John Henson’s Future With the Bucks: It’s Complicated

If the Milwaukee Bucks’ splashy trade deadline proved anything, it’s that the franchise has a vision for the future.

It’s a refreshing perspective, one that hasn’t necessarily been a part of the last 15 or so years of eighth-seed-chasing Bucks basketball. With a young core in place, the Bucks appear to be headed in the right direction, but some crucial personnel decisions loom on the horizon. One of those involves the future of John Henson, whose rookie deal expires after next season. Does the third-year big man fit into the Bucks’ long-term vision?

Regardless of whether you believe sending restricted-free-agent-to-be Brandon Knight to Phoenix was the right move, the Bucks deserve praise simply for the matter-of-factness with which they approached the deadline. At some point this season, a combination of the front office and Jason Kidd came to the decision that Knight wasn’t going to fit with Milwaukee’s long-term vision. So they traded him. Rather than standing pat and pushing the decision back a few months, the Bucks reacted aggressively, pursuing a deal that netted a trio of young assets, headlined by potential Kidd-protege Michael Carter-Williams.

It would have been easy for Milwaukee to stick with its best player through the rest of the season and gun for an upset of Toronto or Washington or Chicago in the first round. That would have been the safe play, at least in the short-term, and it’s unbelievably easy to see that happening if this were, say, 2011. But simply getting to the playoffs and seeing what happens from there is no longer the franchise’s goal, and making an aggressive move like dealing Knight, in the process ensuring he wouldn’t sign elsewhere this summer with no return, is an indication that Milwaukee is operating with considerably more foresight than in years past. Would Herb Kohl have signed off on trading a near-All-Star in a year where winning a first-round series is a real possibility? Not a chance.

In adding the 23-year-old Carter-Williams to the core of Giannis Antetokounmpo (20) and Jabari Parker (19), the Bucks have assembled a young trio that’s among the league’s most intriguing and affordable (for now, at least). Next season, Carter-Williams, Antetokounmpo and Parker will earn less than $9.6 million combined, and that number climbs to only $11.5 million in 2016-17. Assuming health, both Antetokounmpo and Parker figure to command near-max deals when their rookie contracts are up, while the jury is still out on Carter-Williams, who essentially has two more seasons to prove he’s the point guard of the future. If the Bucks hope to hang onto the fourth key future piece – restricted free agent Khris Middleton, who is only two months older than Carter-Williams – they’ll likely have to extend an offer in the $8-12 million per year range. That’s a major commitment to a non-star for a team operating on the cheap, but with the cap set to skyrocket in 2016 and Middleton continuing to prove last season wasn’t a fluke, it’s an easier pill to swallow.

Hypothetical contract talk aside, with those four players in place, Milwaukee would undoubtedly have one of the better young cores in the entire league, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t questions that still need to be answered. For instance: Who the hell is going to play center?

The Larry Sanders fiasco has certainly put the Bucks in a bit of a bind. From a purely monetary perspective, however, they emerged relatively unscathed. Assuming Milwaukee stretches Sanders’ buyout money (roughly $15 million) through 2021-22, as expected, he’ll only account for a cap hit of about $2.1 million per season. Considering what the alternative could have been, the Bucks are more than happy to eat what amounts to the equivalent of a late-lottery rookie’s salary. With Sanders out of the picture, the Bucks will have three centers under contract next season: John Henson, Zaza Pachulia and Miles Plumlee. All three are set to hit free agency in the summer of 2016 – Henson restricted, Pachulia unrestricted and Plumlee restricted – when the Bucks and most other teams should have plenty of cap flexibility.

While Pachulia has probably exceeded expectations since signing a three-year, $15.6 million contract prior to last season, he’ll be 32 next summer and doesn’t really fit the profile of what Jason Kidd prefers from his centers. That’s not to say Milwaukee won’t look to bring Pachulia back, but it’s difficult to assert that the Bucks view him as a long-term priority.

It’s anyone’s guess what will happen with Plumlee, who the Bucks were able to buy low on after a rather uninspiring first half in Phoenix. He proved to be a dependable rebounder in 79 starts last season, though right now he probably projects as more of an energy guy off the bench, rather than a future NBA starter. That’s how Kidd has used Plumlee thus far, as he’s averaging just 11.0 minutes with a pair of DNP-CDs in six games since the trade. Even if Plumlee isn’t a perfect fit for the Bucks, he’s under contract for a very palatable $2.1 million in 2015-16.

That finally brings us to Henson, the guy I came here to write about but spent 600 words not writing about.

Of the three centers currently on the roster, Henson is the clear favorite to be the guy going forward, but considering who he’s up against, that might not be saying much. The Bucks are a complex team, and that factors heavily into how things have gone for Henson since he was drafted 14th overall in 2012 and whether he’ll stick around past next year. Henson has been an enigma, of sorts, over his first two-and-a-half NBA seasons, with four different coaches attempting to answer the riddle of whether he’s a power forward or a center (and whether he’s left, right, both or neither-handed). As of late-February, we’re still without a definitive answer to the former, but the pendulum is beginning to swing heavily toward center. And as far as the hand thing goes, we may never know the real answer. He claims he’s a righty, but the sight of him using it on the court these days is about as rare as Antetokounmpo knocking down a three (sorry, Giannis).

After playing nearly three-fourths of his minutes at power forward as a rookie under Scott Skiles and Jim Boylan, Henson played center 72 percent of the time in his second season, per Basketball-Reference. Now, under Jason Kidd, Henson has played 98 percent of his minutes at center, with Kidd often opting for smaller, more versatile options like Ersan Ilyasova or Jared Dudley at power forward.

While Henson’s numbers aren’t drastically different since switching to a near-full-time center role, his style of play has changed. Offensively, as Zach Lowe noted back in January, Henson is posting up far less frequently this season. That has resulted in a nearly four-points-per-game drop off in scoring, but it’s also led to a more efficient overall game. Henson rarely dribbles the ball and almost never sucks the shot clock with extended back-downs. When he gets the ball in the post, he’s decisive, either passing or shooting without much hesitation. Henson has used more than one dribble before only 22 of his 235 field goal attempts this season (9.4%) while 58 percent of his shots have come without a dribble, proof that he’s getting more clean looks than ever at the rim. Henson is also shooting a career-best 59 percent from the field. His offensive repertoire may be as limited as ever, but he’s refined his shot selection. According to Basketball-Reference, 44 percent of Henson’s field goal attempts came from within 0-3 feet last season. This season, that number has vaulted to over 60 percent, while he’s reduced his volume of attempts in the 3-10 foot range.

This is not the shot chart of a right-handed player.
This is not the shot chart of a right-handed player.

Those percentages can be interpreted both positively and negatively, though. On one hand, Henson is focusing more on what he does well – using his 7-5 wingspan to rebound, catch lobs, and finish at the rim – but on the other hand, he’s shown minimal improvement as an offensive player since entering the league, so he has no choice but to limit himself to shooting right at the rim if he wants to stay on the floor. I think both interpretations are partially correct. Henson deserves credit for resisting the temptation to launch mid-range jumpers he can’t make, but at the same time, the fact that he has no ability to stretch the floor limits the ways in which Kidd can deploy him.

Henson has an 18.8 PER this season – tops on the team and top-60 in the league among qualified players – but he’s playing only 18.1 minutes per game, in part because he can only play center in Kidd’s system. That means splitting minutes with Pachulia, who is less-limited offensively but more of a liability on the defensive end. Kidd seems to favor Pachulia, the usual starter, in crucial situations, but Henson’s skill set is much closer to what Kidd desires from his big men, as Lowe pointed out:

Kidd has turned Henson into what the Bucks wish Sanders would be — a Tyson Chandler/Andre Drummond/Mason Plumlee–style center who sets picks, dives to the rim, dunks lob passes, and sucks defenders away from Milwaukee shooters around the arc.

The bottom line: Unless Henson develops a serviceable mid-range game, it’s hard to see him playing anywhere other than center as a member of the Bucks.

For as much debate as the futures of Middleton and, until a couple weeks ago, Knight have generated, the conversation has remained mum regarding Henson’s future with the team. He’s somewhat of a difficult player to evaluate, given the fluctuations in coaching and playing time, but Henson is well-regarded around the league for his length and shot-blocking ability. There just aren’t many guys who can do this:

The question for Milwaukee is whether Henson has proven enough to warrant a lucrative extension. And if the answer is yes, when should the Bucks extend an offer?

If the Bucks are interested in locking up Henson, which they would presumably like to do at the right price, would it be in their best interest to try to quietly hammer out an extension this summer, rather than in 2016 when Henson can field offers as a restricted free agent? That’s the strategy Milwaukee employed with Larry Sanders when it signed the big man to a four-year, $44 million deal in August of 2013, a year before he was set to become a free agent. Of course, in hindsight the Sanders deal looks like a major blunder, but at the time small-market Milwaukee was praised for its ability to lock up one of the league’s rising young talents. Making a similar, early play for Henson, a personable, fan-favorite who doesn’t come with Sanders’ baggage, could be the right move for a couple of reasons.

First, and most obviously, agreeing to an extension this summer would totally eliminate the possibility of a team throwing a huge offer sheet at Henson, essentially daring the Bucks to match. In that scenario, Milwaukee would be forced to either overpay or let Henson walk with no return. It’s the exact situation the Bucks avoided by trading Knight to Phoenix, and the Suns will now be faced with that difficult decision this offseason.

Second, locking up Henson a year early would prevent him from potentially increasing his value in what would be a contract year in 2015-16. The NBA teams try and operate like shrewd businesses, and, as with any business, the goal is to get the most value out of your employees. If Henson shows up to training camp in October with a reliable 10-footer and some semblance of a right hand, you can bet front offices around the league will take notice. Hell, even if he doesn’t improve much offensively and just plays, say, five more minutes per game, his numbers would likely make enough of a leap for the league’s collective ears to perk up. At present, Henson’s overall value is still somewhat in question. He’s solidified his place as a rotational guy, but there’s a reason he’s coming off the bench behind Pachulia. If he demonstrates next season that he can be a starting-caliber center for even a decent team, his restricted free agency price tag could jump from seven figures to eight – and that’s not factoring in the salary cap’s expected rise.

Of course, the Bucks were unable to work out extensions with both Brandon Jennings and Knight and were able to get positive return on each player via trades rather than extend them at contracts that the team didn’t feel strongly about.

From an organizational standpoint, the Bucks haven’t said much about Henson’s future. Middleton is looking like more of a priority at this point – not to mention one of the better trade heists of the past few years – and Henson’s situation is yet to garner much conversation. It’s worth noting that his name has, for the most part, averted trade rumors for the past two years, which is generally a positive indication, especially given the type of value he could return.

“We’ve never had any interest in trading John Henson,” John Hammond told Zach Lowe. “He’s the kind of player you want in your organization for a long time.”

That’s pretty strong as far as public endorsements go, but it’s important to keep in mind that Kidd’s fingerprints have been all over Milwaukee’s recent deals, so Henson’s future may not ultimately be up to Hammond.

Regardless, the Bucks will have a decision to make. They won’t necessarily have to make it this summer, though if the Knight deal was any indication, this is not a franchise interested in hesitating as it builds toward the future. Henson is only 24 years old, certainly young enough to be a part of that future. It’s now up to Milwaukee to discern if he’s the right fit going forward.

Categories: Bucks Player Features,Contract Stuff

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19 Comments

  1. Unless he can really improve his 1 on 1 defense or outside shooting I just don’t see how he fits into this team as anything more than a backup center. He is a spectacular help defender and can do a fine job on 95% of the centers in the league 1 on 1. Whenever we play the Bulls or the Grizzlies or the Kings though, the Gasol’s and Cousins lick their lips and go to work. He can’t guard real centers at all with offense, like even a little bit. With the next 2 NBA drafts being full of exactly the type of player that has dominated Henson throughout his career I think making him the center of the future and paying him that way would be a huge mistake. I would not want to commit more than 6 million a year to him going forward.

  2. It’s fun to think of a lineup with Giannis and Jabari as forwards, John at center, and Khris and MCW as guards; although we might want to supplement that fivesome with some outside shooting and inside bulk, think of the thicket of long and athletic arms the Bucks would have around the basket.

    The difficulty in evaluating any of these guys is estimating how much further they can progress as players, given their talents and their attitudes, and projecting their possible, or probable, ceilings. It’s quite a challenging forecast: How much better can a player get, or is likely to get?

    My main point all along with John and other young players on the Bucks is that it would be truly sad to not give them a fair opportunity to show what they can do on the court? I was surprised to learn (from Avid, thank you) that John averaged 26 minutes a game last season, but I still think that statistic is misleading. It doesn’t seem like he was ever given consistent minutes and a defined role, or even a couple of possible roles; plus, it didn’t seem like the coaches really got behind him, really gave him a vote of confidence, really treated him as an important part of the team’s future.

    The same thing seems to be happening this season: John is being overlooked, passed over, relegated to the backround, fitted in only when convenient That’s not the way to build up young players. It’s extremely important, for someone to believe in you, to support, to teach, to encourage you in good times and bad. It can make all the difference in a guy being average and invisible versus a guy being excellent and outstanding.

    My second point with John is that this guy could be really good! Already this season, when he has been allowed to play, John has far exceeded my expectations. He has shown amazing agility and impressive skills both for defending the basket and putting the ball in the basket. He seems to be developing as a nice passer, as well. He adds a lot of good energy to the team, with bounce and speed and enthusiasm and teamwork.

    As far as the future, it would be interesting to read what fans thinks about John’s defensive impact compared to that of Larry Sanders at his best. Now that John is getting more of a feel for the NBA, and measuring his ability to block shots, and grab rebounds, and generally cover other big men, it’s important to consider how much John is worth for his defense alone. He’s more or less really good, already, and as he gains experience, and naturally grows into his body, he should get even better.

    When considering offense, has John shown any capacity in college, or in practice with the Bucks, to make face-up jumpers from medium range? Does his dramatic improvement from the free throw line this season bode well for him to develop a 15-foot jumper from the field? Also, how many other big men in the NBA have the talents that John has already demonstrated around the rim, with his agility in finding ways to get off those soft shots, and his ability to land them in the hoop?

    Finally, if John is pretty much the person he appears to be, then look for him to grow as a player on both offense and defense; and to be a great teammate with winning contributor; and to be reliable through the years, a fine fixture for the future of the Bucks.

    All NBA players are risks — physically, mentally, emotionally — because they are human beings. Let’s hope the Bucks evaluate our players well in all of these areas, and go all out in bringing the best out of each one of them.

    I’m not the best at crunching the numbers for salaries, but I’d gladly offer John $40 million for a four-year extension right now. I’d do about the same with Khris Middleton. Whatever happens with Giannis and Jabari, we’re going to need guys like John and Khris to make the Bucks a true and lasting success.

    P.S. I really appreciate this thoughtful and thorough article about John from Bucksketball, and Nick in particular. Well done!

    • Couch Potato Scout

      I agree that John Henson is a solid player that has exceeded expectations. But I cannot see him as the starting center of the future Bucks. I feel that he is/will get bullied on the block because of his skinny frame, and on the offensive end I feel that he needs to define himself in some way. Either as a person who consistently dunks near the rim, a cutter who likes alley-ops or like getting the ball and driving for a dunk at the rim, (ala a mini-Blake Griffin from a couple years ago), develop his post game more, or develop a mid-range shot. I personally feel that the best option would be for him to develop a mid-range shot ( check out last year’s summer league games, I’m pretty sure he had a couple beautiful mid-range shots), maybe become a bit more agile so he can cover a bit better in space and run the floor better, and become a versatile power forward who is a 6th man off the bench, and can start if needed. I feel the risk is to great to throw money at Henson now, and hope he develops. I would rather the Bucks get someone like DeAndre Jordan or Willie Cauley-Stein at center, (as the article mentions someone in the mold of Tyson Chandler). All this being said, I do like an offer around 7-9 million, but not much of it guaranteed, especially on the back end.
      One last note, Swisch: I love practically all your comments, oftenI feel that I’ve written them myself. At the beginning of the year I was a fan of the same exact players as you were: Henson, Marshall, Middleton, and Giannis. And I thought they should just be pouring most of the playing time into those guys, because they are the future of the Bucks. (I’m hoping the Bucks try to resign Marshall I still like him, although it is unlikely with the number of ball-handlers on the team).

      • Thanks much, Couch Potato Scout, for your kinds words. I appreciate them all the more knowing that I could be wrong about just about everything I write. I have strong and sincere opinions, but doubts, too. It has seemed to me, however, that even people who aren’t as enthusiastic as I am about a particular player such as John, or Khris, or Kendall, still might agree about giving these guys more of an opportunity on the court, so that we could all evaluate them better.

        You raise a good point about what we would do about possibly replacing John. For example, what kind of game does DeAndre Jordan offer on offense? What are the strengths and weaknesses of any other big man in comparison with John, including matters of reliability and character?

        I think it bears considering that, at least lately, John seems to be fighting the battles of the front line almost by himself — because of coach Kidd going with small ball — and this could be hurting his rebounding stats. Also, I’m concerned about John bulking up too much, or in the wrong way, at the expense of his astounding stretchability and agility.

        To me, an important consideration with John is that he’s one of our guys, drafted by the Bucks in the lottery, and someone who seems to have related really well with the team and us fans. I really like that the Packers seem to be a model franchise for developing from within and embracing their own, and I hope the Bucks emulate this example of team building. Due to the realities of modern pro sports, we can’t keep everyone we want, but we can make a good faith effort to try; it’s a matter of offering a guy like John not only a generously fair contract, but also showing him genuine support and appreciation in whatever ways possible. I think that’s the way for the Bucks to have real success for years to come.

        P.S. I’m missing Kendall more and more, and hope the Bucks are maintaining good relations with him, with at least the possibility of bringing him back.

    • Johnathon Allen Henson deserves more minutes.

      With time comes experience, and with experience comes good judgement. His build might not be what JKidd seeks in a true center but I believe he should be starting every night.

  3. Henson needs to continue bulking-up. He put a lot of effort into bulking-up this past off-season, but he’s still quite a bit away from where he probably needs to get too physically.

  4. Huge Henson fan here. I hope they trade him or let him walk. The guy has oozed potential and while he might not be a force on offense he gets it in on D. Idk how many times I check the bow score and see 3-5 blocks in under 20 mina. That’s crazy to think about! I’d prefer to see him get 30+ a game elsewhere. It’s a damn shame to see a talented young man wasting away on the bench while Zaza gets big minutes. I like Zaza much more than I thought I did when we 1st signed him but his defensive abilities are rough to watch. does John get bullied by diesel centers? Yes. Does he have work to do offensively? Yes. Is he only 24 with big time potential who has showed he’s willing to bulk up? Yes. And I think him keeping quiet while getting these sad minutes shows big time maturity that we need in a young locker room. Play him or trade him

  5. John Henson truly is a bit of an enigma. I can’t help but think back to his rookie season, when he dropped 16 points and 18 rebounds against the LeBron-led Heat in Miami. I sat there, astounded, thinking “this guy has an extremely bright future in the league”.

    Fast forward to now, I still think he should be a part of the Bucks future.

    Nick makes some great points about him. However, one part stuck out to me:

    “He’s solidified his place as a rotational guy, but there’s a reason he’s coming off the bench behind Pachulia.”

    What is that reason, exactly? Yes, Pachulia is an excellent passer who has been one of the Bucks best play makers all season. That being said, he’s slower than molasses defensively, can’t jump which hurts him on both ends of the floor, and isn’t very reliable at finishing at the rim. Anything he has over Henson shouldn’t translate to him getting the majority of the minutes.

    I’ve tried not to question too many of Jason Kidd’s decisions over the season. After all, the Bucks have a winning record, something no one expected, and the team has played with a sense of urgency and energy that I haven’t really seen since the “Fear the Deer” season.

    However, his approach with guys like Henson, and before that, Marshall, bewilders me, for the reason that if this is truly a march towards the future, shouldn’t the players most likely to be a part of the future play? Especially when it’s clear that Henson is a POSITIVE to the team when he’s on the floor?

  6. Sorry to say guys/gals. Henson is GONE. The Bucks couldn’t possibly be more insulting in how they have handled Henson over the past 2 1/2 to 3 years.

    Pachulia? Play him over Henson. Ersan? Play him over Henson. Adrien? Play him over Henson. Plumlee? Take Henson’s minutes.

    People say Henson can’t play offense. No, SANDERS can’t play offense. Henson shoots 59% from the field. A true, pretty hook shot he hits consistently. Since when does a center need to shoot from 15 feet? Henson runs the floor, great at blocking shots (maybe best in league) and he’s a GREAT team defender, passes ok, alley oops and on and on.

    Only prob. is he can’t push and shove down low. That’s his only true weakness.

    But make no mistake, he’s GONE. The Bucks hate him. No idea why. It’s probably because he won’t lift weights. Blame the stength coach. That’s his job.

    • You do know that one of, if not the most important job for a center is to push and shove down low right? Sorry but if you can’t play against guys over 260 lbs, you probably aren’t a true 5 in the NBA, and if you are, you’re a bad one. You are what you can guard, and Henson can’t guard 5’s. Anthony Davis, Tyson Chandler, DeAndre Jordan, and like 10 other guys might take issue with your comment of “maybe the best in the league comment.”

  7. I certainly agree that of all the centers on the Bucks roster, Henson is the only one we should be considering as part of our long-term plans. However, I’m willing to be a contrarian on the Bucks treatment of him.

    Henson has averaged just over 20 minutes since his return from injury. He has played fewer than 15 minutes just once — a game where Pachulia had a double-double. In January, Pachulia was playing about five minutes more — and getting about three more rebounds during that time. Since then, their minutes have evened.

    Why are we confident that Henson’s skills would be progressing more with, say, 28 minutes per night vs. 20? As long as he’s getting rotation minutes, isn’t the difference pretty trivial? Why should it matter if his minutes include the very start or the very end of games. If strength is an issue, shouldn’t fewer minutes help him play harder while he’s on the court?

    The Bucks are a bad rebounding team, and the rest of their starters are not that physical of players. Playing Pachulia with that group makes a lot of sense.

  8. Miles Plumlee was the starting center for a 48-win team last year. He is a starting-caliber center, and proved it, so the fact that he “projects” as an energy bench guy is ridiculous. He’s 6’11 with a 40.5 inch vertical. He has actually shown the ability to hit a jump shot from time to time. Plumlee is getting the same treatment that Khris got at the beginning of the year until he learns the system, but he is probably our center of the future, and should be.He can pick up some tricks from Zaza while we have him, then the job is his. Henson is just too scrawny, and makes bone-headed plays. He is borderline unplayable against anyone over 260 lbs. Sorry, because I really like Henson, but he is not a starter for a championship contender.

    • If Miles Plumlee is as good as you say, John, and I hope that he is, then it might be a good idea to pair him at center with John alternately, or to play them both together on the front line.

      Don’t know about the aptness of this comparison, but Kareem was always fairly slender, though somewhat taller. How did Kareem handle the big men of his day, Wilt and Willis Reed and Moses Malone for example?

  9. In the end, I don’t think it will be too complicated. Henson might always be slim, but he’s rounding into a form that would start on most teams. The looming payout will be mitigated by the shifting economic realities of the NBA. I truly believe in the magic of the TV deal. With our cap situation, we should be able to keep Henson for market price and still be able to max Jabari and Giannis when the inevitable comes.

    The idea that action needs to be taken to immediately fix the frontcourt is a product of old school thinking. By training camp next year, we should have a decent frontcourt again and I believe Henson will be a large part of that.

  10. ok guys first off, erase everything before this year as far as henson’s development goes…… the bucks were a clusterfluke of lack of direction and use of talent. The team culture has changed , which means you have to put how previous coaches used these guys out of your minds. Theyre not here now, they cant affect the future (directly).

    What I see is Kidd doing the best with what he’s got and using it accordingly. Henson is as limited defensively as zaza is, only in different ways, with the only difference being the potential for growth. zaza can handle the bigger centers but is abhorently slow (is that a word? lol, u get the point). Henson is quick and a great help defender but is easily bullied. Offensively, zaza has more moves around the rim and can post up a little bit better with a little range in a set shot. Henson is more of a rim rocker, again, with the potential to grow. Kidd has thus , kept it simple with him, focus on his strengths on the court, while building mass off the court (given his frame, it seems like building mass is a difficult thing for him to do).

    Henson’s future in milwaukee will be directly tied to two things, 1 adding enough weight to hold up defensively against bulkier centers, and 2 developing a roughly 10 ft jump shot range, nothing drastic, just enough to pull opposing centers away from the rim long enough for a penetrator to work. Both are achievable at his age, but its still a matter of if at this point.

    I cant say for sure that he’s gone or staying at this point, but I do know whether he goes or stays will be a direct result of those 2 points, one way or the other.