John Henson was Milwaukee’s best big man defender last season and the one with the most room to grow

Adept defender: John Henson. (Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)
Adept defender: John Henson. (Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)

Be prepared to see a lot of posts like this one, fellow internet travelers.

Since I write a blog, it’s almost required that I find something interesting someone else did and see how it applies to the team that I cover. What’s great about our current internet culture is how many people do really smart work and are open to sharing it with the world. While teams have mountains of information they guard with care and secrecy the CIA would be proud of, every now and then, us common folks are privy to some cool information put together by a smart guy sure to get gobbled up and muzzled very soon. So the next few days will likely be littered with a variety of posts of how players on each team stack up in a new visualization of individual defense that was shared yesterday on Deadspin.

Austin Clemens, a fella who appears to be smart and into both math and basketball, created a handy widget that allows us to presumably view the impact players had defensively on shots last season. If there is blue on the chart, that means opponents shot poorly from those locations when defended by the player listed. If there is red, that means players shot well from that location when defended by the player listed. Grey is inconclusive. The larger the square, the more shots taken in that location. Take a look at Clemens’s explanation and blog post, which includes this important HERE’S THE CATCH:

This is not a holistic way of looking at defense. It only applies to plays where a shot was actually made. That means it misses plays that ended in a foul or a turnover. Drawing offensive fouls and creating turnovers can be a pretty big component of a player’s defensive game! A player could easily look bad by this measure and be a good defender nonetheless, because creating a turnover is a better defensive play than allowing the opposing team to take a shot (even a low percentage one).

Now that introductions and technicalities are out of the way … LET’S DO SOME JUDGING. We’ll start with the big men who played most frequently for the Bucks last season, as the likes of Miroslav Raduljica and (sadly) Larry Sanders are not available.

Charts (clockwise from top left): Udoh / Ilyasova / Adrien / Henson / Pachulia

A cursory glance at the charts is most favorable for Ersan Ilyasova and John Henson, as both feature charts almost absent of red dots, save a few in the paint for Ilyasova. This makes a bit of sense for Henson (less so for Ilyasova) as he was Milwaukee’s best shot-blocker last season and offered what seemed like much more resistance at the rim than his undersized or athleticism deficient big men partners in Milwaukee’s 2013-14 rotation.

But there is one area where Henson was less effective than his teammates: Keeping players from shooting at the rim. All of Milwaukee’s other regular rotation bigs saw at least a 1% boost in mid-range shot frequency while they were on the court, whereas there was a 2% increase in shots at the rim while Henson was on the court and a 1% decrease in mid-range shots. So Henson wasn’t keeping anyone out of the paint or cutting anyone off before they reached the rim, just serving as a very good obstacle when they came to him.

Ultimately, defenses want players shooting as many shots from mid-range locations as possible, but it’s hard to feel like there was much benefit defensively to having Jeff Adrien or Zaza Pachulia out there over Henson in 2013-14, even if they forced a few more bad shots, given what they were giving up at the rim. More or less, if a player got to the rim against Adrien or Pachulia, they were getting a bucket. Neither offered much of a deterrent, TOUGHNESS BE DAMNED.

But let’s not stop here. Let’s further explore all of the many metrics available at our fingertips here in the great interneting world of 2014. We’re capable now of seeing just how often opponents shot at the rim and how successful they were when matched up with a certain defender thanks to the SportVu cameras installed in every arena, watching our every move. Here’s how the Bucks bigs compared:

Player Opp FGA at Rim per game Opp FGP at Rim
John Henson 6.9 46.30%
Ekpe Udoh 5.1 46.30%
Jeff Adrien 5.6 53.20%
Ersan Ilyasova 6.0 55.10%
Zaza Pachulia 5.6 57.50%

So the Defensive Impact Visualization is bared out a bit in the numbers. Players are attacking the rim a bit more often against Henson, but significantly less successfully than when they attack Pachulia, Ilyasova or Adrien. Ilyasova’s number don’t quite jibe with what the visualizations seemed to tell him about us, though all that grey area could have been success in small sample sizes.

Synergy, what say you about overall points per possession allowed by these big men of Milwaukee?

Player PPP Rank Post Up PPP Rank
Zaza Pachuila 0.83 90 0.68 28
John Henson 0.92 300 0.91 184
Ekpe Udoh 0.95 357 1.23 287
Ersan Ilyasova 1.01 427 0.89 165
Jeff Adrien 1.06 451 1.18 284

On the strength of his ability to defend post-ups (with the exception of Adrien, all these players defended over 100 post-ups according to Synergy), Pachulia ranked out as Milwaukee’s best big man defender, with Henson placing second. Factoring in Henson’s ability as a shot-blocker and the other metrics we’ve looked at, it’s not unreasonable to peg him as Milwaukee’s most impressive defensive big last season though.

Perhaps the case could be made that Henson’s relative lack of minutes in relation to Adrien over the final month of the season was more about development mentally and the long view of helping Henson understand how he needs to be playing for the future, which is a whole different argument, but most metrics we have available to us to give us insights into how players fared defensively seem to indicate that John Henson was Milwaukee’s best defensive big man option last season.

But he wasn’t perfect. He could get better in the post, he could force more mid-range shots, if Larry Drew was right, he has another level to reach in terms of his overall physicality on the court. So while he may have been the best the 15-67 Bucks had last season, that doesn’t mean he wasn’t also the one who could stand to improve the most. With a new ownership group, the second overall pick in the draft and a summer of activity about to begin, there’s definitely more cause for optimism in late May among Bucks fans than usual. But maybe there’s reason to be excited about John Henson too.

Maybe he was Milwaukee’s best defender in 2013-14, but if he was also the one with the most potential for improvement, big things could be coming on the defensive end from him next season.


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