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NBA Daily: Willy Hernangomez Gets A New Beginning

Willy Hernangomez talks to Basketball Insiders about being traded to Charlotte, learning from Dwight Howard and finding a home.

Ben Nadeau

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It’s been a long, difficult season — but after months of frustrating absences and an eventual trade request, Willy Hernangomez was, at long last, freed.

Well, mostly.

Last season, Hernangomez was thrust into a major role as a second-round rookie for the New York Knicks following Joakim Noah’s knee surgery and subsequent suspension. After the All-Star break, Hernangomez averaged 11.5 points and 9.2 rebounds over 22 starts, an impressive stretch that would earn him a place on the NBA All-Rookie First Team. With the Knicks firmly rolling into a rebuilding phase, it appeared as if the focus in 2017-18 would largely be the development of Kristaps Porzingis, Frank Ntilikina and Hernangomez.

Instead, in late September, the Knicks traded franchise cornerstone Carmelo Anthony to the Oklahoma City Thunder in return for Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott and a second-round draft pick. All of a sudden, the promise and potential of Hernangomez — who was once deemed part of the “young core” by general manager Scott Perry — was placed on the back-burner again.

“For New York, the Enes Kanter-Melo trade changed things a little bit — but like I said, I’m not worried about that now,” Hernangomez told Basketball Insiders. “Whatever happened in New York is the past, so I’m going to focus on the present.”

It’s an honorable conclusion from Hernangomez, but the unexpected benching took an emotional toll on the 23-year-old center. Hernangomez tallied 29 DNP-CDs and averaged just nine minutes per game, most often appearing in blowouts, even as the Knicks dropped out of playoff contention. So when Hernangomez asked for a move ahead of last month’s trade deadline, it was tough to feign surprise.

Hernangomez was sent down the coastline to Charlotte, where the Hornets acquired the talented center for just two second-round picks and the since-waived Johnny O’Bryant. With loads of veteran players ahead of him on the depth chart once again, Hernangomez hasn’t been unleashed quite yet — but he seems pleased to just turn the page.

“The fresh start is very important, it’s been a hard, hard season for me this year,” Hernangomez said. “But now, it’s a new chapter being here in Charlotte. It’s a great team, a great organization, I feel comfortable with my teammates and the coaching staff.

“It’s like a new beginning for me and I’m happy to start on that.”

Swapping franchises mid-season means restarting the acclimation process, learning the offensive sets and finding out where an energetic, athletic addition like Hernangomez might fit — something that the second-year center accepts will take time. Of course, the path toward more minutes is surely capped by Dwight Howard, the Hornets’ eight-time All-Star, three-time Defensive Player of the Year and a near-guaranteed lock for the Hall of Fame. Even without the once-assumed influx of minutes, Hernangomez has enjoyed the unique, accomplished perspective he now receives on a daily basis.

“I think I can learn everything from Dwight — he’s one of the best defenders, one of the best centers all-time in NBA history,” Hernangomez said. “I can really learn everything, like how to talk on defense, positioning on the court, offense, timing — he really tried to help me from the beginning.

“I remember my first practice with the team, he was giving me advice on where to be on defense, the plays and everything.”

By all means, Howard — who has averaged a double-double in 14 consecutive seasons — is a natural fit for the strong-rebounding Hernangomez to model his own game around. In lieu of on-court burn, Hernangomez navigated his challenging situation in New York by hitting the weight room with far more regularity than he did as a rookie. Certainly, Hernangomez won’t look like the chiseled Howard anytime soon, but the Spaniard is excited about the physical progress he’s made nonetheless.

“You’ve seen my body this year compared to last year, I’m a whole different player,” Hernangomez said. “This year, I’ve spent many, many hours in the gym, trying to get stronger — my body fat is really low. I think I’m more athletic right now, I can jump more, I can defend better.

“Those hours that I’ve been spending in the gym, it worked.”

That’s not to say Hernangomez is out of the woods just yet, however. Since the Hornets acquired him on Feb. 7, Hernangomez has played more than five minutes in just two of Charlotte’s last eight games. Beyond Howard’s looming positional lock at center, Hernangomez still has to earn consistent minutes at the expense of Frank Kaminsky (23.3 MPG) and Cody Zeller (19) as well.

As the Hornets cling to their slowly fading postseason hopes, Hernangomez, expectedly, has been the odd man out. Those minutes will presumably grow once Charlotte accepts their likely lottery-bound fate, but Hernangomez is no longer in a rush. In fact, the hard-working center is eager to expand his game and become the dynamic player he’s always envisioned.

“It’s a new environment and a new chapter, so I have new goals — I feel more free here, they want me to create for others,” Hernangomez told Basketball Insiders. “Maybe in New York, I was just playing the low-post instead of the pick-and-roll. Here, I can do many things: create offense, maybe three-pointers, rebound, play pick-and-roll — so I feel more comfortable here.”

While he’s still some distance away from hoisting three-pointers every game, it’s easy to embrace Hernangomez and his list of endless possibilities. From All-Rookie to bench-warmer in a matter of months, Hernangomez has long-awaited this second chance with the Hornets — and he’s ready to make the most of it. Although he wishes his sophomore season unfolded differently, Hernangomez has no desire to point fingers, he just finds more silver linings.

“At the end of the day, we are professional athletes, so you have to do the things you can control,” Hernangomez told Basketball Insiders. “I was the first one at practice, the last one to leave the arena. I tried to work hard every day and tried to use the time I got on the court to do my best. It’s been a little bit frustrating because my last year, I did a great job.

“That’s the NBA, that’s basketball.”

Hernangomez is just 105 games into his NBA career and, to him, it has felt like a lifetime. He knows the consistent minutes may not come this week, or perhaps not even this season — but he’s no longer disheartened or hurried. Clearly anchored by the word ‘new’ — chapters, goals, beginnings — Hernangomez is enthusiastically welcoming his latest opportunity with the Hornets.

“But what’s the biggest difference between Charlotte and New York?” Hernangomez asked before pausing and saying what he hopes to be the final words on the matter. “Charlotte is just a very special place and I’ve felt from the beginning that I’m at home there.”

Ben Nadeau is a Boston-based writer in his second year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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NBA Daily: Daniel Hamilton Hopes to Stick in OKC

Oklahoma City’s Daniel Hamilton speaks to Basketball Insiders about his time at summer league and sticking in the NBA.

David Yapkowitz

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There are usually two main categories of guys who participate in the NBA’s summer league.

The players who are armed with guaranteed contracts are usually looking to expand on their game and test out new skills. Then there are the players who don’t have that kind of security, the ones who are looking for an opportunity to earn an invite to training camp in hopes of securing a coveted roster spot in the NBA.

For Daniel Hamilton, he kind of falls into both of those categories.

Hamilton just completed his rookie season with the Oklahoma City Thunder. He was signed last summer to a two-way contract and he split time between the Thunder and their G-League affiliate, the Oklahoma City Blue. He joined the Thunder’s summer league team in Las Vegas, his third consecutive summer with them.

“I’m working on getting stronger, lowering my turnovers, and continue getting reps up in the gym,” Hamilton told Basketball Insiders. “I’m getting shots up and different things like that.”

Hamilton was drafted by the Denver Nuggets with the 56th overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft but was immediately traded to the Thunder. He didn’t play with the Thunder right away though. He spent the entire 2016-2017 season with the Blue.

This past year was his second in the G-League. He finished the season as the Blue’s second-leading scorer with 16.9 points per game, behind Dakari Johnson’s 23.3. While he was on a two-way contract, he only saw action in six games with the Thunder. Most of his time was spent with the Blue.

“It was good, my first year doing the two-way deal. I had a lot of good times playing up with the pros and going down to the G-League,” Hamilton told Basketball Insiders. “The G-League was real good, being able to just go out and play and work on your game, and get wins as a team. We had a great team this past year, we finished top in our division. It was just a fun experience overall.”

This season was a bit different for Hamilton, however. It was also his first year playing a different position. Up to that point, he’d been a shooting guard. He played shooting guard as a standout at St. John Bosco High School in Bellflower, CA. He was a shooting guard during his two years at UConn.

But the Thunder asked him to do something a bit different when he joined the team. They asked him to play point guard. He used his second season with the Blue to test out playing a new position. He averaged 7.8 assists with the Blue, but also 4.9 turnovers as he got used to being a playmaker. He used the Las Vegas Summer League to continue that adjustment.

“It’s been pretty good. My first year of playing point guard was this past year. It’s just something that I’m trying to get used to. Just trying to stay focused on whatever happens next,” Hamilton told Basketball Insiders. “I think it helped me expand my game, being able to do more than just one thing, to be versatile.”

In Las Vegas, Hamilton came close to averaging a near triple-double. Over the course of five games, he put up 7.8 points per game, 8.0 rebounds, and 6.6 assists. He’s got the skill and physical tools to be a playmaking guard at the NBA level. He’s been impressive both in the G-League and Summer League.

However, it remains to be seen what happens with him come the end of the summer. With the Thunder’s recent acquisition of both Dennis Schroder and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, it brings their roster to 15 guaranteed contracts. They’re allowed two two-way contracts, but have already used one on Deonte Burton.

They’ve got decisions to make regarding P.J Dozier, who was on a two-way last season, and rookies Hamidou Diallo and Devon Hall. Unless the Thunder can clear up a roster spot or two, it appears Hamilton will be fighting for that last two-way spot. He hopes he’s done enough to warrant strong consideration.

“The main thing is just continuing to get better and continue growing,” Hamilton told Basketball Insiders. “That’s just the number one thing to being here at summer league.”

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NBA Daily: Georges Niang’s Big Break

After dominating the G-League for a year, Georges Niang has more than earned this big opportunity with the Utah Jazz, writes Ben Nadeau.

Ben Nadeau

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For Georges Niang, reaching professional stability was always going to be a tall order.

Even after four dominant seasons at Iowa State, the tweener forward was viewed as a draft risk. At 6-foot-8, the versatile playmaker has always scored in bunches but also struggled to find his place in the modern NBA. Despite excelling as a knockdown three-point shooter, the fundamentally sound Niang has bounced around the country looking for a long-term opportunity.

In the two seasons since he was drafted, Niang has played in 50 G-League games for three separate franchises and had his non-guaranteed contract waived twice.

As a summer league standout for the second straight offseason, Niang’s determined efforts officially paid off last week after he signed a three-year deal with the Utah Jazz worth about $5 million. Now with a fully-guaranteed contract under his belt for 2018-19, Niang has been eager to prove his worth both on and off the court — a newfound skill-set he happily attributes to Utah’s excellent system.

“In the Jazz organization, from top to bottom, they do a good job of nurturing guys and forming them into good leaders and things like that,” Niang told Basketball Insiders. “So, it was really easy to transition to summer league, [I’m] really just trying to lead by example, not with just my words.

“And I think playing hard, being a good teammate and doing the right thing –I think those are three things that the Jazz really stand for.”

But his meandering path toward year-long job security wasn’t destined to end up this way — no, not at all.

Selected by the Indiana Pacers in the 2016 NBA Draft with the No. 50 overall pick, Niang was correctly projected as a hard-working, high-IQ contributor that could put up points on almost anybody. Unfortunately, following a low-impact rookie year with the Pacers — and some short stints with their G-League affiliate, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, as well — Niang was waived the ensuing summer. Shortly thereafter, Niang latched on with the Golden State Warriors, where he participated in training camp and four preseason games — but, again, he was waived before the season began.

With the Santa Cruz Warriors, Niang flat-out dominated the competition for months, up until he grabbed a two-way contract from Utah in January. In total, Niang played in 41 games between Santa Cruz and the Salt Lake City Stars in 2017-18, averaging 19.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.1 steals on 45.7 percent from deep over 33.9 minutes per game.

Once attached to Utah’s affiliate franchise, Niang averaged a team-high 22 points per game and finished the campaign as the 13th-best scorer in the G-League. On top of all that, Niang was both an All-Star and honored with a spot on the All-NBA G-League First Team at season’s end.

Although he would ultimately play in just nine games for the deep Western Conference roster, Niang was simply laying important groundwork for the days ahead.

This summer, Niang averaged 16.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists in three contests during Utah Summer League. Given the golden opening to impress his future would-be-employers, Niang kept things rolling in Sin City and posted similar numbers over five games. On the back of a 20-point, eight-rebound performance early on in Las Vegas, Niang embraced the chance to fight and compete for his team — five full days before the Jazz signed him to a guaranteed deal.

“It was a real physical game, but those are the games you want to play in during summer league,” Niang said. “You want to play in those types of environments, where every possession matters and you gotta make plays down the stretch — and I think we did a really good job doing that.”

Those scrappy aspirations have been a staple of Niang’s since his collegiate days at Iowa State, too. During an ultra-impressive senior year, Niang tallied 20.5 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game for the Cyclones, leading their roster to 23 wins and an eventual trip to the Sweet Sixteen. That season, Niang took home the 2016 Karl Malone Award as Division-I’s top power forward and finished with 2,228 points, the second-best mark in school history.

Any way you slice it, whether at college or in the G-League, Niang can play, the moment just needs to reveal itself — and maybe it finally has.

Of course, this new contract — one that’s only fully guaranteed in 2018-19 — doesn’t ensure Niang any playing time and he’ll have some stiff competition. Just to get on the court, he’ll need to squeeze minutes from Derrick Favors, Jae Crowder and Joe Ingles — a tough task in head coach Quin Snyder’s defense-first rotation. No matter what his role or obligations end up amounting to, Niang is ready to meet that challenge head-on.

“In the NBA, everyone has a role,” Niang told Basketball Insiders. “So, obviously, things are gonna be peeled back and you’ll have a defined role. My role is just when I get the ball, and if I do, play-make for others or get guys open, defend multiple positions, play multiple positions on offense and knock down open shots.”

Although his past resume certainly speaks for itself, it’ll be up to Niang take his big break even further. But given his efficiency and execution at every other level, there’s little reason to doubt the forward now. Days before they signed Niang, he was asked if Utah was somewhere he could see himself for the foreseeable future — his response was precise and foreboding.

“I’d love to be here — what [the Jazz] stand for is what I’m all about. I’ve had a blast with all these guys and I’d love to keep it going.”

And now, he’ll get at least 82 more games to make his case.

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NBA Daily: The Carmelo Anthony Trade is a Rare Win-Win for All Involved

It is rare for a trade to be beneficial for all parties, but the Thunder-Hawks-76ers swap has the makings of a win-win-win situation.

Shane Rhodes

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The Big Three Era in Oklahoma City came and went rather quickly.

On Thursday, the Thunder reached an agreement to trade Carmelo Anthony and a protected 2022 first-round draft pick to the Atlanta Hawks for guard Dennis Schröder, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. As part of a three-team deal with the Philadelphia 76ers, the Thunder will also walk away with Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot while the Hawks and 76ers swap Mike Muscala and Justin Anderson.

It is rare for a trade to be beneficial for all parties, but the Thunder-Hawks-76ers swap has the makings of a win-win-win situation. Just as well, the trade is perhaps even more beneficial for the players involved.

While Anthony may have wanted to stay with Russell Westbrook and Paul George, the trade is more than beneficial for him. After the trade goes through, the Hawks plan to buyout Anthony’s contract and he will reportedly receive the entire $27.9 million he is owed next season. Even better still, Anthony is free to join any team he wants, whether it be the Houston Rockets and friend Chris Paul, the Los Angeles Lakers and friend LeBron James, or elsewhere.

With his money already in hand, Anthony could sign on the cheap as well, making negotiations with any franchise that much easier.

For the Thunder, clearing Anthony’s massive salary from their books was of paramount importance. Staring down a $150 million luxury tax bill, Sam Presti managed to move Anthony and improve the team or, at the very least, make a lateral move depending on how you look at Schröder. Even as they take back the remaining $46.5 million owed to Schröder, the Thunder will save more than $60 million next season alone. That makes the trade worth it for Oklahoma City all by itself.

Still, the move allowed them to fill a need, perhaps more important than the cash savings as they look ahead to next season. Schröder not only fortifies the Thunder bench but the point guard position behind starter Russell Westbrook as well; he is another athletic playmaker that Oklahoma City can play on the wing with confidence. And, after averaging a career-high 19.4 points per game to go along with 6.2 assists last season, Schröder provides the Thunder offense with more firepower to compete against the other top teams in the Western Conference, a necessity if they hope to make a long playoff run.

For Schröder, the move to Oklahoma City is just as beneficial for him as it is for the team. Schröder is no longer the starter (he was unlikely to be the starter in Atlanta with Trae Young in the fold), but he can still make an impact and now he can do so for a contender.

The Hawks, as they should be, are playing the long game here. They acquired Jeremy Lin, an expiring contract, from the Brooklyn Nets earlier this offseason. After drafting Young, their guard surplus afforded them the chance to move Schröder’s deal off their books, netting them a first-round pick in the process and opening up playing time for the Young right away.

While the pick is top-14 protected (the pick becomes two second rounders if it doesn’t convey in 2022, every asset counts as the Hawks will look to add talent through the draft for years to come. With the addition of the Thunder pick, the Hawks now are owed an extra three first-round picks between the 2019 and 2022 drafts, a benefit for the Hawks whether they use those picks or trade them for already established talent. Meanwhile, Anderson, 24, presents another intriguing, and more importantly, young, option alongside the core of Young, Kevin Huerter, John Collins and Taurean Prince.

Anderson will almost certainly receive more playing time in Atlanta as they figure out who and who can’t help the team. His time in Philadelphia was mired by injury and he never had the opportunity to show what he could do. So, whether they use him as an asset in a future trade or plan to keep him on the roster, Anderson, at the very least, will have the opportunity to show what he can do.

For the 76ers, Muscala is essentially insurance for the reneged deal with Nemanja Bjelica. Bjelica agreed to terms on a one-year deal with the team but the stretch-four never signed his contract and backed out of the deal. With him out of the picture along with losing Ersan Ilyasova, Muscala was one of the few remaining options for the 76ers in that specific, stretch-big role.

Muscala doesn’t have the same shooting chops that Bjelica has, but he is younger and might have more upside alongside Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and co. Last season, Muscala, in addition to career highs in points and rebounds, averaged a career-high 3.2 three-pointers per game and hit 37.1 percent of them. While he likely won’t see the playing time he saw in Atlanta, Muscala should easily slide into a role off the bench for the 76ers. Moving Anderson and Luwawu-Cabarrot clears a logjam on the wing as well and will afford more minutes to Markelle Fultz (when he is ready), T.J. McConnell and rookies Zhaire Smith and Furkan Korkmaz.

As it stands, this trade made sense for all parties involved, and that alone is reason enough to consider it a win all around. While things could certainly change and hindsight is 20/20, this deal is beneficial for all three teams right now and could positively impact all three squads both next season and beyond.

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