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October 20, 2011
Lifting weights (and knives and forks) to bulk up, a lanky defender now can better employ his all-encompassing wingspan to frustrate foes
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October 20, 2011

The Thin Man Gets In The Thick Of It

Lifting weights (and knives and forks) to bulk up, a lanky defender now can better employ his all-encompassing wingspan to frustrate foes

SOMETIME THIS WINTER JOHN HENSON WILL SLIP INTO CAMERON INDOOR STADIUM FOR a Duke women's basketball game. He will be there to support his sister, Amber, a 6' 4" freshman forward who was named Florida's Gatorade Player of the Year last season. John will not don Blue Devils gear; he is adamant about that. He says he'll go "maybe with a hoodie on, crouching down a little bit," trying to be incognito. Amber is skeptical. "I don't know how he thinks that's possible," she says, given that her brother is a 6' 11" North Carolina star who had double doubles in each of his three sophomore-year games against the Blue Devils. The Dukies are well aware of who he is.

There was a time when Henson might have been able to hide. As a Carolina freshman he was a wisp of a big man. Looking at a picture of himself from when he arrived on campus that summer, he laughs and remembers that strength and conditioning coordinator Jonas Sahratian became angry after Henson's initial weigh-in—at 184.8 pounds. "He was like, 'I thought you'd been lifting and eating!' " Henson recalls. He was slotted at small forward. North Carolina already had Ed Davis at the four, and as coach Roy Williams says, "There aren't many 180-pound power forwards in the NBA."

But Henson, a McDonald's All-American, often looked out of sorts on the perimeter as a freshman, lacking the shooting range needed to keep defenses honest. He was on the floor for just 15.8 minutes per game, averaging 5.7 points and 4.4 rebounds. When he moved to power forward last season, things began to click: He averaged a double double, with 11.7 points and 10.1 rebounds in 26.7 minutes, and his proximity to the basket allowed him to become a defensive force. Williams says that Henson's size and wingspan (estimated at 7' 6") "can't be matched or simulated by most other teams"; last season he ranked 12th nationally in block percentage. He and Amber were both trained to be versatile by their father, Matt, a former player at Norfolk State, but, she says, "When it comes down to it, we're both power-forward-type players."

Henson has been bulking up to fit the position's traditional size requirements, eating and lifting his way to 220 pounds so that he no longer looks like the total "wet noodle" that Sahratian saw in 2009. "It may be deceiving because of his length, but John plays so much stronger now," says frontcourtmate Tyler Zeller. Henson's fellow Heels have also been raving about the progress of his jump shot; they now consider him to be a decent midrange option. Free throw shooting is his Achilles' heel; Henson was a woeful 47.9% from the line last season. "If I had my sister's shot," he says, "my life would be a lot easier."

It has taken Henson time to get fully acclimated to his extreme lankiness. As a high school sophomore he grew six inches, to 6' 9". Amber recalls John's having multiple knocking-milk-off-the-table incidents, and a few Tar Heels teammates, including guard Dexter Strickland, were inadvertently smacked in the face by one of his flailing arms. But as his coordination catches up with his size, Henson has been transforming into a power on both ends of the floor. That's something he'd like fans to notice: "I hope that people, when they watch me this season, will say, 'That's one of the biggest three-year improvements I've seen from a player in a long time.'"