Adapting to the NBA Game, Willy Hernangomez Has Become Part of Knicks' Future

Yaron Weitzman@YaronWeitzmanFeatured ColumnistMarch 17, 2017

NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 12:  Willy Hernangomez #14 of the New York Knicks celebrates his dunk in the second half against the San Antonio Spurs at Madison Square Garden on February 12, 2017 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Elsa/Getty Images

NEW YORK — For years now, the New York Knicks' ability to spot and successfully develop unheralded gems has been the one area where they've managed to excel.

Langston Galloway was an anonymous undrafted guard when the Knicks plucked him off the league's scrap heap in 2014. Now he's a rotation player for the Sacramento Kings and is earning more than $5 million a year. Lance Thomas went from benchwarmer on a 10-day contract to starter and $27.5 million man.

Kristaps Porzingis was a raw, rail-thin teenager when the Knicks ignored the public outcry and drafted him No. 4 overall. Not even two years later, he's a borderline All-Star and viewed by most as the franchise savior. 

From Mindaugus Kuzminkas to Ron Baker to Justin Holiday, this year's roster is stuffed with no-names who are outperforming expectations. None, however, inspire as much hope as Willy (pronounced Billy) Hernangomez.

Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

The 22-year-old baby-faced center has emerged as a potential future starter for New York. He's also become a fringe Rookie of the Year candidate thanks to Joel Embiid's season-ending injury and is one of the lone bright spots for the Knicks during this dark, disappointing season.

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"He's doing what I thought he would: giving great energy and showing a great feel for the game," Scott Roth, a scout for the Minnesota Timberwolves who coached Hernangomez at Baloncesto Sevilla in Spain's ACB League, told Bleacher Report. "He's proven that if he gets 20 minutes, he's going to get a double-double."

Hernangomez, whom the Philadelphia 76ers originally drafted 35th overall in 2015 before trading him to the Knicks for two second-round picks (he spent that season overseas), is averaging just 7.2 points in 17.0 minutes a night. But he's connected on 55.1 percent of his looks and leads all rookies other than Embiid in rebounds per game (6.5) and, per ESPN.com, player efficiency rating (18.63).

What's impressed the most, though, is his ability to adapt to the NBA game and improve throughout the year. He's averaging nearly a double-double in nine contests since the All-Star break, and until a recent sloppy stretch had done a remarkable job slashing his porous turnover rate (1.4 per game) by being more careful with the ball and breaking his habit of dropping it below his waist.

"At the beginning, everything was new to me," Hernangomez told Bleacher Report. "I still have to do a much better job of it, but now we've played teams multiple times, I feel more comfortable and try to anticipate (the defense's movements) more."

On the offensive end, Hernangomez is a natural. His balletic footwork, coupled with all the work he's put in with Knicks assistant coaches Josh Longstaff and Dave Bliss, allows him to deploy a number of moves when operating on the block. The drop step and up-and-under are two of his favorites, and while the results haven't been good (just 0.72 points per post possession, putting him in the 12th percentile), the foundation for a strong post game is there. 

Hernangomez is also a strong finisher (he's converted 62.7 percent of his looks at the rim) and willing passer who's always looking to keep things churning (he rarely puts the ball on the floor or holds on to it for more than two seconds). Both make him an ideal role player and the type of big man the Knicks should be thrilled to have playing alongside Porzingis for the next few years. 

Which, of course, is what this all comes back to: Can a frontcourt of Porzingis and Hernangomez lead the Knicks into the future? In the 410 minutes the pair has played together, New York has scored 104.2 points per 100 possessions and surrendered 105.3. Considering this team boasts the NBA's seventh-worst point differential at minus-3.6, the duo's mark is not that bad. The numbers are noisy, though, and things have gotten ugly (minus-14.6) when Hernangomez has played with the Knicks' starters.

Most of the issues have come on the defensive end, where the pairing of Hernangomez and Porzingis often looks ill-equipped to keep up with the modern NBA game. Both are more comfortable defending from the back line as opposed to chasing shooters around the perimeter. The problem is that most teams keep four shooters on the floor at all times.

Hernangomez is the team's best rebounder, so keeping him near the basket makes sense. But he doesn't do much to deter opponents from attacking the lane, an area where Porzingis excels. When they share the floor, only one can man the paint, which leads to games like the Knicks' recent 120-112 loss to the Brooklyn Nets where Brook Lopez torched them with six three-pointers. 

"I was a 4 in Spain. I'm more used to it, and I'm little quicker," Porzingis, who also played with Hernangomez in Spain, told Bleacher Report when asked how he and Hernangomez deal with dividing defensive duties. But Hernangomez said that's not stopping him from doing everything he can to add flexibility to his game.

"I work on guarding 4s every practice, especially with [Joakim] Noah out [with a season-ending injury]," Hernangomez said. "I'll guard Lance Thomas. I'll try to guard KP. I work in the gym on my legs and getting faster."

He added that he's working on his jumper, too, so he can better buttress Porzingis' game on the offensive end as well. This year he's been mostly gun-shy from the perimeter. But he gets up three-pointers in practice, and Roth claims that back in Spain, Hernangomez would routinely knock down shots from around 15 feet.

The problem, Hernangomez said, is remaining confident.

"If I'm open, I'll shoot them, but if I miss the first one, I won't take a second," he said. "But it's something that's going to come along. Maybe next year."

          

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats from NBA.com unless otherwise noted and accurate as of March 16.

Yaron Weitzman covers the Knicks, and other things, for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman and listen to his Knicks-themed podcast here.