Every NBA Draft is an exercise in educated guesswork to one degree or another. Teams are charged with identifying strengths and weaknesses of incomplete players (the easy part), then projecting how those peaks and valleys will fluctuate over a period of years as these young men grow, mature and add skills (the hard part).
The 2016 iteration might be one of the best examples of the uncertain nature of the draft in a decade or more. A larger-than-average number of flaws and question marks dot virtually every major prospect, including the consensus top two. Mock drafts have spent the year trotting out a rotating carousel of guys at the third spot after Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram, with an ever-morphing lottery behind it. League scouts have talked about a tightly bunched group from three to as far as the mid-20s for at least the last 12 months.
With such mediocre depth up and down the board, more emphasis than usual will be on the identification of guys with the most “fixable” holes in their games – which brings us to Juan Hernangomez.
The younger brother of 2015 New York Knicks draftee Guillermo, Hernangomez logged big minutes and put up elite efficiency numbers in the Spanish ACB as a 20-year-old, albeit on one of the worst teams in the league. He flashed NBA shooting range at 6’9 as well as the ability to play both forward spots in the European game (this will disappear in the NBA, where he’s clearly a four). The nature of his observed flaws, though, is what makes him so sneakily attractive.
High atop the list is the defensive side of the ball, where legitimate worries about court IQ and awareness compound a physical profile that, at 20, couldn’t stack up to more powerful men in the trenches and would do even worse in the NBA. The effort is there for Hernangomez, just as it is constantly all over the court (his motor is off the charts), but he lacks both the physique and the know-how to properly channel it. He’ll badly space out off the ball multiple times per game, and will often overplay the ball and the glass to his team’s detriment; even when his head is on straight, he lacks the raw strength to defend the post against bigger guys.
Hernangomez has a solid build, though, and scouts expect him to fill out without much challenge as he matures (a lesser known reality of European play versus the NBA: strength training is a whole new ballgame in the Association). His lateral mobility is excellent and will translate without issue, as will an estimated 7’0 wingspan. He’s already a strong on-ball defender.
That leaves the mental side, and there are positive smoke signals abound here as well. Hernangomez comes from a basketball lineage that also includes his father and sister, and this combined with an obvious passion for the game makes his willingness to learn and absorb criticism seem high on the surface. It’s impossible to predict a given prospect’s capacity for mental growth, of course, but it’s also not as if NBA defense is rocket science – plenty of non-geniuses have picked it up with solid effort and repetition over the years. Hernangomez may never be a bona fide shot-blocker who can play center (in fact, some of his best fits would be alongside exactly such a player), but smart coaching emphasis – preferably from a team that doesn’t require him to make an immediate two-way impact – could straighten out some of the issues between the ears in a hurry.
If one assumes a defensive improvement is possible and perhaps even likely, the outlines of a top-10 prospect begin to take shape. No one is drafting him expecting a star, but in a class where that theme holds true for nearly everyone, his floor could separate him.
Hernangomez has all the skills needed to be a prototypical “playmaking four” at the NBA level, several of which are NBA-ready at this moment. He’s a fluid, comfortable shooter with unquestionable NBA range and a steady, high release point – combined with excellent footwork and a moderately speedy release, he projects as a valuable pick-and-pop big man down the road. He’s shown the aggression to turn the “pop” into “roll” at times, with good numbers finishing at the rim and a willingness to absorb contact that will serve him well when his frame fills out. He has the touch to be a good passer both from the elbow and on the move in pick-and-roll and short roll situations, though like the defensive end, his court IQ will need some fine-tuning even as the willingness is there. Down the same lines, he’s a willing cutter who will hurt slower NBA bigs off the ball if his timing clicks.
He’s taken criticism for his handle, but how many 6’9 stretch forwards are breaking guys down off the dribble at any level? There’s a reason Ben Simmons is the highest-ceiling prospect in this draft, after all. Draymond Green isn’t effective offensively because he can cross guys up on the perimeter. It’s not as if Hernangomez can’t dribble at all, either – he’s perfectly capable as a pump-and-drive guy going to either hand, with the footspeed to make up for any lack of go-to shake moves he may have.
Some see his strength concerns as a red flag for rebounding at the NBA level as well, but the evidence here is limited and potentially spurious. It’s true that most of his gaudy ACB volume on the boards came on the defensive end, some portion of which were no-effort affairs, but citing that as proof that he’ll struggle here at the next level is a nice, fat straw man. His nose for the ball is elite, and nowhere is his motor and effort level more visible than in rebounding pursuit, where he displays his usual brand of quick reflexes and strong, claw-like hands that prevent him from losing 50-50 balls other guys might. Hernangomez wasn’t much of an offensive rebounder in the ACB due to the amount of time he spent on the perimeter, but you aren’t drafting him to be anything different in the NBA.
Folks view intangibles in many different ways, but Hernangomez comes in with top marks however you weight them. He has no behavioral issues or diva-like tendencies to speak of, and a common theme from those close to him is his competitive fire. His application of this intensity sometimes goes awry on the court, as noted above, but has yet to manifest itself in any sort of worrying off-court dimension. He comes across as genuine and eager in interviews, more than a rote face guys try to put on for pre-draft stuff.
Perhaps most importantly, unlike many other overseas prospects, Hernangomez has a flexible movement situation. Basketball Insiders’ Steve Kyler reported recently that he does not have a buyout clause in his Estudiantes contract, a boon to a potential team both for monetary and timing purposes. Hernangomez has indicated he’s open to whatever route his incoming team chooses for him, be it an immediate move to the NBA or another year or two in Europe. It’s not an end-all factor, but this sort of flexibility is a breath of fresh air for NBA general managers accustomed to haggling over these sorts of details with foreign draftees and their teams.
No one is a sure thing in this draft class, but with a potentially flat player pool after a couple blue chip guys, there’s real value to be found moving down the board for teams best able to identify the easiest holes to fill. Juan Hernangomez could represent the best of them.
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