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.
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.”
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