As a long time writer for DraftExpress, I look back on NBA drafts like most people do long-gone school years. Everyone remembers No. 1 picks and best friends from the playground, but if you’re anything like me, there are certain names and personalities that manage to cemented a spot in your subconscious even if they never worked their ways into your inner circle. The kid who collected rocks at recess but never so much as said hello to you? Twenty years after the fact you can still rattle off his name.
Brandan Wright, a member of the 2007 draft class, is my rock collector.
With breath-taking athleticism rolled into a 6-foot-10 frame and topped with a 7-foot-5 wingspan, Wright oozed potential. So high was his ceiling that after entering his name in the draft following his freshman season at North Carolina, he was selected eighth by Charlotte and then promptly traded to Golden State straight up for a still-productive Jason Richardson.
Four years later, Wright has yet to play 40 games in a single season and has career averages of 5.4 points and 3.0 rebounds per game. But this isn’t about Wright; it’s about John Henson.
On the surface, the comparisons are obvious. Long, athletic, and in desperate need an additional 20 pounds on his frame, Henson, with his raw offensive ability and defensive acumen, intrigues scouts much the same way that Wright once did. Hindsight being what it is, however, he shares many of the same concerns as well. But Henson, unlike Wright, will enter the NBA with no fewer than three years of college experience as he now prepares for his junior season. That could make all the difference.
As an incoming freshman in 2009, Henson weighed a shockingly light 183 pounds, making it nearly impossible for him to maintain any sort of position around the basket. When the Tar Heels open their schedule this year, the big man will “tip the scales” at a reported 220 pounds. He remains thin by NBA frontcourt standards, but adding nearly 40 pounds to his frame has been immensely valuable in Henson’s development and is largely reflected in his play. Based on data from Synergy Sports, his first season was spent crashing the glass and capitalizing on dump-offs from attacking guards, with offensive rebounds and cuts around the rim accounting for nearly 40 percent of his touches. Those plays remain an integral part of his game – especially considering that Henson is one of the top returning rebounders in the country at 15.1 per 40 minutes – but his game has changed drastically with added strength and experience.
During his sophomore year, Henson nearly tripled the amount of time he spent operating in the post, with just 9.6 percent of his shots coming on the block in 2009-10 versus 23.9 percent this past season. Furthermore, he actually increased his efficiency from 35-percent shooting to nearly 43 percent, still not an elite mark, but a sign of significant improvement. Unquestionably, the sudden spike in Henson’s touches in the post is tied to the departure of Ed Davis and Deon Thompson, but added bulk and strength are accountable for his improved efficiency. His back-to-the-basket game remains raw, lacking any consistent go-to move, but he now does a better job of holding his position long enough to utilize his excellent quickness.
Anyone who has watched Henson play even a couple of times knows that his future doesn’t reside in the post full time. As Sebatstian Pruiti pointed out yesterday in his excellent breakdown of North Carolina’s offense, the Tar Heels often run sets to free the junior for lobs around the rim. He shoots nearly 60 percent on shots around the basket and is a deadly finisher out of pick-and-roll sets, ranking in the 92nd percentile nationally last season.
Something to watch as this season unfolds will be Henson’s ability to operate away from the basket, where he remains tentative and loose with his mechanics. Although he made marginal improvements from his freshman to sophomore seasons, his 28-percent shooting on jumpers and 48 percent on free throws leave a tremendous amount to be desired.
If there is one area of Henson’s game scouts do not currently need to worry about it’s his defense. His combination of length, quickness and sense of timing makes him arguably the best shot blocker at the college level; this past season he averaged 4.4 blocks per 40 minutes, pace adjusted. Even against stronger post players, Henson is successful as a shot deterrent because he has the luxury of attacking the ball after it has already been released. His rebounding – as we already mentioned – is excellent as well, and he shows sound fundamentals in this aspect of his game, a rarity for someone who is so physically superior to the competition.
By staying in college for (at least) three seasons, Henson will benefit the most from recognizing his limitations. Wright has done so little in the NBA in part because of the amount of time he’s spent posting up, something he simply isn’t physically cut out for at the pro level. After several years of watching Henson struggle against stronger players in college, it’s clear he is destined to exist in a similar mold to a poor man’s Tyson Chandler: someone who can rebound, block shots and provide a threat out of pick-and-roll sets. It’s easy to look at a player with Henson’s length and athleticism and set the bar too high. Resembling Kevin Durant in build and physical ability does not make a player the second coming, or even anything remotely close.
His patience has paid off thus far, and whether or not it yields a successful pro career, logic seems to dictate that his extended collegiate stay has definitely proved beneficial.