By JOAN NIESEN
LAS VEGAS A year ago, Tobias Harris was the Milwaukee Bucks' future. A year ago, he was fresh from his one year at Tennessee, the 19th pick in the 2011 draft. A year ago, he was pure potential.
A year ago, John Henson was still in college. He'd just won the ACC Defensive Player of the Year award, and he'd decided to remain in school for another season. A year ago, despite having not yet declared for the NBA draft, Henson was still more of a household name than his future teammate.
Before Henson, the Bucks were Harris' opportunity. But after the Bucks picked the UNC forward with the 14th pick on June 28, the focus shifted. Why dwell on a lackluster rookie season in which Harris averaged just 5.0 points in 11.4 minutes per game when you can create a new set of expectations for the newest future superstar?
In the NBA, attention can be fickle. Even without much opportunity to exercise itself, promise can be so quickly forgotten in favor of the next best thing. Harris wasn't thrilling enough well that's fine, forget him. Pin the hopes on Henson instead.
With four summer league games in the books for the Bucks, it's as impossible to write off Harris as it would be to ignore Henson's promise. Neither is perfect, but neither has to be not when Harris is just 20, Henson only 21. Together, the two have a chance to carve out impactful roles on next year's Milwaukee team, and each knows that it'll take more than flashy summer league scoring stats to earn a significant role on Scott Skiles' Bucks.
In four summer league games, Harris has averaged 21.5 points and 8.0 rebounds, and he won the Bucks' Saturday game against the Celtics with two free throws with five seconds remaining. Henson has played in only three games, but he's been just as good, averaging 19 points and 8.7 rebounds per game.
Both players impressed with their scoring and ability to lead the Bucks' summer league squad. Neither was streaky; each looked solid throughout and played with confidence. Yes, Henson needs to put on weight. Yes, Harris never was able to play this way against NBA competition last year. But that's all been said. That all has to change, and apart from it, both looked good.
"It's been just working as hard as I could in the offseason, coming back to Milwaukee, working out with the coaches and just putting in a lot of time and effort," Harris said. "I needed to come out here and be consistent, play my game."
Harris and Henson at summer league were more a study in scoring than anything else, but such is the nature of the 10-day event in Las Vegas. It isn't a laboratory for fine-tuned defense, but rather a venue for young players to test their mettle in physical, fast-paced games. When teams shoot 30 percent at summer league, it's through little virtue of opponents' defenses, and only poor shooting can really be to blame.
"It's summer league," Henson said. "You don't want to put much stock in it."
But of course their performances were encouraging, enough to breed some level of hope for a Milwaukee team in flux. But what's most encouraging is the duo's chemistry on the court and their apparent ability to think in terms of the future, in terms of what Skiles will want with his full NBA roster. Summer league is far from the real deal, but it's still an opportunity to impress and build goodwill for the upcoming season.
"That's the main thing, when the opportunity is there, go take it and take advantage of it," Harris said. "That's what I look to do, and just playing a lot of minutes, it's good, just because you're getting a feel for the game, getting a feel for your spots on the floor."
When Harris discusses his offseason work, he isn't talking about dunks or flash, not even about scoring. He's taking a mature approach to his game, which will be key on a Milwaukee team that's somewhat in transition and where minutes are never guaranteed.
Last season, the Bucks got away from their focus on gritty defense. They were one of the league's better scoring teams, but their defense was anything but airtight. With their roster changes that began with the Andrew Bogut trade last winter, much of the defensive responsibilities will fall onto Henson's shoulders, and if Harris too can improve his play at the other end of the court, it will only help his cause.
Harris is familiar with Skiles' system; Henson has yet to acclimate to it. That said, though, Henson played under Roy Williams in a defense-first UNC system, so learning what his role might be in Milwaukee shouldn't be too much of a stretch.
"We pride ourselves on defense at UNC, and he does the same thing," Henson said. "Its nothing new, and it's something I keep learning from."
"You've still got to feel your role out when the team gets into it, and that's what I'm going to do. We've got some great players. We were just on the verge of making the playoffs last year, so I think we were going to have a pretty good team."
Henson hasn't yet sat down with the Milwaukee staff to iron out what his goals and potential role might be. He knows vaguely what the team wants lock-down defense is a priority but he doesn't yet know where he might fit in terms of minutes.
As uncertain as Henson might be about his role, Harris must be similarly uniformed about his own. Certainly after a summer league like his, where he took control of the game and was one of the most dominant players on the court throughout, a season of inconsistency might seem like ever more of a distant memory.
In a matter of hours, summer league will end. Harris' and Henson's performances will be the stuff of the record books and quickly forgotten. We'll remember that they played well, that the Bucks won some games. The specifics will fade, but the specifics don't matter. All there is to remember is that these two young players did not disappoint. Henson came out strong, and Harris began to redeem himself, if on a smaller, easier stage. This week of games won't ensure them guaranteed minutes, but it should at least have validated that these two young players deserve serious consideration.
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