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Close to Home: The Hernangomez Brothers’ Basketball Story

From pickup games with their parents to the NBA, Juancho and Willy Hernangomez open up about life as basketball brothers.

Ben Dowsett

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A teenage Willy Hernangomez is locked in a heated battle on the basketball court, one he isn’t prepared to lose. Willy takes a pass in the post, briefly stopping to survey his opponent. He pivots and turns toward the basket with a strong move; alas, he gets one of those big elbows up, sending his defender sprawling.

The game is paused – not for an offensive foul, but so Willy can help his mother up off the ground.

“Me and my dad against my brother and my mom,” Willy tells Basketball Insiders years later, recalling what was a common scene in the Hernangomez household. “And I was in the low post. And when I turned, I hit my elbow in [her] face, and she started to bleed.”

Games like this were commonplace for Willy and younger brother Juancho. Born to two professional basketball players, Margarita (nicknamed “Wonny”) and Guillermo, the Hernangomez brothers were exposed to high-level athletic competition from a young age. A passer-by in their teenage years would not have been surprised to see these kinds of intergenerational two-on-two matchups taking place just outside their home in Las Rozas just outside Madrid – that is, until that day.

“She never played again against us,” Willy says now with a chuckle.

Maybe it’s not so surprising that Willy was a bit lacking in body control and basketball fundamentals; neither of the brothers were exactly seasoned vets by their teenage years. While their parents encouraged them to get involved in competition from early in their youth, basketball wasn’t the first manifestation of this interest.

Juancho and Willy, along with sister Andrea, started out in other areas. They tried tennis and swimming, and both boys were strong soccer players for several years.

But then one summer in their mid-teen years, the growth spurts hit. For the first time in their lives, their parents gave the brothers a gentle nudge – why not give basketball a try?

“The very first moment I touched the ball, I shoot, it was amazing,” Willy recalls. “That’s why I start[ed] to play basketball.”

Even with their newfound size and athletic pedigree, though, this wasn’t the typical instant dominance story you hear from many future NBA players. Coming into the game so late left Juancho and Willy at a fundamentals deficit early on.

“Both of us, we were not, like, the good [players] on the team,” Juancho tells Basketball Insiders. “We had some talent, but we were not the best on the teams.”

They were good enough to make some of the local competitive youth teams, at least. With several arenas and leagues within close proximity to Las Rozas, both Hernangomez brothers threw themselves fully into basketball.

Rapid improvement became a major point of pride; in a way, growing up without superstardom and local attention made the hunger more intense.

“My parents, they never forced me to play basketball,” Willy says years later. “Nobody give us nothing. We always do everything for our own, work hard. This is our mentality – you work hard, something good will happen.”

The results came quickly. By age 15, Willy was playing with Real Madrid’s youth competitive team plus spending time with under-16 and under-17 Spanish national squads. It was an instant calling for him.

For Juancho, though, things took a bit more of a winding path.

At first, he looked to be following in his older brother’s footsteps pretty closely. Both siblings were involved with Real Madrid youth programs, with Willy a year ahead and perhaps receiving a bit more local attention. Part of that was a struggle with injury – multiple knee operations during Juancho’s teenage years interrupted the steady development Willy was lucky enough to find.

The hits didn’t stop there, either. When Juancho was 15, he faced a reality few future NBAers are exposed to at this age: He was cut from Real Madrid, even as Willy remained with the older squad. Was it because of the injuries?

“No, because I was so bad,” Juancho says today with a laugh.

Looking back, this was a watershed moment of sorts. Juancho’s basketball life was flashing before his eyes nearly as quickly as it had gotten started; lots of teenagers might have been done with the game after two knee injuries and the embarrassment of being cut so early in their career.

For Juancho, it only helped double down his commitment.

“I think that really helped him to focus on what he wanted, and what he wanted to be,” Willy recalls. “When Real Madrid cut him that helped, but I think it was more when got the injuries to his knee two years in a row. That really made him think.”

With refocused energy, both siblings continued their climb. Juancho moved to Baloncesto Majadahonda after being cut by Madrid, eventually reuniting with Willy when the two played together on the Spanish under-20 national team.

Photo Credit: Juancho Hernangomez

Before long, the NBA was becoming a realistic dream.

Willy was on DraftExpress mocks as a second-rounder by just before his 20th birthday. Juancho would enter around the same range just over a year later, eventually peaking higher than his older brother.

And like every other part of their sporting life up to that point, they managed to create a symbiotic experience despite being on different individual age tracks. In fact, Juancho got the kind of trial run through the pre-draft process that very few prospects are exposed to: A front-row seat for Willy’s interviews, workouts and overall experience.

“[Willy] went in the summer to do some draft workouts,” Juancho tells Basketball Insiders. “I’m a really curious person, so I tried to ask about everything – how many coaches you talk with? How many teams you talk with? How was the interview?”

Like with their original interest in the game, there was an adjustment period. Juancho was surprised the brothers were even drawing NBA interest at all. “They always believe [players] from the colleges are better,” he says.

Willy was eventually taken with the 35th overall pick in 2015, and Juancho would follow that up by going 15th overall the following year. Their new NBA homes – Willy in New York, Juancho in Denver – would put them thousands of miles apart for the first time in their lives.

Far from stressed about the distance, though, the brothers reveled in the ways they were able to stay connected due to a bit of happenstance.

“Last year we were both rookies together the same year, so we shared our experience every day,” Willy tells Basketball Insiders. New York’s first-year stash approach meant he and Juancho both entered the league at the same time.

“That’s amazing, because we lived the experience together at the same time. Him in Denver, me in New York; same rookie year, same things we’ve been doing. That’s impressive, because we share our experience. Having a brother in the NBA is fantastic.”

Of course, the pair has nearly a dozen other NBA “brothers” if you view it from the right perspective. Both relish the camaraderie that forms early among top Spanish players, especially those who make it all the way across the pond and into the NBA – “All the Spanish players, we have really good chemistry,” Juancho says.

And naturally, it’s impossible for two Spanish siblings, big men at that, to reach this point without comparisons to Marc and Pau Gasol.

“Marc and Pau, they are mirrors for us,” Willy tells Basketball Insiders. “They are our idols… I would have to say thank you to them, because they are really close to my family – not just Pau and Marc, but his parents too. We are really close families, and they really want to give us advice to improve.

“That’s really important, when a young guy like me or my brother tries to step up and keep learning. Guys like Pau and Marc, they already did this career in the NBA and they try to help us.”

Both brothers spent time with the Gasols dating back to summers with the Spanish national team. They have no delusions about being the “next Gasols,” Juancho says – Marc and Pau were Spanish and worldwide stars from a young age, a very different path than the Hernangomez brothers followed. But they haven’t forgotten who paved the way, making navigating the long road all that much easier.

And along the ride, there are a handful of friendly faces to remind them where they came from. Willy counts Ricky Rubio and Jose Calderon as close friends; Juancho mentions Rubio and Nikola Mirotic as role models growing up. Rubio says he was immediately impressed with both brothers’ character when he first got to know them during national team youth play, and it’s carried over to a bond with both.

When any part of the Spanish brotherhood is in the same city, you can bet the wine is flowing over dinner at a local eatery. It’s a chemistry that carries over into the summers. Whether it’s back in Spain or representing their nation in the Olympic Games once every four years, there’s an incredible amount of pride there. Willy got the honor in 2016; “It’s one of my dreams,” says Juancho, who was left off.

If he does achieve it one day, it’ll be another hurdle cleared with his brother by his side – whether literally or figuratively. Family has remained a foundation for the Hernangomez brothers through thick and thin; it’s been especially important recently, with both struggling for playing time and seeing their names mentioned in the occasional bit of trade deadline chatter.

Margarita and Guillermo are still a big part of their support network, as well. The duo’s parents saw them live in New York last February when the Nuggets visited the Knicks, a game Willy says he’s “never gonna forget.” And even on a daily basis, modern technology allows the relationship to continue unabated.

“Thanks for FaceTime, thanks for the iPhone,” Juancho says with a laugh. “These kinds of things, we can still be close.”

Wherever their NBA paths take them, that closeness isn’t going anywhere. From Laz Rozas to New York to Denver and beyond, one of the league’s few pairs of siblings will never take their connection – and how it helped them get where they are – for granted.

“Our relationship is the best,” Juancho says. “He’s more than my brother, he’s my best friend.”

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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NBA Daily: Lessons From The 2018 NBA Draft

After a wild 2018 NBA Draft, here are four lessons and storylines worth watching over the next few years.

Ben Nadeau

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Now that the dust has settled on an unpredictable NBA Draft — what exactly have we learned? In amongst the unrelenting rumors, refused workouts and surprise reaches, there are a few key takeaways from Brooklyn. Of course, some of these are one-off instances, but others are definitely part of modern-day draft patterns. While draft night may sometimes seem like complete chaos or chance, each scenario on this rundown has been boiling over for weeks. Between passing on a talented prospect to letting an injured one slide, here are four important lessons from the 2018 NBA Draft.

Luka Dončić… Not The No. 1?

For months and months, it appeared as if Luka Dončić was poised to become the No. 1 overall pick in this draft. Even today, it’s hard to believe that somebody with Dončić’s age and resume wasn’t the top selection. In 2017-18 alone, the Slovenian took home EuroLeague MVP and Finals MVP plus ACB MVP, with championships in both leagues to boot — but here we are. Dončić averaged 14.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1.1 steals over just 25 minutes per game, quickly transforming into the most well-rounded overseas prospect of all-time. But as impressive as Dončić was throughout the spring, the potential ceilings of both DeAndre Ayton and Marvin Bagley III eventually won out.

At 7-foot-1, Ayton’s 20.1 points, 11.6 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game were undeniably worthy of a top selection too, pairing well alongside Devin Booker and Josh Jackson for the foreseeable future. While the jury is still out on Bagley III — his defense needs some major fine-tuning — he won’t take key touches away from De’Aaron Fox either. More or less, nobody wants to be the organization to miss on such a franchise-altering pick. The Suns, Kings and even the Hawks may eventually regret passing on Dončić, but when general managers’ entire careers can depend on making the right choice at the right time, it’s not difficult to understand why the top of the draft unfolded as it did.

Playing Hard To Get Doesn’t Always Work Out…

As draft boards began to take shape, there was one particularly interesting situation sitting at No. 4 overall. Jaren Jackson Jr., solidly leading the second tier of prospects, was looking like a lock at the Memphis Grizzlies’ pick — but with one major caveat: Jackson Jr. reportedly didn’t work out or give his medical information to the franchise. After he was drafted, Jackson Jr. called those rumors “a tad out of context” — but, obviously, those are some massive red flags. Either way, Memphis went with their gut and selected the talented forward anyway.

But beyond all that, Memphis absolutely made the right move by sticking to their guns. Putting a modern three-point shooting, defensive-minded athlete next to Marc Gasol should prove to be an absolute nightmare for years to come. Naturally, Jackson Jr. will get plenty of easy looks from the stellar Mike Conley Jr. too — so if the draftee was once apprehensive, surely that will pass soon. Still, it reflects on a larger NBA pattern, wherein which prospective athletes sensibly look to mold their own path out of college. With players trying to control their draft narratives more than ever, it’s reassuring to see that some franchises will take their target first and then figure out the rest.

We may never know Jackson Jr.’s full thought process behind not working out for the Grizzlies, but there’s a great chance that the former Spartan was made for Memphis’ tough brand of basketball — and we should all be glad we’ll get to see it.

…But Injuries Will Lead To A Slide

Michael Porter Jr. — what a year for him, huh?

After missing out on much of his only collegiate season due to back surgery, Porter Jr. promised that he was feeling better than ever. But over the last month, scouts and front offices were treated to canceled workouts and hazy uncertainty. And, at the end of the day, it probably scared a handful of franchises away from the talented scorer. Just this week, the Kings heavily considered Porter Jr. at No. 2 overall — but even with that sudden unlikelihood passing by, few thought he’d drop out of the top ten altogether. Outside of the guaranteed money that Porter Jr. will miss out on, redshirting his rookie year may also be on the table as well.

The inherent upside with Porter Jr. is obvious, but — similarly to the Dončić issue — it’s tough to ask franchise officials to stake their livelihood on the prospect’s health. If Porter Jr.’s lingering issues stay with him and he never reaches his mountain of potential, that’s a tough pill to swallow. The 19-year-old would fall all the way down to No. 14, where the Denver Nuggets gladly scooped him up. During the combine in May, Porter Jr. called himself the best player in the draft — but it’s now up to him to prove them all wrong.

The Mysterious Men Nearly Miss Out

Let’s rewind to early April. Villanova had been just crowned NCAA champions for the second time in three years, the NBA playoffs were soundly on the horizon and mock drafts had begun to consistently pour out. Early on, there were two athletic big men that looked like shoo-ins as first-rounders: Robert Williams and Mitchell Robinson. Despite their undercooked skill-sets, both players pulled out of the combine and then waited for the hype to build — except, well, it didn’t. Williams, who was typically projected in the early teens, slipped out of the lottery entirely, only to be rescued by the Boston Celtics at No. 27. Williams is a booming, powerful prospect, but he could’ve really benefited from competing against the other top prospects in May.

Although he’s now landed in an ideal situation with Brad Stevens, Al Horford and a process-driven Celtics squad, Williams likely cost himself a whole load of money over the last 30-plus days as well.

In Robinson’s case, many believed his floor was the Los Angeles Lakers at No. 25 — rumors swirling that the 7-foot-1 center even received a promise from the illustrious franchise. Instead, Robinson dropped to the New York Knicks at No. 36 overall. Robinson had originally committed to Western Kentucky in July of 2017 before dropping out to prepare for the draft. After skipping the combine last month, Robinson indeed exhibited the potential to be both a steady shot-blocker and three-point maker during his individual evaluations. But with little to go off of but high school highlight reels and small session workout tapes, he understandably fell.

Sometimes the hype is impossible to ignore, but not participating in the combine and staying as mysterious as possible hurt these ultra-talented prospects.

While the 2018 NBA Draft wasn’t quite the trade-heavy, drama-laden extravaganza much of the world expected, there are plenty of narratives to reflect upon. At the end of the day, the ink is barely dry on this year’s festivities and it’ll be some time before there’s any indication of these successes or failures. Still, there are lessons to be learned from every draft, workout or injury process and these are four conversations worth considering as the NBA quickly rolls into the summer league season.

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2018 NBA Draft Diary

NBA Daily: The Losers of the NBA Draft

Shane Rhodes breaks down the losers of the 2018 NBA Draft.

Shane Rhodes

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The 2018 NBA Draft season has come to a close. And, while the actual draft wasn’t the fireworks show that it could have been, there was still plenty of surprises, both good and bad.

While Basketball Insiders’ Simon Hannig discussed the winners of the draft, not everyone was so fortunate. And, while the draft can come down to chance, some teams were worse off than others.

Let’s take a look at some of the bigger losers from draft night

Mikal Bridges

Talk about heartbreak.

Mikal Bridges was going home. The Philadelphia 76ers selected the Villanova standout with the No. 10 pick. Bridges did an entire press conference, talking about what it was like to be staying in Philadelphia. His mother, Tyneeha Rivers, is even the Global VP of Human Resources for Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, the company that owns the team. It was perfect.

And then it wasn’t.

It’s hard to not feel bad for Bridges, who was dropped into a dream scenario and then had it all ripped away. Going to the Phoenix Suns, an organization heading in a new direction, to play alongside plenty of young, high upside talent, including No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton as well as former lottery picks Josh Jackson and Devin Booker, isn’t the worst thing in the world for the rookie forward. Bridges could even flourish in Phoenix.

But it certainly won’t compare to playing under the bright lights in Philadelphia alongside Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid come next April and for years to come.

Michael Porter Jr.

One year ago, Michael Porter Jr. was a top three draft prospect projected to go as high as No. 1 overall. However, with rumors of questionable medicals swirling throughout the draft process, he dropped all the way to the Denver Nuggets at No. 14 overall.

While Porter will certainly welcome the chip on his shoulder, the lost earnings will definitely hurt him and his pocket. Porter is missing out on millions on his first NBA contract. Plus, the sheer amount of teams that balked at his medicals doesn’t bode well for his long-term future in the NBA.

It isn’t all bad for Porter; Denver has a young, talented roster and was one win away from a postseason birth last year. They can afford to be patient with Porter’s back, should he need to miss some time, as well. Standing 6-foot-11, 211 pounds and with a smooth jumper, Porter still has a great chance to be a star in this league.

Still, it was an inauspicious beginning to what, hopefully, is a long NBA career.

Sacramento Kings

This could apply to the Sacramento Kings roster as well as their fanbase.

The Kings got “their guy” in No. 2 overall pick Marvin Bagley III. And, while Bagley is still an amazing talent, the pick just seems like more of the same for the Kings, who have a glut of bigs — Willie-Cauley Stein, Harry Giles III, Skal Labissiere, Kostas Koufos — on the roster and a distinct lack of high-quality guard or wing depth.

In steps Luka Dončić, the 19-year-old Slovenian phenom. With the Suns taking Ayton with the top pick, the Kings had their chance to shore up their backcourt for the foreseeable future alongside De’Aaron Fox and move another step closer to relevancy.

And they whiffed.

Dončić could very well end up as the best player in the class. While he isn’t the most athletic, Dončić is exactly where the NBA is going; he is a multipositional defender and playmaker that can shoot the three. Meanwhile, Bagley, who is a questionable fit in the modern game, will be hardpressed to find playing time early on in his Kings tenure. Even worse, with their hearts set on Bagley, the Kings likely could have traded down a la the Atlanta Hawks and picked up another asset for their troubles.

While it’s much too early to call it either way, this is a pick that could come back to haunt Sacramento down the line.

Cleveland Cavaliers

It was not a great night for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The Cavaliers missed out on one point-guard prospect, Trae Young, and another, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, flat out said he didn’t want to play for the franchise. And, even though they got a guard they liked in Alabama’s Collin Sexton, the Cavaliers are still in the unenviable position of dealing with LeBron James’ third iteration of The Decision.

Sexton’s selection doesn’t exactly help them retain James’ services either.

Since acquiring the pick from the Boston Celtics in the Kyrie Irving trade last summer, it had been speculated as to whether Cleveland would use the pick or trade it to get James help. With the team opting for the former, it’s difficult to imagine the Cavaliers getting any significant help for James, in free agency or otherwise, which could push him closer to leaving than he already may be. Meanwhile, Sexton, who dominated the ball during his time at Alabama, isn’t exactly the best fit alongside James in the event that he stays.

Either way, there appears to be a bumpy road ahead for the Cavaliers.

Washington Wizards

Troy Brown Jr. is a great pickup for the Washington Wizards. That still doesn’t mean he wasn’t a reach.

Brown is a twitchy wing that can defend multiple positions. But there were multiple wings that Washington could have taken ahead of Brown (e.g., Lonnie Walker II) that would have made this a better pick. Brown struggled as a shooter during his lone season at Oregon — he shot just 29.1 percent from three and has some iffy mechanics — and is a strange fit on the Wizards roster that already has a surplus of wing depth in John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter Jr. and Kelly Oubre.

With the team looking to move Marcin Gortat, a big would have been a better fit for Washington at 15. Or, if management was deadset on Brown, dropping back a few spots would have made more sense.

Brown certainly has the talent to make an impact, but it’s hard to like a pick that may not crack the rotation in year one, according to the Wizards own General Manager.

Toronto Raptors

The Toronto Raptors took a big step earlier this offseason, moving on from Dwane Casey and placing Nick Nurse at the helm in early June.

But, with zero picks in a loaded draft, the Raptors have to be considered losers.

There were plenty of difference makers available up-and-down the draft board, but the Raptors didn’t end up with any of them. While management could improve the team via trade or free agency come July, they still feature the same roster that got manhandled in the Eastern Conference Semifinals by James and the Cavaliers and that isn’t good.

Not everyone can come out a winner in a crapshoot like the NBA Draft. Still, some teams found themselves worse off than others when all was said and done. Luckily, those teams still have a chance to improve themselves with free agency right around the corner.

 

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2018 NBA Draft Diary

NBA Daily: The Winners Of The NBA Draft

Simon Hannig breaks down the winners from Thursday’s 2018 NBA Draft.

Simon Hannig

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The 2018 NBA Draft has come and gone, and although many teams have improved coming out of this loaded draft, five teams seemed to have walked away as the biggest winners.

The Phoenix Suns Got Their Guy

The Suns made a couple of splashes in the draft, selecting DeAndre Ayton with the first overall pick.

The Suns then drafted Zhaire Smith, but later traded his rights to the Philadelphia 76ers for Mikal Bridges.

In the second round of the draft, Phoenix selected Frenchman Elie Okobo and George King from Colorado, each of whom should be able to contribute right away. Ayton should be the starting center come opening night and Bridges could also start for the team immediately. If not, Bridges will be a valuable weapon coming off the bench for a team who is trying to win games and get back into the playoffs.

Does Mo Bamba Have The (Orlando) Magic?

The Orlando Magic got a stud in Mo Bamba, whom they surprisingly selected with the sixth overall pick in the draft. They later drafted Melvin Frazier in the second round. It was a bit surprising that the Tulane product lasted that long, but the Magic benefitted.

Orlando got a player who can contribute right away and could compete for a starting job. Frazier is a great rebounder and defender and could change the team’s defense all by himself. The club now has two young core pieces they can build around in Jonathan Isaac and Bamba and a young contributor in Frazier.

Although the team’s offense will likely be work in progress, they can be very scary on the defensive end.

Now, we’ll all wait to see if Bamba, the New York product, can carry the Magic back to respectability.

Atlanta Hawks Will Let It Fly

After drafting Luka Doncic with the third overall pick, the Hawks ended up sending him to Dallas in exchange for Trae Young and a future protected first round pick. The pick is top-five protected the next two years, top-three protected in 2021 and 2022 and unprotected in 2023, according to Mavs president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson.

With their second first round pick, the Hawks took sharpshooter Kevin Huerter from Maryland and, with the 30th overall pick, selected Omari Spellman from Villanova.

Atlanta appears to building themselves in the way of the Warriors, getting sharpshooters in Young and Huerter. It is no surprise they are doing this as their current general manager, Travis Schlenk, worked with Golden State before taking the job with the Hawks.

The Rich Got Richer In Boston

The Celtics once again got a steal in the draft, as they were the beneficiaries as it relates to Robert Williams from Texas A&M. He is an athletic big man who plays great defense and rebounds the ball very well. Williams has lottery talent but ended up falling to the Celtics, who selected him with the 27th pick of the draft.

Williams averaged 2.5 blocks per game at Texas and should also be able to provide second chance opportunities for the team. Williams, as he averaged three offensive rebounds per game in college.

Luka Doncic Found A Good Home

The Dallas Mavericks walked away from the 2018 NBA Draft with two foundational pieces in tow, Dennis Smith Jr. and Luka Doncic. Their other moves were also tremendous, as they drafted Jalen Brunson from Villanova, acquired Ray Spalding from Louisville in a trade with the Sixers and drafted Kostas Antetokounmpo (Giannis’ younger brother) with the last piece in the draft.

For Mark Cuban, it may take time to develop the pieces, but if things could go well, the Mavs might have some productive years ahead.

Doncic was thought to be one of, if not the best player available in the draft, so getting him at the expense of a protected future first round pick seems like a fair trade. Depending on how ready he is to contribute at the NBA level, the sky could be the limit.

Of course, every year, there are surprises. Some good, and some bad. However, walking away from the 2018 NBA Draft, these five teams all appear to have improved themselves immensely.

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