Amidst the drama and turmoil that engulfed the New York Knicks (shocker) during the 2016/17 season, rookie center Willy Hernangomez was a pleasant surprise. The Knicks got a good look at Willy as they scouted his teammate Kristaps Porzingis in Spain prior to the 2015 draft. The same night they selected his Latvian partner in crime, they pulled the trigger on a draft day deal with the 76ers to nab Hernangomez with the 35th pick.
Thus far it’s proven to be one of the shrewdest moves Phil Jackson made in his time with the Knicks.
Willy’s productivity and efficiency were historically rare on a per 36 minute basis. In the history of the league, only 13 seasons for centers 23 or younger with per 36 averages greater than or equal to 15 points, 12 rebounds, 50.0 eFG% and 2 assists have been recorded.
Even if you expand the search without an age restriction, there are only 58 such seasons for centers in the history of the entire league! This list is littered with names like Abdul-Jabbar, Chamberlain, Olajuwon, Bellamy, Shaq, Parish, Walton, etc. The odds of Willy reaching the heights of these Hall of Fame centers is exceedingly low. However, to produce such well rounded contributions this early in his career is very promising.
Willy wasn’t a prolific scorer, but he possesses an array of moves in the post and around the rim. He also demonstrated great patience and ability to read the defense in pick-and-roll. He finished in the 79th percentile as the roll man.
The Spaniard’s quick feet, soft touch around the rim, and ambidexterity made him a threat to finish in a variety of ways in the paint. When defenders were in position he could maneuver his way to get a shot around them.
He is also excellent at converting after using an up fake to get defenders in the air as Serge Ibaka found out.
He gave Al Horford the same lesson.
When defenders sink towards the rim to cut off penetration from the guard he can reach further into his bag of tricks. Willy can pull a soft floater out to finish on the roll.
If opponents switch a guard onto him he has the patience, wherewithal and skill to punish the mismatch.
Willy occassionally flashes the ability to step out for a jumper, but he lacks the confidence to do it consistently. His 72.8% mark from the charity stripe indicates the potential to do so more freqently in the future. In time he could diversify his game to pop out after setting a pick or to simply spot up off the ball.
If he can knock down the corner 3 and stretch the floor out it’ll add another dimension to his game.
Hernangomez’s passing wasn’t discussed much prior to his arrival. However, as he got more comfortable during the season his ability to facilitate came to the fore.
Here he flashes from the opposite side of the floor to make himself open after Justin Holiday gets stuck in the corner. He’s then able to hit him on a baseline cut for an easy deuce.
He’s also capable of making reads from the top of the key like this one.
Willy sees Millsap drop to cut off the pass to Jennings after Porzingis sets a down screen for him. KP pops out and Willy hits him for an easy, mid-range jumper.
On this occasion he reads Holiday slipping a screen for Triangle Jesus a.k.a. Sasha Vujacic and drops a dime over James Young’s head to set up an easy deuce. This is a high level pass for any big, let alone a rookie center.
He has the ability to become one of the better passing bigs in the league. To do so he will need to do a better job of protecting the ball and making better reads. Willy has a propensity to turn the ball over throwing ill-advised cross court passes. He also has tendency to attempt squeezing the ball to a cutter between or over multiple defenders from the low and high post.
Hernangomez’s offensive production was buoyed by his prowess on the offensive glass. Of players that averaged at least 15 minutes per game, Willy ranked 10th in offensive rebound percentage in 16/17. He’s also younger than everybody ranked ahead of him.
His strength, even as a 22 year old, allows him to pin opponents under the rim to grab offensive boards. Against Boston in January his activity on the offensive glass was critical in a Knicks win. Short both Porzingis and Noah, he bullied the smaller Celtics defenders all night.
Hernangomez’s combination of strength, skill, quick feet and basketball IQ made him an immediate offensive contributor. How he develops defensively will be paramount to his future progression, though.
Like most young big men he struggles with the nuances of help defense. Knowing when and which rotations to make is no easy task and takes time to perfect.
Willy’s defensive limitations are exposed most in pick-and-roll. He struggles to contain penetration or recover to the roll man once the pass is made.
Like many bigs, switching onto guards that can shake and bake in space give him issues as well.
John Wall can blow by even the quickest players, but you have to move your feet a little bit!
Another issue is the lingering notion that Porzingis’ long term future lies at center. If that’s true it could make them difficult or even impossible to play together. That may prove to be the case down the line, but for now Willy provides a solid complement next to KP. His strong defensive rebounding pairs well with Porzingis who is notoriously poor on the defensive glass. It’s also a boost for the Knicks who finished dead last in DRB% last season.
While his lack of vertical explosion and subpar wingspan likely cap him from ever being an elite rim protector, the Knicks still performed better with him on the floor defensively. He had a defensive net rating of +3.0 and a solid individual 107 defensive rating. He also finished 3rd on the team in both DBPM and defensive win shares.
Defensive metrics are notoriously unreliable, but it’s excessive to suggest he’s a lost cause. If he can improve his defensive positioning and awareness he could form a solid two-way combination in the frontcourt alongside KP.
At just 22 years old Hernangomez is coming off a rookie season which exceeded most everybody’s expectations. He demonstrated the potential to be a double double machine. His ability to chip in with contributions in a variety of categories is special for a young big. While he lacks the tantalizing potential of other more heralded young prospects, he has a solid foundation. At such an early stage in his career there is much room for improvement moving forward.