CHAPEL HILL — John Henson has blocked shots in more important games, and in more important moments, but his favorite blocked shot remains his first. It came in the second game of his freshman season at North Carolina, with the Tar Heels leading N.C. Central by 42 points.
"That's probably one that goes down in history as one of my favorites," Henson said with a smile recently. "... I just went up and got it."
Since that first one, Henson has blocked 262 more and counting. He enters UNC's game today against N.C. State at the RBC Center (8 p.m., WRAL) with the second-most blocked shots in school history, only 39 behind Brendan Haywood, who blocked 304 shots during his four seasons with the Tar Heels.
Should No. 7 UNC (23-4, 10-2) make a deep enough postseason run in March, there's a chance Henson could set the school record by the end of the season. If not, he'd likely set it at some point early in his senior season - if he decides to return for it, and if he remains healthy.
Henson, of course, possesses physical attributes that contribute to his shot-blocking. He experienced a significant growth spurt in high school that left him standing 6-foot-11, and his wingspan is wider than 7 feet.
Still, there have been plenty of players with similar physical advantages who haven't developed into a shot-blocker the caliber of Henson, who has had some of his most prolific shot-blocking games against the Wolfpack (18-9, 7-5). Henson blocked five shots in UNC's 74-55 victory against N.C. State on Jan. 26, and he blocked 13 in the Heels' two victories against the Wolfpack last season. Henson credits his shot-blocking ability to something, he said, that's "God-given." And then there's his desire, too.
"I take a lot of pride in blocking shots," he said. "It's what I do to help the team - blocking shots and rebounding. That's one thing that we got (is) scorers, but shot-blocking and defending is something that this team needs, and something I really try to do."
In addition to Henson's physical qualities, coach Roy Williams said Henson possesses two traits that make him a special shot-blocker: timing and discipline.
"You have to have great timing," Williams said. "You have to be willing to have great discipline to stay on the floor on the first pump fake, to stay on the floor in the second pump fake and wait until the shot does go up. Because so many shot-blockers can stay in foul trouble if they jump up in the air and foul the guy on the first pump fake."
Henson rarely finds himself in foul trouble. In his third season, he has fouled out of only one game during his collegiate career. That came in UNC's 76-69 loss against Kentucky last season in the NCAA tournament's East Regional final.
This season, Henson has collected four fouls just once, and he has been called for two or fewer fouls in 22 of the Tar Heels' 27 games. The lack of foul trouble allows Henson to continue to be aggressive and pursue blocked shots.
He wasn't always a feared shot-blocker. Henson played guard until he grew approximately 7 inches between his freshman and sophomore years of high school.
When he arrived at UNC, Henson still played with a guard mentality, until an injury to Ed Davis forced Henson to the interior. He has since thrived there, both offensively and especially defensively.
During the summers, when former North Carolina players return to the Smith Center for pick-up basketball games, Tyler Zeller, the Tar Heels senior center, sometimes has difficulty attempting clean shots against the likes of Rasheed Wallace and Brendan Haywood. Then there's Henson, Zeller said.
"He's the only person I've ever seen that can block my hook shot consistently that isn't in the NBA," Zeller said. "I mean, Brendan Haywood, Rasheed Wallace - they can do it. But John is phenomenal with his timing. He can wait until it just gets up to the peak and then he'll block it."
Henson, who earned ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors last season, is a primary reason why the Tar Heels rank second in the ACC - and 13th nationally - in field-goal percentage defense. When he's not blocking shots, he's often altering them.
And if an opposing perimeter player successfully penetrates the Tar Heels' defense, Henson presents an imposing roadblock to the basket.
Williams, meanwhile, said one's ability to be great shot-blocker is a skill "that's decided a long time before (a player) gets to college." He theorizes that Henson always had the necessary skill set for it, even if he didn't always possess the height.
"We do try to do coach it, but it's a skill and an ability that I think is natural to some kids and not natural to other kids," Williams said. "And to John, it is very natural and something he enjoys doing."