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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: Trade Watch: Southwest Division

Drew Maresca identifies and breaks down the potential trade candidates in the Southwest Division.

Drew Maresca

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As of Thursday, 60 percent of the Southwest division was at or above .500. The Western Conference’s brutal competition will likely fix that as the season grinds on, but the number of surprises in the division thus far is shocking – be they pleasant or otherwise.

Basketball Insiders continues its Trade Watch series with an eye on the Southwest Division, examining players that might be on the move and teams that should be looking to wheel and deal.

  1. Houston needs Ariza (and vice versa)

The Houston Rockets need help on the defensive end of the floor; they will almost certainly look to add some wing defenders before the trade deadline in February. The Minnesota Timberwolves passed on their offer of four future first round picks, Brandon Knight and Marquese Chriss for Jimmy Butler. But fortunately for the Rockets, there’s a player that should fit right in who may be available via trade – Trevor Ariza.

Yes, he would come at a price; but the Rockets see what life is like without Ariza patrolling the perimeter, and something or someone must stop the bleeding. The Rockers are 6-7 through 13 games. They need to recapture some of the magic they tapped into last season, and Ariza is part of what’s missing. They won’t be able to execute a deal until December 15 per NBA rules, which can’t come soon enough for the defenseless Rockets.

  1. New Orleans should be buyers at the deadline

This is the season in which the Pelicans must prove to Anthony Davis they’re serious about building a winner around him. They made nice additions this offseason in Nikola Mirotic and Julius Randle, and they have a nice combo guard in Jrue Holiday.

But still, they’re only 7-7 despite Davis’ extraordinary play. They need a second star (and then some).mFortunately for New Orleans, such a player should be available – assuming he returns fully recovered from injury this season: Kevin Love. The Cavs are not interested in remaining competitive – in fact, they’re nearly openly welcoming losses at this point (Hello, Zion).  The Pelicans can include Mirotic, E’Twaun Moore and others in a deal, which should be a net positive for the Pelicans depending on Love’s health.

  1. DeAndre Jordan

Early reports out of Dallas are that DeAndre Jordan isn’t overwhelmingly popular in the Mavericks’ locker room. And that’s fine because Jordan doesn’t align with the Mavericks’ young core of Luka Doncic and Dennis Smith Jr. Dallas should shop Jordan to a team that’s in need of an athletic center.

The Wizards have looked better at times with Dwight Howard on the floor than they did prior to his return. So why not upgrade? After all, it doesn’t seem like they’re ready to break-up the Wall-Beal core.

In return, the Wizards would probably be willing to build a deal around Otto Porter – who, at 25, arguably aligns much better with the Mavericks’ young core. While Porter’s deal extends as long as two years beyond Jordan’s one-year contract, the fact that the Mavericks traded the rights to their 2019 first-round pick to acquire Doncic makes nabbing a young, well-rounded player like Porter all the more appealing.

  1. Spurs need help at point guard

The Spurs’ 2018-point guard plan broke down before the season started with Dejounte Murray’s knee injury – and the team still needs help. While they don’t seem to have the assets to return high profile point guards like Terry Rozier or Goran Dragic, there are alternate options.

The Knicks have an abundance of point guards, none of whom stands out as a huge difference-maker for them this season, but any of whom could help as a short-term solution in San Antonio. And what’s more, the Knicks probably wouldn’t require much in return – with one caveat being that they prefer to move Courtney Lee or Tim Hardaway Jr., as well. Fortunately for the Spurs, Lee can contribute nicely in Coach Gregg Popovich’s system, assuming he gets healthy sometime soon.

The Spurs should look to flip some of the players who aren’t currently in the rotation for a capable point guard. While New York isn’t sending out capable players for free, the price tag on some of these guards shouldn’t be too high.

  1. Mike Conley Jr. and Marc Gasol

Both Conley and Gasol are still members of the Memphis Grizzlies, and there have been no rumors of either of them being shipped elsewhere. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be.

The Grizzlies hold first place in the Southwest Division at 8-5 with wins against the Jazz (twice), Nuggets, Pacers and Sixers. They’ve dropped some easy ones, too. Basically, they’re good, but the cold, hard reality of the situation is that advancing beyond the second-round out west will require more than what they currently have on their roster.

Meanwhile, Conley and Gasol are still assets, but aging ones who will return exponentially less every year they’re not moved. Conley is still playing well in his twelfth year, averaging 18.6 points, 5.6 assists and 1.2 steals per game. And Gasol is averaging 14.8 points, 8.8 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game in his eleventh season. It would behoove the Grizzlies to put feelers out there to any team that fancies themselves buyers in the lead up to the deadline. The time is now to embrace a rebuild around Jaren Jackson Jr. and get everything they can out of their star point guard and center.

In all likelihood, teams will only become more desperate as the season plays out. With the Philadelphia-Minnesota deal in the books, other teams are sure to follow suit. Considering the parity, every team in the Southwest Division should seriously consider making moves — after all, the division is still entirely up for grabs.

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NBA Daily: Role Players Vital to Pacers’ Success

In a star-heavy league, Jordan Hicks takes a look at why role players are so vital to the Pacers’ wins this season.

Jordan Hicks

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In today’s NBA, you have to have star players if you want to compete. Gone are the days of having one or two All-NBA caliber players take you deep into the playoffs. Nowadays, with as much talent as there is in the league, you need three or four. And for teams located in northern California, you might even need five.

But does this apply to everyone?

The Indiana Pacers have started the season off on a quiet note. They aren’t doing anything incredibly flashy, nor do they have any overt weaknesses. But they do have eight wins compared to only six losses. Three of those wins have come against teams with above .500 records, and all of their losses have come from the Bucks, 76ers, Timberwolves, Trail Blazers, and Rockets – all good teams if you don’t want to look it up.

Most would consider Victor Oladipo a star. Sure, he’s only had one All-Star nod in his young career, but he’s proven on more than one occasion that he can be elite on both ends of the floor.
But apart from him, the Pacers are nothing but a mix of role players. But the role players on the roster aren’t just “good” – they seem to know their roles and execute them to a high degree.

To the casual fan, this would seem like it should be a given. But getting grown men with egos to consistently play their part isn’t as easy as it seems, and the Pacers organization might actually have something to work with. Sure, they are still a star (or two) away from actually competing for a title, but they were one game away from knocking off the former Eastern Conference Champions in last year’s playoffs, and, with any luck, could make it even further in the playoffs this year.

After the departure of Paul George, it was easy to read the writing on the wall. Most assumed that the Pacers would be headed to the lottery for a year or two while they worked their eventual rebuild. The franchise itself has consistently been considered one of the better small market organizations. With players like Reggie Miller, Danny Granger and George – it is easy to see why. They’ve only missed the playoffs five times in the last 20 years. But losing a mega-star like George usually contributes to a negative campaign the following season.

To the shock of the entire NBA, Oladipo led the Pacers to the five seed last year after posting a 48-34 record. Oladipo obviously played a huge part in this, but it was the help of the many role players, most of whom remained on the roster for this season, that likely made the biggest contribution to their positive season.

Through the beginning of the the 2018-19 campaign, the team statistic that sticks out the most for the Pacers is their opponent points per game. They are currently second in the league, allowing only 103 points a night behind only the Grizzlies. In comparison, both teams are also in the bottom two for pace. Controlling the flow of the game seems to be an important part of their game plan, and it is currently paying off as they sit fourth in the Eastern Conference.

The list of role players making a significant contribution for the Pacers is quite long. In fact, over nine players are averaging more than 15 minutes a game. Keep in mind that eight of the nine players have a positive plus-minus, with Tyreke Evans being the sole player to fall under zero at -0.8. Let’s take a look at a few individuals and see what they may be doing to make a significant splash.

Oladipo is leading the team in scoring at 23.8 points per night, but he also leads the team in assist percentage at 24.4 percent and steal percentage at 27.8 percent. His impact on both ends of the floor is tremendous, and he is one of the few players in the NBA that leads his team in usage percentage and still maintains All-NBA level defense on the other end.

Domantas Sabonis is currently leading the team in rebound percentage at 18.3 percent. He is also second on the team in scoring at 14.1 points per game on a 68.8 effective field goal percentage. He’s doing all that coming off the bench.

Cory Joseph is currently posting the highest net rating on that team at 8.4. The Pacers also enjoy their lowest defensive rating, 98.7, when Joseph is on the court.

Myles Turner is starting to come into his own on the defensive end of the court. Currently posting 2.4 blocks a game, good for fourth in the league, his presence is being felt more and more at the rim. While his offensive game still needs to be polished, Turner has done a great job at amplifying his defensive position on the court.

Bojan Bogdanovic is tied for second in scoring at 14.1 points a game. He’s doing so by shooting a blistering 51.7 percent from three on over four attempts a night. He’s second on the team in minutes and eighth in usage percentage, showing just how effective he can be off the ball. He boasts the third best plus-minus and fourth best net rating.

Plenty of other players could get nods here – guys like Thaddeus Young, Doug McDermott, Darren Collison and Evans. This just shows the talent night-in and night-out that the Pacers deploy.

The point of this article is not to say that the Pacers have a legitimate chance to win the East. They’ll likely finish outside the top four behind the Bucks, Raptors, 76ers and Celtics. But the Pacers definitely have one thing going for them – a roster full of talented role players that, in today’s NBA, can certainly be positive when deployed correctly.

We are still very early in the season. Another star could potentially emerge mid-season for the Pacers or they could make a bold move at the All-Star break. It is very unlikely that Indiana brings home a championship this year or even the next. However, they are still a team to watch throughout the season. They are a well-coached squad and play an incredibly selfless style of basketball.

Who knows? Maybe they can turn heads in the postseason. But in the meantime, they for sure prove one thing.

Role players are vitally important to a team’s success.

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NBA Daily: Trade Watch Northwest Division

David Yapkowitz identifies and breaks down the potential trade candidates in the Northwest Division.

David Yapkowitz

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We kick off a new series this week at Basketball Insiders. With the Jimmy Butler saga finally over, we’re taking a look at other players in each division who are possible trade candidates.

Some teams have holes in their respective rosters that they need to patch up. Others have contracts that are expiring or just don’t make sense for the team anymore. Some players and teams just need to move on at this point for a variety of reasons. Here’s a look at some of those situations, starting with the Northwest Division.

1. Tyus Jones – Minnesota Timberwolves

There’s an argument to be made that when he actually receives regular playing time, Tyus Jones is the best overall point guard on the Timberwolves’ roster. He’s been the primary backup for Minnesota for the time being with Jeff Teague out with an injury.

However, with Derrick Rose’s reemergence this season, it remains to be seen what happens once Teague returns. It’s no secret that Tom Thibodeau has his preference for veteran guys and Jones has often found himself as the odd man out. The Phoenix Suns, desperate for a point guard, have been rumored to have interest in him.

Jones was apparently close with Butler, if that means anything, and it just seems like his future is elsewhere. If the Timberwolves aren’t going to use him properly, then maybe a split is necessary. Should Minnesota really look to deal him, they probably won’t have any shortage of suitors.

2. Gorgui Dieng – Minnesota Timberwolves

A few years ago, Gorgui Dieng looked like an up and coming prize for Minnesota. He ended up being rewarded with a big contract based off of that. But since then, he’s seen both his playing time and production decrease.

The Timberwolves reportedly tried to include Dieng in possible deals for Butler in order to offload his contract. Obviously that didn’t happen, and Minnesota is locked into his contract for two more seasons after this one.

Backup big man Anthony Tolliver has surpassed Dieng in the rotation at this point as he’s a better fit as a stretch big man in today’s NBA. It’s hard to imagine any team trading for Dieng straight up with that contract but the Timberwolves could try and include him any potential Jones deal.

3. Oklahoma City Thunder – In Need of Outside Shooting

The Oklahoma City Thunder don’t have any bad contracts per se, nor do they have any players that they’re aggressively looking to move on from. They do, however, have a glaring need and that is three-point shooting.

Currently, they’re shooting 30.1 percent from the three-point line as a team. That’s not going to get it done in today’s league if they truly want to be among the Western Conference’s elite. They do have Patrick Patterson reemerging as one of the better stretch fours in the league (38.6 percent), but after that everyone just kind of drops off a bit.

The Thunder could certainly use the addition of another outside shooter as the season goes on. Kyle Korver is rumored to be available although he’s been linked to Philadelphia recently. Perhaps they could put in an inquiry with the Miami HEAT about Wayne Ellington if the HEAT continues to struggle. Either way, unless the guys they already have step up, perimeter shooting will need to be addressed.

4. Meyers Leonard – Portland Trail Blazers

It’s not that Meyers Leonard has been bad for Portland, he’s actually been decent so far this season. But with the contract he has, Portland isn’t getting the value they expected when they entered that deal.

Instead, Zach Collins has supplanted him in the rotation, and Caleb Swanigan is close to doing so as well. Leonard has been mentioned in trade rumors for some time, so perhaps this season is the one where he and the Blazers part ways. His contract is expiring next season so that might be enticing to some teams.

He isn’t a bad player, and there might be a team out there willing to take a chance on an athletic big man who can run the floor and even stretch defenses out to the three-point line. At any rate, it might be time for both parties to go their separate ways.

5. Tyler Lydon – Denver Nuggets

The writing was on the wall when the Nuggets declined Tyler Lydon’s third-year option prior to the start of the season. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.

He suffered an unfortunate injury early in his career and just hasn’t been given an opportunity to prove his worth as an NBA player. He played well in the G-League last season and has promise as a stretch big man. It’s just obvious that it won’t be realized in Denver.

He’s worth taking chance on for a team looking to add intriguing, youngish talent – especially since it shouldn’t cost too much to acquire him in a deal.

As the season progresses, there will be other situations around the division that might emerge on the trade front. But, as of now, these are arguably some of the most active situations to keep an eye on.

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