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.
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.”
What We Learned: Western Conference Week 4
It’s only been a month, but the NBA season has already seen plenty of ups and downs. In the Western Conference, especially, the 2020-21 season has been a smashing success for some, but a complete and total slog for others.
But which teams have had it the best in the West so far? The worst? Let’s take a look in the latest Western Conference installment of Basketball Insiders’ “What We Learned” series.
The Clippers Hit Their Stride
Los Angeles’ holdovers from a season ago have often pointed to their regular season complacency as to why they fizzled out during last year’s postseason. And, because of that, they’ve made a concerted effort to play hard on every possession so far in the 2020-21 season.
So far, the results have been good. More than good, even; the Clippers, tied for the best record in the NBA with their in-house rival, the Los Angeles Lakers, are on a six-game win streak. Paul George has played like an MVP candidate, while Kawhi Leonard has looked healthy and at the peak of his powers. Offseason additions Nicolas Batum, Serge Ibaka and Luke Kennard have all made strong contributions as well.
With so many versatile players and a roster as deep as any in the NBA, anyone can be “the guy” for Los Angeles on any given night. And, tough to guard because of that versatility, they’ve managed the NBA’s second-best offensive rating through the first month.
After last season’s let-down, the Clippers have played without much pressure this season — and it’s showed. Still, with Leonard a potential pending free agent (Leonard can opt-out after the season), it’s paramount that the team play hard and show him they’re good enough to compete for a title in both the short- and long-term.
So far, they’re off to a great start.
Injury Woes Continue in Portland
Portland’s been bit by the injury bug. And badly.
Already without Zach Collins, the Trail Blazers have lost both Jusuf Nurkic and CJ McCollum in recent weeks. They couldn’t have come at a worse time, either; Nurkic had turned a corner after he struggled to start the year, while McCollum, averaging 26.7 points on 62 percent true shooting, was in the midst of a career year.
It would seem, once again, like Portland has put it all on the shoulders of Damian Lillard. But, in a brutally competitive Western Conference, he may not be able to carry that load alone. They do have some solid depth: more of a featured role could be just what Robert Covington has needed to get out of a rut, while Harry Giles III, the former Sacramento King that was signed in the offseason, has a ton of potential if he can just to stay on the court. Carmelo Anthony, Gary Trent Jr. and Enes Kanter should see expanded roles in the interim, as well.
But will it be enough? We can only wait and see. But, if that group can’t keep the Trail Blazers afloat until Nurkic and McCollum can return, Portland could be in for a long offseason.
Grizzlies Are Competitive — With or Without Ja Morant
Memphis, on a five-game win streak, is just a half-game back of the West’s fifth seed. And they’ve managed that despite the sheer amount of adversity they’ve had to deal with to start the year. Jaren Jackson Jr. is expected to miss most of if not the entire season, multiple games have been postponed due to the league’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols and Ja Morant missed eight games due to an ankle sprain.
However, head coach Taylor Jenkins has the Grizzlies playing hard, regardless of who is in the lineup. They have the third-best defensive rating in the NBA at 106.1 and have managed huge wins over the Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76ers and Phoenix Suns.
Of course, Memphis is glad to see Morant over his injury and back in the lineup, but they might be just as happy to see how their entire core has progressed. Their success this season has, in large part, been a group-effort; rookies Xavier Tillman and Desmond Bane have been strong off the bench, while youngsters Brandon Clarke, Dillon Brooks and Grayson Allen have all proven integral pieces to the Grizzlies’ core for years to come.
As the year carries on, Memphis might not stick in the playoff picture. But, if their young core can continue to develop, they might not be on the outside looking in for much longer with Morant leading the charge.
What’s Going On In New Orleans?
The Pelicans have struggled and there wouldn’t appear to be an easy fix.
5-9, on a three-game losing streak and having dropped eight of their last nine, New Orleans just can’t seem to figure it out. The rosters fit around cornerstones Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram has proven awkward at best, as the team ranks in the bottom-10 in both offensive and defensive rating. Lonzo Ball has struggled offensively to start the season while JJ Redick can’t find his shot. Newcomer Eric Bledsoe has been fine but, as one of the team’s few offensive creators, his impact has been severely minimized.
Despite their stable of strong defenders, Stan Van Gundy’s defensive scheme, which has maximized their presence in the paint but left shooters wide open beyond the arc, has burned them continuously. Williamson’s effort on the defensive end, meanwhile, has been disappointing at best; he hasn’t looked like nearly the same impact defender he did at Duke University and in short spurts a season ago.
They still have time to work it out, but the Pelicans need to do so sooner rather than later. If they can’t, or at least establish some sort of consistency, New Orleans might never see the heights many had hoped to see them reach this season.
Be sure to check back for the next part of our “What We Learned” series as we continue to keep an eye on the NBA all season long.
NBA Daily: Lonzo Ball Presents Difficult Decision For Pelicans
Lonzo Ball is struggling early in his fourth NBA season, leaving the Pelicans questioning whether he will be a part of the team’s long-term plans moving forward.
Lonzo Ball and the New Orleans Pelicans failed to reach an extension prior to the deadline entering the 2020-21 NBA season – which made this season an important year for the former second overall pick to prove his worth.
But things have not gone according to plan for Ball. Originally acquired by the Pelicans in the Anthony Davis trade, Ball has failed to get going early in the current season. After a few years of what seemed like positive progression in the guard’s shooting stroke, this 2021 has brought up the same questions that surrounded Ball in his earlier scouting reports.
In his first three seasons, Lonzo saw his three-point accuracy increase each year. It started at a 30.5 percent accuracy rate and had jumped to an impressive 37.5 by his third NBA season, 2019-20.
Now well into his biggest campaign yet, he sits below 30 percent for the first time in his career, though there is a lot of time left to see that number increase. If Ball expects to be part of the Pelicans’ long-term plans, improvement is absolutely vital.
Obviously, shooting is a key part of the NBA game today, especially as a guard. Simply put, a player needs to give his team the proper floor spacing needed to maximize their scoring output in an offensively driven league.
That point is especially true for Ball, who needs to prove he can play alongside franchise cornerstones Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson. Both players are showing the skillset to be a dominant one-two punch for years to come, and the biggest need around them is proper floor spacing.
So even with all the positives Ball brings to the defensive side of the floor and as a playmaker, he cannot fit alongside Williamson and Ingram unless he’s a threat to hit shots from behind the arc. He’s obviously trying to prove himself in that regard as he has never averaged more three-point shots per game than he currently is – and yet, the result has been concerning.
When the two sides failed to reach an extension this offseason, it was abundantly clear that the Pelicans needed to see consistency before they’d tie long-term cap space to the guard. In the early going of the season, Ball is perhaps playing his most inconsistent basketball since his rookie campaign with the Los Angeles Lakers.
But will the Pelicans benefit from not signing Ball prior to the season? Maybe even by getting him to agree to a team-friendly contract if his struggles continue all year?
That seems highly unlikely. First off, not all teams are as desperate for a good shooting guard as the Pelicans are. As previously stated, Williamson and Ingram are in place as the franchise cornerstones. That means every player brought in on a long deal from here on out is brought in with the plan to fit alongside the forward combination.
Most teams with cap space don’t have the luxury of already having two franchise cornerstones in place. That means they are more likely to build around a player they sign – that’s especially true for a player that will hit free agency at a young age as will be the case with Ball.
While there’s almost no way the Pelicans won’t make a qualifying offer to Ball this offseason, it becomes a whole different question when pondering if they’ll match any contract he signs, depending on the financials involved.
He’ll offer significantly more value to another franchise than he might to the Pelicans because of the fit. The New York Knicks, for example, will be among the teams with cap space this offseason, they could see Ball as a player they can build things around moving forward.
That instantly makes him much more valued by the Knicks than he currently would be by the Pelicans. Of course, New Orleans would maintain their right to match the contract, but what good would it be if he isn’t going to fit next to the stars of the team? At no point will he be prioritized over the likes of Williamson and Ingram, which means he’s on a ticking clock to prove he can play alongside them as the team continues its ascension.
The first step could be adjustments to the rotation that sees Ball play more of the traditional point guard role with the rock in his hands. This isn’t easy for head coach Stan Van Gundy to do though as Ingram and Williamson thrive with the ball in their hands.
In all likelihood, Ball’s future in New Orleans will hinge on his consistency as a shooter, which, contrary to popular belief, he has shown the ability to do in the past. First off, confidence and staying engaged are keys; while Ball has struggled with both of those things in his early NBA seasons.
The second is an adjustment to his tendencies. Instead of settling for the spot-up opportunity every time it is presented, Ball would benefit from attacking the closeout more often and maximizing the chances that come from doing so.
Those options are in areas like finding the next open man for a three-pointer, getting to the free-throw line and finishing at the rim instead of hitting the deep shot. If he does these things, he’ll quickly find himself facing less aggressive closeouts and will be more confident in his game. Naturally, those things could lead to a more successful shooting number as the season continues on.
Ball is as talented as they come and it’s understandable why the Pelicans want to slide him in behind the two franchise forwards they have. The unfortunate reality is that time is running out on pass-first guard’s big chance to prove it’s the right move for the Pelicans moving forward.
NBA Daily: What We Forgot
With the NBA season now a month old, Matt John looks into no what we have learned, but we had previously forgotten.
With every new NBA season, we tend to forget a few things here and there; players or teams that go through a down year are often, warranted or not, cast aside for the next best thing, only to resurface in the NBA’s collective conscience later on.
Like last season, for example, Dwight Howard was regarded as a nothing-addition for the Los Angeles Lakers, a gamble that they may have been better off not taking. However, Howard played an integral role in the Lakers’ run to the NBA title and reminded everyone that, when he plays without distractions, he’s one of the league’s fiercest around the basket.
But that’s just one example. So, who or what has been re-discovered this season? Let’s take a look.
Stephen Curry: Still Phenomenal
Nobody’s forgotten that entirely. It’s just been a while since people have seen Curry at the peak of his powers.
Sure, it was easy to be skeptical of what he was capable of coming into this season. But, with Kevin Durant gone, Curry had free reign to score and shoot as much as he desired. And, with that freedom, Curry’s put up his best numbers since 2016, his second MVP season. In 15 games, Curry’s averaged 28.2 points 5.5 rebounds and 6.1 assists and shot 45 percent from the field, 37 percent from three and 93 percent from the line. He’s reminded everyone why he’s one of the games best and that he can accomplish anything or score on anyone on any given night.
Of course, the absence of Durant, as well as the loss of Klay Thompson and others, has led to another atypical season for the Warriors. Their 8-7 has them tied for seventh in the Western Conference and, while they have certainly improved on how they looked to start the season, they have a long way to go before they’re back in title contention.
The Warriors may never again reach the heights they once knew, either before or with Durant. But, until Father Time dictates otherwise, Curry should long remain a nightmare for the opposition.
Tom Thibodeau Can Get It Done
What can you say about the New York Knicks? Unironically, a lot.
Not only have they shown themselves to no longer be the butt of the NBA’s jokes, but, compared to the last decade-plus of Knicks’ basketball, the 2020-21 season might be their brightest yet.
Julius Randle’s transition into more of a point forward-type has generated a career-year and All-Star buzz. RJ Barrett has continued to improve rapidly, while rookie Immanuel Quickley has “quickley” become a fan favorite. Most impressive of all, however, is that New York has allowed the fewest points per game (102.7) and the fourth-fewest points per 100 possessions (106.8) in the NBA.
In other words, they finally look like a competent basketball team. But what’s changed? Two words: Tom Thibodeau.
The players have bought in to Thibodeau’s scheme and, clearly, it’s had a positive effect. Of course, the disaster that was his Minnesota Timberwolves tenure made us forget just what a proven head coach Thibodeau could be, but he’s put it all together in the past and, in New York, he would seem to be doing so once again.
Of course, there is plenty left to do. The Knicks’ spacing is a joke — and a bad one at that. In fact, their entire offense could stand to see some of that energy they bring on defense; the Knicks are dead last in the NBA at 101.3 points per game.
Still, at 8-8, New York is no longer a doormat and, given the last few seasons, that’s probably the best they could’ve hoped for. Rome wasn’t built in a day and the Knicks won’t be either, but the franchise looks like they may have finally turned a corner toward relevance.
Maturity Issues Loom Large
Like the Knicks, the Cleveland Cavaliers have been another NBA-darling this season. And again, like New York, their players have bought in; head coach J.B. Bickerstaff has everyone playing with energy on defense and, while their offense hasn’t quite reached the same level, they’re competing to the best of their ability.
Of course, the progress of Kevin Porter Jr. could have been the cherry on top of it all. But that ship has sailed.
After an outburst directed toward general manager Koby Altman, Cleveland has since moved on from the young forward. Of course, the Cavaliers knew Porter came with baggage when they selected him with the last pick of the first round in the 2019 NBA Draft, but his potential was salivating and Cleveland had hoped they could help him grow — not only as an NBA player, but as a person. There have been success stories in the past, troubled players that have come in and shut out the noise and become both respectable characters and NBA players. DeAndre Jordan, a former lottery talent, dropped in his own draft due to similar concerns, but overcame those issues and has since gone on to play a long career.
Unfortunately, it just hadn’t gone that way with Porter and the Cavaliers, as the noise became too much to bear for a team with a long road back to relevancy. It’s reminded everyone just how hard it can be, both as a player and as their team, to deal with those issues and, regardless of the talent or potential, the headache sometimes just isn’t worth the risk.
Luckily for Porter, it’s not too late; a fresh start with the Houston Rockets should do him wonders. And, hopefully, the Rockets can help him overcome that baggage, his maturity issues and whatever else he may be dealing with.
But even if they don’t or can’t, Porter must wake up and seize his opportunity while he still can; if he sees another falling out in Houston, there’s no telling if he’ll ever get another chance elsewhere.