MILWAUKEE – Throughout much of his time in Milwaukee, Bucks center John Henson has rarely benefited from consistent playing time. A month of starts, followed by a week’s worth of DNPs. 20 minutes one night, two minutes the next.
At the start of this season, it appeared as though Henson might see his role change from night-to-night once again as he shared minutes with Thon Maker and Greg Monroe at the center position, but that hasn’t been the case outside of the team’s first five games. Since then, Henson has appeared in 23 of the Bucks’ 24 games (missing one game for an eye procedure), started their last 21 games, and averaged almost 26 minutes per game.
“Mentally, it's a lot better for me,” Henson said. “I can go to sleep at night, knowing what I'm going to need to do that next night, how many minutes I'm going to play the next night, what my role's going to be, or who I'm going to be guarding and that helps tremendously.”
This has happened for Henson before. Last year, he started 29 straight games from the end of November to the middle of January before falling out of the rotation and into inconsistent playing time as the Bucks closed the season. Henson admits being out of the rotation “sucks,” but those periods of inconsistent playing time in the past have shown him just how valuable a consistent role can be.
“Even with film and stuff, I can kind of read where I'm going to be playing, what minutes I'm going to be playing, so it's great,” Henson said. “I love it. And hopefully, our winning ways continue because I think that's going to keep me in the starting lineup and that's what I want to do.”
Thus far this season, Henson has compiled the team’s best Net Rating. The Bucks have been 6.6 points better than their opponents per 100 possessions with him manning the middle. This may speak to Henson spending a large portion of his time on the floor with the starting unit, but there is no denying the Bucks are finding success with him on the floor.
Offensively, Henson has benefitted from a special connection with guard Khris Middleton.
“It’s something we’ve been doing since I’ve been here,” Middleton said. “I just try to be aggressive and I know that I have that late pass or that late lob to John and he’s going to be there for me.”
Henson is the longest-tenured member of the Bucks and Middleton is, along with Giannis Antetokounmpo, his longest-tenured teammate. Middleton has found Henson 35 times this season, the most any two Bucks teammates have connected this season. Much of their damage comes from Henson’s screens to free Middleton in pick-and-roll play.
Since Middleton does not have the top-end speed of a creator like Eric Bledsoe, he has to be a little bit more creative as he tries to find an open shot on pick and rolls. His deliberate approach leads to him snaking back and forth looking for his deadly mid-range jumper (top three in the NBA in field goal percentage on pull-up shooting) and often drawing help defenders close to him. In turn, Henson ends up open underneath the basket for an easy two.
On the defensive end, it is all about connections for Henson as well.
Sometimes, that means staying connected to the rim.
Other times, that means staying connected to the ball handler.
And finally, that can mean staying connected to the roll man.
“That’s just part of being a professional and playing in the NBA,” Henson said. “Every team is different. Every game is different. Each night, it’s a different story.”
Whether it is the more blitz-happy, aggressive version of the Bucks’ defense used up until the Utah Jazz hunted down corner threes on Nov. 25 or the dialed-back, more conservative version used since that game, Henson has been one of the Bucks’ strongest defenders. He has melded his game to whatever the scouting report or game plan has said each night and helped the Bucks stay out of the dregs of the NBA defensively.
Throughout his six seasons with the Bucks, Henson has struggled to find a consistent role in Milwaukee, but not this year. If he continues to manage his connections, that role should stick. If he doesn’t, his role may disappear as it has before. For now, though, Henson has helped the Bucks win some games and that should keep him connected to the starting lineup.