It’s the tail end of the NBA season and we all know what that means: Unpredictable lineups, superstars and future franchise players randomly sitting games because there’s nothing left to play for, tanking accusations and of course, the wide world of bizarre statlines. In a game tonight that had no meaning at all except for developmental reps, possible performance-based incentives and a chance for Orlando to improve their odds at winning the lottery, the Bucks of Milwaukee went down to Orlando to face the Magic. I didn’t watch any of this game until overtime when I realized some variation of the NBA Twilight Zone starring John Henson was unfolding at the Amway Center.
Henson is well known for his lanky frame and Phil Jackson-styled walk which includes a sort of hitch in or around the hip area. I’m no physiotherapist, but Henson’s gait looks like something that will give him trouble in the future. It certainly didn’t give him any trouble tonight as evidence by this tremendously unpredictable line:
It was a game overflowing with unpredictable oddities and copious amounts of rebounds to be had by all. Nikola Vucevic of “Guess I’m Strange” fame recorded his league-leading fourth 20/20 game with 30 points and 20 rebounds (that’s back-to-back 20/20s for Vucevic) and the recent Magic addition Tobias Harris (picked up in a trade with the Bucks in February) had a career night against his former team with 30 points and 19 rebounds including a game-tying three that sent the game in OT. It was an ultimate expression of NBA-condoned vengeance.
But it was Henson who caused destruction with his spindly arms and hands blocking and disrupting shots on his way to that 25-rebound total. His 17-point, 25-rebound, 7-block combination is the only one achieved by a Bucks player since at least 1985-86 (that’s as far as Basketball-reference’s game finder goes back for blocks and boards). That piqued my always-inquisitive mind so I asked the basketball machine who was the last player to beast mode like Henson did tonight. The basketball machine told me:
Updated to include 25-rebound filter
*Ed’s note on the larger table above: the rebound filter is set to 20. On the second table, the accurate 25-rebound filter is set–which actually puts Henson in a more exclusive group. Also, interesting to see Hakeem’s destruction of Orlando back in 1989 on the list. I explored the conditions of that game in a previous post here.* Lot of great games and names that list, including the most recent by Joakim Noah just over a month ago, but John Henson? This string bean of a basketball player? This long legged leaper in a league full of long legged leapers? 25 boards? We haven’t seen another player this young put up at least 17 and 25 since a 21-year-old Shaquille O’Neal went for 24 points, 28 rebounds and 15 blocks (while only attempting a single free throw—so strange) back in 1993.
Yes, it’s highly esteemed company that Henson joined tonight, but I don’t have a clue what type of player he is or will become. Even in the dying embers of overtime, Henson’s length and leap timing was an obvious skill, but something (something named Larry Sanders?) has caused Henson’s minutes to decrease over the past few months from 17mpg in January to roughly 10mpg in February and March to just four mpg in four April games. Then there nights like this and nights like November 21st, 2012 when he went for 17pts and 18 boards against the Heat. So who is John Henson and what is he to you?
I remember the first and only time I stepped foot in the Bradley Center like it happened seven or eight years ago. It was a cold Milwaukee night in November and I was with a few college buddies making the trek from Iowa City up north. The police officers took jaywalking seriously and made some threats which we took seriously. Then we made it inside and my recollections get fuzzy. I remember the 23-year-old version of me being impressed by the dinginess of this NBA arena that seemed sepia-toned like I was watching the game through the lens of an old photo. The Kobe/Shaq Lakers beat the Bucks in what was a mostly forgettable game, but memories drift to the lower end of indifference … similar to how I felt when I sat down to write this preview.
The 2011-12 version of the Bucks are a most uninteresting collection of interesting individuals. Their owner is long-time Wisconsin Senator, Herb Kohl. I don’t know much about Kohl except a story I heard once from a friend who occasionally travels to DC for work. Kohl’s worth hundreds of millions of dollars, but piddles around the nation’s capital in a model of simplicity—a Ford Taurus. I realize there are plenty of thrifty millionaires, but given that Kohl owns an NBA team, this contrast found a way to stay stuck in my mind and I’ve always had an appreciation of Kohl since. (I hope the story’s true.)
Moving down the ladder a few rungs, we find Coach Scott Skiles who, from afar and second-hand accounts, appears to be possessed with a deep, unquenchable intensity. The kind of intensity that overrides any logic and convinces engage your teammate in physical battle … even if he’s 7’1”, 300+ pound Shaquille O’Neal and you’re 6’1”, 180lbs Scott Skiles. This temperament underlining a point guard’s skill set and vision is the primary genesis of the 2011-12 Bucks’ theories and strategies. I’ve always been curious about how the 47-year-old drill instructor of a coach gets along with his swag-heavy 22-year-old point guard, Brandon Jennings.
We know some of Jennings’s story: the preps to Euro-pros move, the 55-point game as a rookie, the streaking quickness and an Under Armour sponsorship that won’t quit. If you don’t have League Pass or NBA TV, there’s a good chance you’ve seen Jennings’s unorthodox (for a basketball player) workouts in commercials (Bosu planks and pushups, exercises to strengthen the core and improve balance, jumping and touching the ball against the backboard over and over, etc) more than you’ve actually seen him in a Bucks uniform. The workouts, like much of what Jennings does, are designed and promoted as new, fresh, ahead of the game which he’s always presented himself as: from the high-top fade at the McDonald’s All-American game to skipping college to make some money and play in Europe to the faux hawk to signing an endorsement deal with a non-basketball traditional shoe company to his gritty, sweat-drenched, highly marketed workouts—Brandon embraces the new. But his coach embodies the old; he was emblematic of the old even when he was a younger player—short shorts, receding hairline, Indiana roots. Having played the same position and the point guard being a natural extension of the coach makes this a fascinating relationship that happens to be part of the role dynamics of the NBA and pro sports; it’s just that stylistically, Jennings and Skiles couldn’t be much more of a study in contrasts.
Sticking with Jennings; we also know he’s capable of nuclear scoring outbursts like the 55 he droped … in his seventh game … as a rookie. No rookie since Earl the Pearl Monroe (aka, Black Jesus) scored 56 in 1968 has done better than Jennings. If his nickname was Black Jesus, what’s that make Jennings? In one 48-minute stretch, Jennings expanded the possibilities of his own personal stratosphere and simultaneously raised the expectations of the pro basketball public. That was 2009 and it’s his most definable moment and will be tough to overcome since we all only have one rookie season for each career we choose. It will always be a special marker of the Brandon Jennings narrative, but the progression of his career will determine its prominence.
The Bradley Center might be a big warehouse with some seats and a couple baskets, but Andrew Bogut’s raucous group of fans called Squad 6, the Fear the Deer campaign and now Stephen Jackson’s inclusion have filled the arena and its Euro-style fans with some fun and hopefully a few more wins. On the fun (or worrisome) side of things, Jackson’s a wild card and Bogut’s known for being outspoken and averse to biting his tongue. Jennings and Skiles have co-existed through two seasons, but Skiles has a way of wearing teams down with his intense approach. For Milwaukee beat reporters, there should at least be plenty of quality post-game quotes.
Among others, these are the first questions that come to mind when I think about the potential of this team:
Has Andrew Bogut’s elbow finally healed? The man shot 44% from the free throw line last year. Bucks fans can only hope this was an injury-related 44%.
Will Brandon Jennings’s video-documented workouts make him a better player? He claims the weight work is preceding a style change that will include more penetrating and less three-chucking (over two years, he’s shot 4.8 threes/game—bad enough for 15th most 3pa/game and the worst 3p% of any of the players who shot more than him).
Has Carlos Delfino recovered from his post-concussion symptoms from last season? We’ve seen Justin Morneau in baseball, Sidney Crosby in hockey, Delfino in the NBA and who can possibly count the number of NFL-related head injuries. It’s spooky to think about how little we knew about concussions 10, 20, or 30 years ago.
The more time I spend contemplating this Bucks team, the more I find myself being drawn into the complex players, relationships and talents that make up the group. I don’t know what to expect on the floor, but it hinges on a combination of the questions above and the chemistry that does or doesn’t develop in the locker room. I’m not quite ready to Fear the Deer, but I’ll proceed with necessary caution.