CHAPEL HILL — Sophomore John Henson knows North Carolina is going to be thin in the frontcourt next season.
So he’s doing his part to make it a bit thicker.
Six eggs with cheese and grilled chicken for breakfast. A late-morning sandwich at Subway. A big lunch burrito at Chipotle. A protein shake for a mid-afternoon snack. Followed by a large Italian dinner at a local pizzeria.
“Then depending on how I feel, I might order something late, because stuff’s open late,’’ the lanky forward from Florida said Tuesday, grinning. “…The nutrition coach told me to eat anything that swims, runs, jumps or flies. And that’s what I’ve been doing.”
And for good reason. After a freshman season of getting pushed around – and often to the ground – on the wing and in the post, Henson has added about 15 pounds to his gumby-like 6-feeet-10 frame from the end of last season, weighing in between 208 and 210 pounds. He’s still got a ways to go, as he would ultimately like to swell to 230. However, “I think I can probably get to 215, as a reasonable goal, before the season.”
Which would be a big help. With last year’s starters Deon Thompson and Ed Davis headed to the NBA, and reserve big men David and Travis Wear transferred to UCLA, UNC not only needs increased statistics from Henson – but better durability. He and 7-foot junior Tyler Zeller are expected to start, with transfer Justin Knox the only other player 6-9 or taller available to back them up.
Therefore, Henson said he’s dedicated himself to cleaning his plates(s) and focusing in the weight room. Although adding, and keeping, muscle hasn’t been easy.
"He’s been the one guy I’ve probably sat up the most at night, pulling my hair out and probably giving me more gray hair, going, ’OK, What do I have to do with him?’" said UNC’s strength and conditioning coach, Jonas Sahratian. "Because he’s kind of like a wet noodle. ... He’s got the most minuscule joints you’ve ever seen. His waist is like a wasp’s waist. Most girls would kill for it.”
Sahratian has dealt with lean forwards before – such as Brandan Wright, who turned pro after his freshman season in 2006-07. But even Wright arrived with more strength and body control than Henson, Sahratian said. He called Henson, a five-star recruit, “probably the most difficult guy I’ve ever had to train.”
Henson, like most freshmen, admits he didn’t buy in to strict eating or weight room regimens easily, even when he arrived at UNC this time last year weighing in at a mere 183 pounds. At first, Sahratian made the player take pictures of all of his meals and send them to him – but Henson sometimes forgot. Behind his teammates, strength-wise, in the weight-room, Henson struggled with his focus of trying to catch up.
“As a young guy coming into North Carolina, you have a tendency to just be happy that you're here,’’ Henson admitted.
But even while averaging 5.7 points and 4.4 rebounds, he wasn’t happy when he got bullied out of the post by heftier ACC players, or saw himself lagging behind teammates in the weight room.
"It’s not fun being the weakest guy or the guy that’s always picked on, the guy that you’ve always got to pay attention to,’’ he said. "When those guys over there are throwing up 250 [pounds] and you’re throwing up 150.”
So he’s been trying to take one of Sahratian’s favorite one-liners to heart: “You can’t sculpt a pebble.”
That has meant giving up French fries for an extra helping of protein – and packing on the calories with five or six meals a day. Henson said he’s also been spending extra time in the weight room with Sahratian, but that, plus playing in the N.C. Pro-Am in Durham, means he’s been burning more calories. Thus, more meals – via his new George Foreman grill, or a trip to an open-late restaurant -- are necessary.
“When people do ask if I want something from somewhere – like Wendy’s or something – I’ll tell them some crazy order, and they’ll look at my crazy,’’ he said. “…It’s like burgers and chicken – I’ll get a No. 7, and then I’ll get three or four junior cheeseburgers. But no fries.”
It seems to be working. During a pro-am game Tuesday night, Henson held his own while bodying up to 247-pound N.C. State forward Tracy Smith – staying aggressive on plays where he probably would have been pushed out of the lane last season.
It’s a good sign for the Tar Heels’ thin frontcourt.
“He’s gaining weight and getting stronger, and if he can get to 220, he’s going to be a problem [for opponents],’’ said teammate Dexter Strickland, who once bet Henson that the forward couldn’t wolf down two mondo burgers, a side of lasagna and four scoops of ice cream in one sitting. (Strickland, of course, lost the bet.)
“He’s a problem now – with his athleticism now, it’s crazy.”