October 10, 2011
It’s a look of desperation. Or confusion. It’s hard to describe, but you know it when you see it. It’s the “Henson Effect" and it is not measurable in any statistic or formula. No box score can describe it. It can only be experienced.
Around the beginning of ACC play during the 2011 season, a fellow UNC alumnus pointed out a trend in Henson’s blocked shots: He would usually get one or two very early in each game, but would often finish the half without coming near another shot. During the 2nd half he would eventually fill out his 3.2 average with a few more blocks. It would be hard to prove statistically, but anyone paying attention last season would eventually pick up on it. Here's what was happening:
Basically every team tries to get their big men involved early in each game. So at some point in the first few minutes they will set up a routine low post shot. But when players are facing Henson for the first time, this shot is usually spiked into the first row a la Vince Carter at the Hinton James volleyball court.1
The rejection must have some serious psychological effects
because the player will essentially abandon his inside game for the rest of the
half. It is remarkably consistent, and I have an entire half season of
basketball to back me up:
His 2nd half blocks stem from the fact that the coach forces these kids to take the ball into the post after the half-time break. In other words, even awareness of his blocking ability does not help that much.
We’ve all heard the Bill Russell phenomenon: that even if they had kept block stats, it could never take into account all the shots he altered. This is true of Henson as well, but he takes it to the next level. It would be tough to estimate the number of shots that are not even attempted while he is the game. It might be the most exciting thing to watch with this crop of Heels. Henson sends big-time college basketball players into a withering coma. His defensive mauling of CJ Leslie at NC State last year was the closest a college basketball player has come to literally crying on national television since JJ Redick literally cried on national television.2
Certain athletes have had the compounding effect of not only being more talented than opposing players, but also crushing them psychologically. It is true that Jordan, Wilt, Lawrence Taylor and Tiger Woods were simply better than everyone else. But it is also true that either through skill or pure athletic dominance they mentally crippled those who tried to compete with them. Henson is beginning to have that effect on players. It is simply stunning to watch how other players react around him after they get that first shot sent into the Risers.
And this is the essence of the "Henson Effect." It’s not in the block numbers or Ken Pomeroy's Defensive Ratings. It’s that look on opposing player's faces. It’s how they wander around the perimeter like a child that’s just been scolded. It’s how they sometimes flat out refuse to shoot the basketball. If you don’t believe me, check some box scores from last year and look at the total field goals attempted by whomever Henson was guarding.3
Many of his blocks are so unbelievable that he doesn't even get credit in the box score. But this shouldn't come as a surprise, not many other players can get caught up in the air on a pump-fake and still block the shot (11:43). Without instant replay it often looks like there was no way he could have made contact with some of the shots he rejects. Imagine how intimidating that must be for opposing players.
What’s even more remarkable is how someone who looks like John Henson could ever be coupled with the word 'intimidating'. Before his game really took off in 2011, Henson was more likely to be known as a skinny kid with a big smile. Pretend you were overseas during this last season (having never seen Henson) and a friend was explaining his transformation into defensive enforcer. You would imagine someone with Rashad McCants’ snarl, Rasheed Wallace’s stare or a wide-body like Brendan Haywood. You would not picture someone who looks like Steve Urkel and Lisa Leslie gave birth to a 6’10" power forward.
It is likely that the most terrifying defensive presence in college basketball is also the only player who most fans could beat in a weight-lifting contest. This is a kid who has inspired multiple fans to mail special diets to Roy Williams and was literally switched from the post to perimeter in 2010 largely because of his weight.4 Henson supposedly has to text message a picture of every meal he eats to UNC’s Strength & Conditioning coach to make sure he is consuming enough calories.5
By all accounts, the off-court Henson is a goof ball who’s always joking or smiling. So you can imagine most people were curious as to where his newfound mean-streak came from. It could have something to do with the rumors floating around campus that Rasheed Wallace had been practicing with the team during this period. Coincidence? You tell me. But Henson morphed into a shot blocking, dunking machine; often skirting the line between legally hanging from the rim and swinging from the iron like Donkey Kong on a SNES.6 Even his new catch-phrase is "ACTIN TUFF"7, which you can find in his Twitter feed.
And much like Rasheed, he has still maintained that charismatic smile; even if opposing fans would disagree. Minutes after swatting one of NC State’s Lorenzo Brown’s floaters into downtown Raleigh8, Henson went out of his way to pick Brown up after he dove out of bounds for a loose ball. Although I doubt any Pack fans will remember that show of goodwill. As with Wallace in the 90s, Henson isn't going to make any friends in the ACC this season.
Tar Heel fans have never really seen anything like this. And, more importantly, Henson’s shot blocking is a weapon unlike anything Roy Williams has had on either of his title teams. Neither 2005 nor 2009 had a dominant shot blocker in the starting line-up. So for all of the noise that’s been made over UNC not having a Flawson-esque9 point guard to run the break and outscore everyone they play, 2012 UNC might have the finest defensive weapon in the history of the school. UNC has never won two titles within one graduating class (or a NBAC Defensive Player of the Year Award for that matter). But if Coach Williams is able to couple the "Henson Effect" with one of his classic high-octane offenses, both of those statements might be outdated very soon.
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