hopes we draft either Parker, Randle or Embiid then trade Henson for a future first round pick. I get the feeling that his value is going to drop dramatically because I don’t think it’s going to suddenly flip the switch and ever come close to the intensity of the rest of our core: Knight, Sanders, Giannis.

    I really don’t like watching him on the court, I remember him answering an interview question about whether he should put on muscle/weight this offseason and he said he didn’t think he needed too. I also think I remember him saying he doesn’t think he should work on using his right hand after everyone found out he always went left. He just seems to be complacent with where he’s at as a player, the exact opposite of the rest of our core players.

  4. This is what KL Chouinard of Bucksketball wrote about Jeff Adrien about eight days ago (April 3): “He’s such a non-factor on the defensive end that the Bucks could get equivalent (or better) production from Drew Gooden.”
    After the Pacers game a couple nights ago, a fan named Crindy commented that he was a big fan of Jeff after he came to the Bucks at the trade deadline, but was waning in his enthusiasm for him: “He just doesn’t defend — at all.”
    So what are we supposed to make of this, plus the fact that Jeff Adrien is a free agent and is unlikely to be around next year? Does anyone at Bucksketball want the Bucks to sign Jeff Adrien to a solid contract?
    What are we supposed to make of the fact that John Henson was playing behind Ersan before he was injured?
    What are we supposed to make of the fact that this whole season there’s been some excuse or another to not give John Henson consistent minutes, as well as not to play him regularly at his natural position?
    This is the Tobias Harris fiasco all over again: a recent first-round draft pick in only his second year not getting a reasonable chance to succeed. If I was John, I’d be digging a hidden tunnel out of the Bucks clubhouse and plotting my escape. I mean he can’t even get a decent chance to play basketball on the worst team in the NBA!
    Just play him. There aren’t any perfect players on the Bucks. Let him go out there about 30 minutes a game with his good and his not so good, let him jostle around and take his lumps and earn some victories. Let him play at the end of games, too.
    Also, I don’t want John Henson to bulk up too much (maybe Anthony Davis is a good model); and I don’t want him to change his temperament all that much, either. I want him to work on his jumper and on using his right hand, and probably a lot of other stuff, but I pretty much want John to be John, to mostly accept him for who he is.
    This is so exasperating! I’m wonder if Larry Drew has much of a presence with the Bucks as a coach. ESPN asked a panel of more than 200 noted basketball observers(including Ian Segovia of Bucksketball) to rate coaches in the NBA, and Drew came in 29th out of 30 — this ranking isn’t the last word on Drew, but to ignore it completely, as Bucksketball has done, is at the very least highly questionable. Why don’t we at least get Ian’s take on the rankings, which also included owners and general managers? The overall ranking for the Bucks front office was also 29th out of 30.
    Yes, it’s good to get Coach Drew’s perspective, and maybe I’m the one who is wrong, but my hunch is that (in the context of sports) this is a travesty and a tragedy. Question authority! — respect it, but question it. What in the history of the Bucks front office over the past decade or more would lead us to assume they are handling John’s situation with a deft touch?

    • Tobias Harris: 804 total minutes with Milwaukee.
      John Henson: 1771 minutes in 2013-14 alone.

      This is not “the Tobias Harris fiasco all over again”.

      As for the panel, I addressed that in a response elsewhere. Not going to respond to it again.

      • From the the department of, Stats can be Misleading, John Henson has been getting inconsistent minutes and inconsistent roles all season, and has generally been jerked around — so total minutes doesn’t tell the tale. As Mark Twain said (something like): “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

        As for your response about the ESPN panel: It wasn’t convincing. As my faulty memory recalls, and as you can check, the Celtics front office did pretty well in the rankings despite a lousy team record this season — in other words, it seems the ESPN panel had confidence that the front office of the Celtics is competent to turn things around for that team, but thought much less of the front office for the Bucks.
        Anyway, having a genuinely high regard for the opinions of Bucksketball, I would like to know more about what you guys think about the treatment of John Henson (as I remember, you did write recently, in response to one of my comments, that John should be playing more); also I’d like to hear more about what you guys think about the front office of the Bucks.
        I know you work with these guys (players and management) — and I’m sincerely sympathetic to the delicacy of that situation — but to my mind, the more opinions from Bucksketball the better. That’s meant to be a compliment.
        Sorry, Craig, and any others, if I’m too annoying. That’s meant somewhat sarcastically, but also somewhat sincerely. I really am willing to go away if enough people find me irritating.

        • P.S. I thought my comments about John above were actually quite compelling. I’d like to get a follow-up to KL’s quote about Jeff Adrien’s defense, and get responses from the writers of Bucksketball as to whether they favor giving Jeff a solid contract for the next three years or so.

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