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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 Seattle-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: 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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