Henson hook
So John, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about something… (Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)

Since the Milwaukee Bucks have approximately 4300 forwards on their roster as they begin preparing for the 2014-15 season, we’ll continue Synergy Week (and wrap up North Carolina Days) with a look at Kendall Marshall‘s former-and-again teammate, John Henson. In his second season with the Bucks, Henson (along with most of the team) had an uneven campaign, the majority of which he spent switching between forward spots and operating as a swinging backup to Zaza PachuliaErsan Ilyasova, and Jeff Adrien. He saw his minutes double while maintaining production almost exactly in line with his rookie season:

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Via Basketball-reference.com

Several stats improved (most notably his field goal percentage and block rate) while Henson largely held steady or dipped in points, rebounding, assists, steals, and turnovers. However, a look into some more detailed metrics can give us a good idea of where Henson’s at and what he can do to continue to improve his game.

Part of the NBA Stats page’s player tracking is a set of tools designed to measure a player’s defensive impact. While Synergy’s points-per-possession stats can be useful for comparing players on a basic level, they don’t necessarily tell the whole story when it comes to the efficacy of defenders. The recent addition of player tracking technology allows us to shed some more light on the impact that each defender has by isolating the shots that they defended against. The interesting part of that measurement for our purposes is that we have a record of shots defended at the rim (that is, within 5 feet of it).

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Click to enlarge for stats-y goodness.

Among players who defended at least 4 opponent field goal attempts at the rim, Henson tied for the 13th-best field goal percentage allowed (46.3%) with his teammate, Ekpe Udoh. For comparison’s sake, they both came in a half of a percentage point under Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah (and almost 5 points above Larry Sanders, who limited opponents to an impressive 41.6% at the rim, albeit in a more limited sample size). What makes his stinginess at the rim even more impressive is that Henson spent over 70% of his playing time at center, where he often faced a significant bulk deficit. With the glut of forwards currently occupying the Bucks’ roster, it may be important for him to have the ability to play at (and defend) both the power forward and the center position to see the most minutes.

So the defensive part looks promising. But how about his offense? NBA.com’s shot categorizations aren’t 100% accurate (for example, they say Henson took 113 jump shots, most of which took place in the paint and are jumpers only in the sense that he did, indeed, jump during them), they do indicate that 236 of his 639 shots in 2013-14 were hooks. For comparison, he took only 147 shots that were classified as layups. And after reviewing a significant portion of his shots via Synergy’s useful video tools, I can confirm that they were almost unanimously left-handed. While I joked about it in my post-season awards, it’s almost painfully obvious that Henson currently has exactly one post move.

While the hook has been reasonably effective – he converted nearly 50% of those shots last season – it just doesn’t seem like a feasible strategy going forward. Opposing forwards played him surprisingly straight up on defense last year, but it’s nearly inevitable that teams start working to take away that left side and force Henson to use other moves to beat them. It’s imperative that he develop some additional moves – or at least a reliable counter to the hook that he can use when they key in on it.

Henson’s offensive efficiency, via Synergy.

Digging into Synergy’s offensive play numbers (which I’ve found more useful than the defensive ones) shows that Henson has been most successful on quicker plays – cuts to the basket, offensive rebounds, and in transition. When he gets the ball in a post-up situation, his tendency to default to his favorite shot often means that Henson puts in more work for a less favorable look than if he had any kind of move to the right or toward the basket. Of course, being a young player still works in his favor, as there is still plenty of opportunity to develop a more varied offensive strategy. As his tendencies become more well-known around the league and teams begin to key in on that hook, it will be important that Henson be able to keep opponents guessing with his post game in order to continue his effective play.

One area that he performed surprisingly poorly in? As the roll man in the pick-and-roll. Now, granted, he wasn’t exactly working with any pick-and-roll masters on the other end of that transaction. But 134th in the league and .83 PPP is… pretty bad. In particular, he struggled mightily receiving a pass and quickly transitioning into a shot, even if he had a decent look at close range. Watching a number of those plays also shows that he hasn’t been particularly effective as a screener – sometimes missing entirely with his picks and rarely impeding the target of the screen to any meaningful degree. With the emphasis on the pick-and-roll in the modern NBA, improving his performance out of that particular set would be a boon for Henson and his value as an offensive player.

The third year will likely be a crucial one for Henson. He’ll be facing even more competition in the lineup with the addition of Jabari Parker and Johnny O’Bryant as well as the healthy returns of Ersan Ilyasova and Sanders. While he has shown that he can be a contributor in the NBA, the question remains as to how he can continue to fill out his game. He’s already started filling out his frame, according to the Journal Sentinel’s Charles F. Gardner:

Henson has gained 16 pounds since early May, hitting the weight room to increase his weight to 233 pounds.

The 6-foot-11 Henson often struggled to battle more physical power forwards in his first two seasons.

“I think that was a big thing for me going into the summer, putting on weight,” Henson said. “That’s just one step. Now it’s time to get better skill-wise on the court and try to improve myself on a daily basis.”

It’s encouraging to see him taking those steps, and it appears that Henson understands what he has to do to improve himself. The next step will be for him to take that improvement and show it on the basketball court. A newly crowded Bucks frontcourt means that the competition for playing time will only increase – but that competition will hopefully push Henson to improve on his early success and develop into a key contributor for a young and growing Bucks team.