CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — As he strode into the Smith Center, an arena decorated with banners that celebrate North Carolina's storied basketball past and accentuate the lofty expectations for all who wear the jersey, John Henson seemed perfectly at ease.
And that wasn't always so.
Despite his boundless abilities and countless prep accolades, which fueled speculation he would bolt for the NBA after a single season, the 6-foot-10 sophomore from Sickles High struggled in his new surroundings for a good chunk of last season.
"It was tough because you want to fulfill those expectations, and even as much as you want to say you don't hear (the preseason hype), you do," Henson said before a recent practice. "But things got better."
A lot better for him as his role and production expanded late in the season. His finish, along with the arrival of top prospects such as forward Harrison Barnes, a preseason All-America selection, explain why the No. 8 Tar Heels are expected to rebound from a subpar season and perhaps add some decorative touches at home.
Henson had 10 points and set career highs with 17 rebounds and seven blocks in the Tar Heels' 80-66 season-opening win against Lipscomb on Friday. He and his teammates now head to San Juan for the Puerto Rico Tip-Off tournament this week; they open the three-game event against Hofstra on Thursday.
"He's developed a ton," UNC junior center Tyler Zeller said of his frontcourt mate. "It was tough for him (last season) because he was higher ranked than most people coming out, and it's a whole new level of basketball. He wasn't quite ready for it. But he's worked very hard, shooting, lifting. He can do a little bit of everything."
Henson seemed lost, out of place almost, until a late-season injury to star Ed Davis prompted coach Roy Williams to move him from small to power forward, the position he played in high school but didn't appear to have the bulk to man at the highest level of collegiate ball.
Henson has seemed at home there.
"When we recruited John, he had a desire to be a perimeter player and with his body type, he only weighed about 190, we felt it was good for us to try it," Williams said. "He does have some instincts that show he can be a perimeter player, but it was just overwhelming for him early in the season. He had some good flashes here and there, but when we moved him back inside after all the injuries we had, he felt so much more comfortable, and each game where something good would happen, it would give him a little more confidence."
Of Carolina's final 13 games a year ago, Henson started 12 and nearly tripled his scoring average from 3.8 to 9.8 as a starter. He hit double figures six times in that stretch compared to twice in his other 25 games. He also averaged 7.5 rebounds as a starter and blocked 26 shots to finish second on the team and fourth in the ACC with 60.
"It was more natural for me; it was a little easier to understand, being down low rather than being on the perimeter," said Henson, 19, who moved to Tampa from Texas with his family in 2008. "Everything just kind of started clicking for me. Everything worked out for the best, and I'm just thankful for that."
Now he wants, and needs, to build on that finish.
The Tar Heels, who won the 2009 NCAA title with a senior-dominated team of future NBA players, slumped badly and settled for an NIT berth. Compounding their disappointment was that their rivals a few miles down Tobacco Road in Durham won the NCAA championship.
"That does make you work that much harder," Henson, with a sly smile, said of Duke's success — a school, by the way, that his sister, Sickles senior star Amber, plans to attend.
Henson gained more than 20 pounds in the offseason and took advantage of the star-studded pickup games against former UNC standouts, including power forwards Marvin Williams and Sean May, to work on his post play.
"John's got marvelous potential," Roy Williams said. "With his length, he can block a lot of shots and get his hands on balls other people can't, but he's got to use those gifts."
That demands comfort and confidence, and he seems to be gaining both.
"I'm maturing as a player," Henson said. "I'm excited about what I can do (this year). And with the teammates I have and the kind of players we have, I think we're going to be a very good team. Don't go to sleep on us, that's all I can tell you."
Brian Landman can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3347.