The trade deadline has come and gone for the Pistons and they made a single move, trading star center Andre Drummond. In return they got a future 2nd round pick along with Brandon Knight and John Henson from the Cleveland Cavaliers. So let’s meet spindly big-man John Henson.
Who is John Henson?
John Henson is a 6-foot-10 219 lbs big-man who played his high-school ball in Texas before transferring to a Florida school his senior year. Like most guys who end up in the NBA he dominated on his high-school team and was a highly sought recruit. He rated in the top 10 of his class and was an All-American.
Henson went to North Carolina for college where injuries in front of him put him on the court immediately as a freshman. He won ACC defensive player of the year in both his sophomore and junior seasons by averaging over 3 blocks per game over the two-year span.
After declaring for the draft, Henson was taken No. 14 overall in the 2012 NBA draft. He would spend his first seven years with the Bucks and was largely a rotation big who occasionally started, mostly playing center but also getting some time at the four.
In the end Henson would sign a four-year $45 million deal and wound up being a cap casualty the Bucks could no longer afford. In the 1208-19 season, Henson hurt his wrist and ended up needing surgery. He was ruled out indefinitely and with extensions coming up for more important players he was moved, along with Matthew Dellevedova, to the Cavs in a salary dump midway through last season. He didn’t play at all for the Cavs last year while he recovered from injury.
This season he rarely saw the court early on but in early December entered the rotation and has been a low-minutes rotation guy ever since. By all accounts he arrives in Detroit healthy and in game-shape.
What’s his game?
The comp isn’t perfect, but in overall impact it would be fair to compare him to Thon Maker. Henson is tall with an incredible wing span and is a good leaper so he can dunk lobs and block shots with the best of them. Even though his accuracy is not great, he will occasionally take jump shots if left wide open. The bad news is that while he has length, he lacks strength. While Henson is not as noticeably skinny as Thon, he also doesn’t have the same dog in him that Thon does. This makes Henson a very poor rebounder, a mediocre screen setter, and bad in the post on both ends of the floor. If you remember, there were days when Drummond would obliterate the Bucks because they simply had nobody large enough to handle him. Henson was often one of the most guilty parties.
Even though the overall impact is similar, Henson’s game does look very different from Thon’s. Henson has legitimately great hands, and if you throw him lobs he will be very good at coming down with the ball. Also, even though he lacks the strength to consistently get right under the basket, when he gets there his incredible length allows him to easily lay it in without hardly jumping, and he’s got good enough touch to put it in even from a bit further away. He isn’t going to create looks for himself and his mediocre screening and passing means he doesn’t do much to make others better either, but he can be relied upon to consistently finish plays when he gets the ball in the paint.
How about his defense?
He blocks a lot of shots. He averages 2.7 blocks per 36 for his career, and he has had a couple of seasons where he broke the four-blocks-per-36 threshold. The best way to illustrate his shot-blocking prowess is that his career block percentage of 6.2% would be tied for 5th in the NBA this season. The guy is a shot-blocking machine.
The issue is, like on offense, he just isn’t strong enough. Despite his great length and soft hands he has a career rebounding percentage of just 15.2%, a putrid rate for a guy who’s played center without other good rebounders around him for most of his career. His lack of strength means he struggles to knock guys off their spots. Most ball-handlers are comfortable driving into him and using their body to clear the space they need, any post-up brute can move him, rolling big-men roll through him, that sort of stuff.
To make matters worse, he doesn’t move that well so if you move him away from the hoop he will still struggle. His huge block numbers and lob-catching ability made him a darling of “smart teams are trying to steal him away from the Bucks” when he was young, but as time has gone on it’s become clear that his shot blocking doesn’t make up for all his other issues.
So, like Thon, he can occasionally have good stretches where he blocks/contests lots of shots and looks very good, but overall his defense is just lacking in too many areas. There’s also the issue of him not being as much of a maniacal try-hard as Thon is.
What will his role be with the team?
Hard to say for sure because I’m not sure how much the Pistons lean into the rebuild. One would have to guess that he will at least get some minutes off the bench given that the Pistons are pretty thin up front, although once Markieff Morris is healthy they could go Sekou Doumbouya/Kieff at the four and Christian Wood/Thon at center and leave Henson out entirely, but I’d bet they don’t do that. Given that they seem to clearly want to play Wood at power forward, I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up playing a bunch.
When he plays, he will spend most of his time setting screens and rolling to the hoop with whatever ball-handlers the Pistons have. At the very least him and Reggie Jackson should be able to quickly build some nice chemistry in that department. He will occasionally have some big, cool, dunks and some big, cool, blocks but will also go long stretches where he seems invisible. Also, given how small the Pistons suddenly find themselves up front there are probably going to be stretches where they give up a colossal number of offensive rebounds because I’ve seen Thon and Henson play together and that’s what happens. In fact, per NBA stats, in the 2017-18 season when they shared the floor together the team rebounded just 36.8% of all misses. That is awful.
He should be able to have a positive impact if the Pistons ball-handlers stay healthy. If they don’t then he will probably be very lost.
What’s the upshot for the rest of the roster and the future?
For the rest of the roster it shouldn’t have a big impact. Andre played a ton and was traded for him so even if Henson plays 20 minutes per night other guys will still get a increase in minutes from where they were before, and other than Wood the Pistons don’t even have any young guys who could take those minutes anyways.
As for the future, Henson is obviously an expiring contract so there is little reason to expect him on the team going forward. On the other hand, the Pistons will have plenty of cap space and literally none of their bigs other than Blake Griffin are under contract beyond this season so if he shows signs of life and the price is cheap he could potentially stay with the team beyond this season because even if they go full rebuild they will need some bodies up front.
Henson, finally back getting regular playing time for the first time in a couple of years, is rejuvenated and finds great chemistry with the Pistons young players. He rediscovers his dunking and shot-blocking peak and it turns out he spent his time off the court getting stronger, turning him into a legit defender. He plays so well and is so well liked that the Pistons re-sign him to a cheap deal for a couple years, and he’s a productive rotation big for the next several years and a key contributor.
He just isn’t good any more. He plays decently since he knows he’s got to try and get a new contract this summer but it’s obvious to all parties that this is just a pit-stop for him. To make matters worse, for some reason the Pistons decide to play him more than any of their other bigs and Christian Wood see’s minimal time at center the rest of the way because Henson is playing 30 minutes per night. After that he signs somewhere else this summer.
Obviously Henson is not here because the Pistons thought he brought some special value to the team. He and Knight were just salary filler. But they could use another body up front and at the very least he walks the line of doing some stuff that will make it slightly less miserable to watch a bad team with some dunks and blocks without actually being that impact so they still lose and get a higher pick. And in the end there is some benefit to the fact that if, for some reason, he really gets on with other players and the wider organization he’s a guy who is young enough and fits a clear role that they could maybe keep him around beyond this season.