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.”
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