Over the past three weeks, North Carolina power forward John Henson has taken his quest to reach the NBA on the road and traveled about 8,000 miles.
His odyssey started June 4 in New Orleans before heading to Chicago for the NBA Draft combine, where he was poked and prodded, scanned and scrutinized (6-foot-10 1/2 with shoes on, 8.6 percent body fat, hand length of 9.25 inches, to name a few particulars).
Then his predraft workout tour began in earnest.
There were four stops in six days — Sacramento (June 11), Portland (June 13), Golden State (June 14) and Phoenix (June 16) — followed by a brief rest (and another workout) in Houston. Next was Milwaukee (June 20), Toronto (June 21) and Philadelphia (June 23). And after a final stop in Detroit on Monday, Henson hopes to end the road show in New Jersey, the site of Thursday’s draft.
Henson, who played his senior year at Sickles High in Tampa, is projected to go anywhere from No. 9 to No. 18 and will be the first Hillsborough County player drafted since Brandon High’s Joey Graham in 2005.
“He’s doing well. He’s very excited about it and just ready to get to the process and get to June 28,” said his father, Matt. “He’s building up momentum as he goes through, and it looks like he’s getting better and better with every workout so far.”
By the time Henson moved to Tampa from a Houston suburb in the summer before his senior year, he had already committed to the Tar Heels and was ranked the third-best prospect in the Class of 2009. To say he was a well-known commodity puts it lightly — he received 10-15 pieces of fan mail a day.
With all that hype came enormous expectations for the slender forward with the 7-foot-5 wingspan.
“John had one of those type of games that sometimes you couldn’t even see him and some people would leave the gym not totally impressed,” Sickles coach Renaldo Garcia said. “I’d go to the barbershop and guys would be like, ‘Do you really think he’s top-five, do you really think he’s that good?’
“From Day One, seeing the things that he was able to do, I knew he was going to be a special ballplayer. His skill level is off the charts, and he’s such a hard worker. When you combine that with his length and size, you’ve got a good basketball player.”
After averaging 17.6 points, 12 rebounds and six steals his senior year at Sickles, the expectations followed Henson to UNC, where the McDonald’s All-American (the fourth from the Tampa Bay area) was expected by some to be a one-and-done player. Instead, Henson — along with the rest of the 20-17 Tar Heels — struggled to find his niche. Matt Henson remembers people saying his son was going to go down as the biggest bust in Carolina history.
But thanks in part to text messages from his dad after each game — “No matter how the game went, I always found something positive that he did,” Matt said — and encouragement from Tar Heels alumni and Rasheed Wallace in particular, Henson stayed focused.
The next year, he was named ACC Defensive Player of the Year and became only the second player in conference history to win it twice, collecting the honor again this season. He also led the ACC in rebounding this year, averaging 9.9 boards during UNC’s run to the Elite Eight.
“I proved to everybody what you want to do, and also just maturing mentally and physically was something I needed to do,” Henson told reporters at the NBA combine about his time in Chapel Hill. “It took me probably a little more time than other guys, but it’s a process and I’m here now.”
As he has traveled the country and to Canada for predraft workouts, where he regularly goes up against Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger, Baylor’s Perry Jones, Kentucky’s Terrence Jones and sometimes former Tar Heels teammate Tyler Zeller, he has faced one question more often than any other: What are you going to do to work on your strength and put on weight?
“I’m stronger than I look,” said Henson, who weighed 216 pounds, about 20 pounds heavier than his freshman year, at the combine and bench-pressed 185 pounds five times (the high was 20 repetitions). “And I hope to prove that to people.”
“That’s something people have said since he was, goodness, 8 or 9 years old,” Matt Henson, who played center at Norfolk State, said of the “he’s too thin” refrain. “I’ve had people at games tell me that he needs to put on 30 or 40 pounds and I said, ‘Look at the other bench, there’s about five guys as tall as he is and weigh 20 pounds more than him and they can’t get off the bench.’ Maybe they should lose some weight,” he added with a laugh.
Henson’s workout tour will end with the Pistons, who hold the No. 9 pick. About half the mock drafts project Henson to Detroit, where he would pair with Greg Monroe in the frontcourt. With the exception of Dallas, which holds the No. 17 pick, Henson has worked out for every team from selections 5-18.
“A lot of us played basketball locally in the area, and we played well but never had the opportunity to even have a chance to play in the NBA, let alone be projected as a first-round pick,” said Garcia, who played at Florida from 1989-91. “He’s really close to fulfilling a dream.”