Tonight on CSN: Bulls try to get past Bucks, red-hot John Henson

Tonight on CSN: Bulls try to get past Bucks, red-hot John Henson
December 12, 2013, 11:45 pm
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Mark Strotman

The Bulls travel to Milwaukee tonight to take on the Bucks, looking to avenge Tuesday's embarrassing loss at home. They'll have to get past John Henson, one of the league's best young defenders, in the process. Tune in at 7 p.m. for Bulls Pregame Live, hosted by Mark Schanowski and Will Perdue. Then stay with CSN Chicago after the game for player reaction, highlights and analysis.

There was a time during John Henson's collegiate career when scouts debated whether the 6-foot-11 power forward could play at the next level with a wiry, 216-pound frame. There was little doubt about his elite athleticism or freaky length -- the former top-5 high school recruit in the country sported a 7-foot-5 wingspan -- but he struggled against bigger centers and needed some of that thin frame to use in his offensive versatility, so simply adding on weight and muscle wasn't a given.

The numbers spoke volumes and somewhat answered that question. A two-time ACC Defensive Player of the Year, Henson averaged 10.0 rebounds and 3.1 blocks per game in his final two seasons with the Tar Heels. As a junior, both his defensive rebounding rate and block percentage ranked in the top-30 in the country while helping North Carolina to the Elite Eight.

With the debate still lingering over Henson's NBA worth as he declared for the 2012 draft, one team's director of scouting spoke glowingly about the North Carolina junior.

"When you look at his length and his ability to defend - how he uses his length to play off players and still be in good defensive position - he'll get stronger in time," Billy McKinney told the Journal-Sentinel. "But I don't think strength is a main priority when you're evaluating a guy's talent."

[GIF: Henson makes ridiculous shot over Gibson]

McKinney didn't expect Henson to be available when the Bucks selected 12th, but there he was on draft night at No. 14 -- the Bucks had traded with the Rockets, who moved up to select Jeremy Lamb. The Bucks had their man, and two seasons later he is proving that his long frame and elite athleticism is more than enough to make up for his lack of strength.

At 22 years old, Henson is listed at 220 pounds. That hasn't stopped him in his pursuit of becoming one of the better interior defenders in the NBA.

Tuesday he was everywhere against the Bulls in the Bucks' 78-74 win. In addition to scoring a career-high 25 points, he also grabbed 14 rebounds, grabbed three steals and blocked six shots in the most complete game of his young career.

That game wasn't a mirage; not including a dud on Wednesday in a blowout loss to the San Antonio Spurs, Henson had averaged 16.3 points on 55 percent shooting, 10.8 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 2.5 blocks in 35 minutes in his last six games. With Larry Sanders still out after breaking his thumb in a nightclub incident, Henson has seen his role increase and forced Larry Drew to unleash his young star.

[RELATED: Short-handed Bulls upset at home in loss to Bucks]

In 22 games, Henson is averaging 11.5 points, 7.4 rebounds and 2.1 blocks. He's just one of four players averaging at least those marks, joining Anthony Davis, Serge Ibaka and Roy Hibbert, three of the top interior defenders in the NBA.

And though his 7.4 rebounds are tied for 35th in the league, questions about his ability to bang inside with the bigger centers have been answered. Per data provided by NBA.com, Henson is 11th in the NBA in contested rebound percentage -- defined as the percentage of available rebounds Henson grabs with a defender within 3.5 feet of him. His 44 percent mark is better than players such as Serge Ibaka, Kevin Love, DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin. His minutes aren't on par with the top rebounders in the NBA, but his advanced statistics say he's had success inside.

Henson's shot-blocking prowess has also been on display in Year 2. His 6.5 block percentage -- meaning Henson blocks 6.5 percent of all field-goal attempts opponents take while he is on the court -- is third in the NBA, behind only Anthony Davis (9.1) and Roy Hibbert (7.2), two early-season candidates for Defensive Player of the Year.

And it's not just the shots he blocks. Opponents are making just 43.9 percent of shots at the rim, the 13th best mark among forwards and centers. Though the Bucks are tied for 25th in defensive efficiency and are tied for 21st in field-goal percentage defense, Henson has not been the reason why. Once Larry Sanders, the league leader in block percentage a year ago, returns, the Bucks may have arguably the best interior defense in the NBA.

Henson's defensive athleticism will be on display tonight as the Bucks face the Bulls on Comcast SportsNet. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. with Bulls Pregame Live. And stay interactive throughout the night with Bulls Pulse, using #BullsTalk to join the conversation.