By Jim Owczarski Sports Editor Published Dec 11, 2012 at 11:02 AM Photography: David Bernacchi

In the humidity of the North Carolina summers, John Henson became a basketball player.

He had to. The workouts were survival of the fittest, especially when you're a spindly collegian trying to hold his own against NBA big men Rasheed Wallace and Brendan Haywood. You rise to the occasion, or get left behind.

Henson did so, and then some. It took time, perhaps longer than many who follow the Tar Heels would have liked, but he did. The end result was an NBA-ready big man who is a building block for the future of the Milwaukee Bucks.

High expectations

Henson arrived in Chapel Hill in 2009 as the campus was reveling in its fifth NCAA championship, and as one of the top high school players in the country, expectations were the 6-foot, 11-inch forward would take the Tar Heels to a dynastic level.

"His freshman year, it was a very difficult year for all of us," Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said. "We lost eight of our top nine players. So he's thrown in there in a sink or swim kind of thing."

Only his slight frame led to the mutual decision between Henson and Williams that he would be better served on the wing, as a big man who can spread the floor and take opponents off the dribble. Never fully comfortable in that spot, Henson eventually was moved back to the post where he averaged less than 10 points per game.

It was the start of an unexpectedly down year for the defending champs, as the program missed the NCAA Tournament altogether.

The kid whose smile makes Williams' own shine through even during a phone conversation, found himself at the center of a storm, the first time he had been tested to such a degree.

"He just handled everything," Williams said. "There were some high expectations. McDonald's All-American. Some people had him listed in the top 10. But he was trying to play a college game at a very negative position as far as experience playing on the perimeter. And, number two, playing a very physical thing with an unphysical body.

"So then when we changed and put him back inside and he was more comfortable, still I kiddingly told him – but it was true – his freshman year he probably had more dunks blocked than anybody I've ever seen. In his sophomore and junior year he never had a single one blocked. I think it was just a lack of strength. You see these ratings, and they're on potential. It's not necessarily on what they're going to do."

After what Williams called a "ballooning" of weight from 180 pounds in the fall to 183 during the season his freshman year, Henson committed himself to getting stronger. He had to get better on the court, too, as NBA or former NBA alumni began showing up for workouts.

"It's helped me tremendously," Henson said of those workouts. "I always say guys like Sean May, Jawad Williams, Rasheed, Marvin Williams, Brendan Haywood coming back, you have no choice but to get better or you're going to get your tail whupped every day. That's kind of how we went about it."

To do that, Henson had no choice but to work on his body – even if many observers felt he wasn't as committed to the effort as he said he was. Williams bristled at the notion Henson didn't buy in to the team's weight-lifting program, saying the results might not have shown physically, but they definitely showed on the court.

"All of a sudden his sophomore year when those dunk attempts were getting blocked the year before he was finishing them stronger and quicker, I think that helped sell him too," Williams said.

"No kid is going to come in as a freshman and think oh, God, the weight room is the greatest thing since sliced bread. That's hard work. Some of the coaches and some of their family will say back in the day when I was young we didn't lift weights to be basketball players. Well, it's a whole different era right now. I never really felt that John was disinterested in the weight room. I never felt like he was not buying into the weight room. It was just really tough for him."

His sophomore year the Tar Heels rebounded after a slow start to finish second in the ACC Tournament and reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA tourney. Henson was the team's defensive anchor, and was named the ACC Defensive Player of the Year.

After that season, he entertained the idea of entering the NBA draft. As Henson weighed his options, his father Matt imparted some advice. He told his son, in essence, that it wasn't about how quickly you get to the NBA, but about being ready for what will come once you are.

"Staying another year also helped me mature a little bit," the younger Henson admitted. "I started living off campus and all that so that helped out a lot. Just playing more basketball under that system. We won a lot more games than we did the year before but just maturity wise I think it was a big help to stay another year. I'm glad I stayed another year because I don't think I would have been as ready coming out last year."

The decision paid off. His offensive game improved (13.7 points per game) and he was once again named the ACC Defensive Player of the Year.

He also developed a bit of an edge on the court.

"You can use 'nasty' if you want to – to me it was more of an aggressive approach," Williams said. "His play was more aggressive. His play was more forceful. I think he did try to take care of his teammates, particularly if it was that they got beat he was going to block a shot. He matured a great deal and I think was one of our leaders this year. I really believe that."

Even the notoriously volatile Wallace, who has served as a mentor to Henson, noticed the change.

"Definitely," Wallace said. "I would say as he got older, like his junior year, he was more aggressive. His first two years he was a little passive but that's bound to happen when you're playing for a big time program. The majority of a time it's more nerves than anything. With him having that aggression, that helped him become one of the top draft picks."

NBA ready

On draft night, Bucks general manager John Hammond couldn't contain his excitement as Henson tumbled down to the middle of the draft. Hammond and his staff had rated Henson as a top 10-caliber pick, and jumped at the chance to land him.

"He can defend today and he can rebound today," Hammond said on draft night. "He's got some work to do offensively. We watched him play and you can see signs of his ability. The workouts are just part of the process. He had a very good workout here and he did some things we got very excited about, offensively in particular."

Despite being slowed by a knee injury at the start of the season, Henson has earned five starts in 13 games and is averaging 5.2 points and 3.3 rebounds in about 12 minutes per game. His coming out party was a 17-point, 18-rebound performance on Nov. 21 at Miami.

"I think offensively I can do a little more than people expect and hopefully I get a chance to showcase that," Henson said. "Defense is my calling card and that's how I'm going to be on the floor quicker, rather than my offense."

His quick ascension to a starting role and some significant minutes in stretches has surprised many considering the dearth of big men on the roster and coach Scott Skiles' affinity for veterans.

It comes as no surprise for Henson however, who feels like his decision two years ago to stay in school has led to this.

"With three years of school I feel way more prepared," he said. "I'll be honest with you; if I was 18 years old and a freshman coming out into a situation like this it'd be rough on me. Just being by myself. I've grown up a little bit. It's easy for me now. There's some things you just learn gradually."

"A year ago I might not have played a minute for this team. That's how it is. This year I'm hopefully coming with a few more tools and perspective and things that are helping me."

A look ahead

Leaning back in his locker in the visiting locker room at the Bradley Center, Rasheed Wallace's trademark scowl fell away as he reflected back on his sessions with Henson on Chapel Hill. The Knicks were in town to play the Bucks, and the 38-year-old forward was able to see first-hand how those lessons Henson credited to him paid off.

"It's really all him, to be honest," he said. "From his freshman up to his (junior) year he has progressed. It just came through hard work. I worked him out a little bit over the summers, but that hunger inside of him, him wanting to get better, honestly, I can't take none of the credit for where he is today and the things that he's done. It's just him, through hard work and perseverance."

Back in North Carolina, Williams is still smiling through the phone.

You can hear it in the coach's voice, his 62-year-old timbre softening at the memory of Henson's toothy grin. It's what he says he'll always remember most about the "kid," as he still calls him. He admired the leadership role he ascended into by his junior year, and added that "One thing I loved about John is John is a person who could really, really enjoy other people's successes. I think that's a special quality."

You see that now, away from the crowds during practice at the Cousins Center, or on the court during games. More importantly however, is you see improvement. Wallace and Williams saw it first hand for three years at Chapel Hill, and Wallace has seen it already in a short time in the NBA, saying he believes before it's all said and done Henson will be an NBA All-Defensive Team member.

"John is going to be a big time player in the NBA for a long time," Williams added.

He would know, having coached the likes of Henson's current teammate, Drew Gooden, along with NBA veterans Kirk Hinrich, Paul Pierce, Nick Collison, Marvin Williams and Raymond Felton.

"He's one of those guys that at the end of the year you'll say 'He had a nice rookie year' and the next year you'll say 'Boy, he improved from his rookie year to his sophomore year,'" Williams added. "Then the next you'll say 'Boy, this is his third year in the NBA and he's gotten better every year.' I really believe that's what you're going to see."

Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.

A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.

To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.

Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining

In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.

Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.