Why Henson is best player in Las Vegas

July, 18, 2013
7/18/13
11:28
PM ET
By D.J. Foster
ESPN.com
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John HensonJack Arent/Getty ImagesRelegated to the bench most of his rookie year, John Henson has showed what he can do in Vegas.

LAS VEGAS -- John Henson looks out of place at summer league. A mobile big man who runs the floor incredibly well, shows a sweet touch at the rim, blocks everything within reach of his never-ending arms and skies above the fray for rebounds regularly?

All that size and ability just makes you channel your inner Billy Joel and ask Henson, "Man, what are you doing here?"

“I'm here to play,” Henson said. “This is the best kind of game you’re going to get as far as competition.”

If it’s competition Henson is searching for, he’ll find it yet again upon his return to the Milwaukee Bucks. A year removed from being an infrequently used piece in a crowded frontcourt, the Bucks' front office went out and signed Zaza Pachulia this offseason to complicate matters further.

“It’s going to be a battle,” Henson said. “But hey, this is the NBA. It’s never going to come easy.”

For the time being, things are coming very easily for the 6-foot-11 North Carolina product. In three summer league games, Henson has averaged 14.6 points, 13.6 rebounds and 3 blocks a contest -- all in just 27 minutes a game. And he has looked just as dominant as his numbers portend.

For as good as Toronto Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas has been, Henson’s performance feels more readily transferable to the next level, simply because he’s not overpowering opponents with post moves on the block. Henson is a little skinny for that, so he’s mainly collecting scraps around the rim instead of being the sole offensive focus.

Ask yourself this: Is Valanciunas getting post feeds and proper spacing from possession hogs DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay more likely than Henson cleaning up the messes left by O.J. Mayo and (possibly) Brandon Jennings?

It may not feel right to say this about a second-year guy who played just 13 minutes a game last season, but Henson is the best player in Las Vegas.

"That’s for you guys to decide," Henson said. "I feel like I’m one of the best and you got to have confidence in yourself. I wanted to establish myself as one of the best players here and show that I can play in the league."

Perhaps with more playing time last season, Henson might not even need to be here to prove that. Check the per-36-minutes numbers for Henson last season (16.5 points, 12.9 rebounds, 1.8 blocks) and you can picture him hanging out on a beach instead of fighting in the mud with prospects desperate for roster spots.

Part of the reason Henson is here and playing is because the Bucks might not be sure what they have. Does he play the 4 or the 5? Is he strong enough to cover thicker post scorers in the league, rare as they may be? Perhaps most importantly, can he mesh with franchise building block Larry Sanders, or do their skills overlap too much?

"I think we have similar skill sets, but we’re also very different in our approach to the game,” Henson said. “I think Larry, defensively, is way more advanced than me as far as playing the 5-spot and having to guard guys like Dwight [Howard]. That’s something I need to work on, so I think we’ll be a great one-two punch."

Playing Henson and Sanders together in extended stretches would be the perfect example of a team going against the grain while also leveraging its biggest strength. The Henson-Sanders pairing played only 107 minutes together last season, which feels criminally low. While spacing is as important as ever, defense could become a steadying presence for a team with a shaky present and an uncertain future.

"With me and Larry, one thing that’s not going to happen is layups," Henson said. "We’re going to protect the rim. No matter what kind of skill sets we have, if we’re going to protect the rim, we’re going to be all right."

To be something more, the Bucks might need to let Henson be great.

D.J. Foster is a member of the TrueHoop Network. Follow him @fosterdj.

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