Only appearing in 15 games for New York this season, the Knicks’ diamond-in-the-rough second-rounder Willy Hernangómez needs playing time—whether in N.Y. or in Westchester.
“A fall from grace” is a very strong term to use in this particular situation, but Willy Hernangómez has been an afterthought this season one year removed from shining during his rookie year. Hernangómez was ultra-impressive as a rookie last season and was one of the few bright spots on an abysmal Knicks team. Willy put up 8.2 points and 7.0 rebounds in 18.4 minutes per game, including 52.9 percent from the field and 72.8 percent from the line (per ESPN Stats). For a second round draft day acquisition, Hernangómez made quite the impression on Knicks fans and had most of us extremely giddy about his development coming into this season along with his potential to make a huge impact on the court. A name like Marc Gasol was referenced and thrown around throughout the end of last season when trying to characterize Willy’s playing style. Clearly those comparisons were a bit too premature.
The 23-year-old Spanish big man has seen a significantly diminished role this season and is buried on the depth chart behind Enes Kanter and Kyle O’Quinn, who have both played sound basketball this season. At this juncture of the year, Willy only really makes appearances in garbage time hasn’t even seen the floor once in nine of his last 11 games. His numbers are down all across the board, and for some reason, hasn’t been able to crack into the rotation.
There are a number of theories as to why Hernangómez has been relegated to the pine, such as his lack of defense, the abundance of big men on the roster, the acquisition of Enes Kanter, and even a strained relationship with Jeff Hornacek. None of us except the Knicks staff, and possibly Willy himself, really know the concrete reason as to why Willy’s role has been minimized so much so far this season, so it’s anyone’s guess.
My colleague, Mike Cortez, discussed Willy’s benching in an article in early October, however at that point, most of us assumed it was an aberration. The consensus was that he would eventually get more minutes and begin to see at least the same, or more action as the previous season. Now, we sit here on Festivus, and still no sign of Willy in the rotation. What’s up?
The Enes Effect
The speculation is that Enes Kanter is most of the reason as to why Willy has been a DNP for a lot of games this year. Sure, the acquisition of Kanter has added quality depth to the frontcourt and made the big man situation a little more crowded, but the whole concept of Kanter being the downfall of Willy is overblown. Without question, Enes has been a terrific fit with the Knicks this year and has brought so much to the table in terms of scrappiness, grit, and a winning mindset. Despite this, Kanter has his limitations and isn’t someone who anyone would consider a star player. It’s not like the Knicks brought in Karl-Anthony Towns or DeMarcus Cousins or anyone of that caliber to bury Hernangómez.
Therefore, the opportunity was still there for Willy to make an impression throughout training camp, preseason, and practice and pick up where he left off from last year. He failed to make a strong enough case for himself, unfortunately, and the result of his inability to overtake Kanter and even O’Quinn rears its ugly head in the form of a benching. No, Willy is not being blackballed by the coaching staff and front office, this is just a case of a guy who needs to step up and put his head down and work hard and embrace the challenge.
If the trend of Willy not getting playing time continues (and I don’t see why it wouldn’t, see: Joakim Noah playing in Friday’s Detroit game), a viable and realistic option would be to send Hernangómez down to the G League to work on his game.
The potential demotion could either go one of two ways: it would either light a fire under him and motivate him to work on his game harder, or it could wreck his confidence and hurt him more than the benching already has. I’m inclined to believe the first one is more likely to happen if he gets demoted because Willy could be a solid contributor on this up and coming team. Of all the reasons why fans think his minutes were cut, the most significant reason is the fact that he just didn’t show the ability to play defense well enough in order to play over guys like Kanter and O’Quinn. Not that Kanter is a defense wizard, but his leadership, tenacity and offensive ability make him a better option than Hernangómez and on a team that’s in contention for a playoff spot (at this point), the better players are going to play. Willy has to be accountable and work his way back into favor with the organization. That starts with improving his defense as well as polishing other aspects of his game.
A G League stint down in White Plains playing for the Westchester Knicks would be a logical idea in order to take some of the spotlight off of him. It would allow Willy to go back to square one and refine his fundamentals as well as establish himself as a better defensive player. Clearly he is not getting the opportunities he wants at the NBA level, so what better place to go than Westchester in order to prove why he deserves to play a significant role on the Knicks. At the end of the day, it’s on Hernangómez to work on his craft and simply become a better player and we all know what he is capable of.
Trade on the Horizon
Would it be surprising if the Knicks traded Willy this season? Very much so. It’s hard to envision the Knicks parting ways with him this early on in his career, unless there are some underlying off-the-court/character issues of which us outsiders are not aware. The Knicks can afford to “stash” Willy on the bench or in the G League this year going forward because they have a plethora of frontcourt players and don’t feel the need to force him into game action if he’s not going to perform and make a laughing stock out of himself, especially on defense. It seems as if the Knicks still believe in Hernangómez but just aren’t as high on him as last year. Despite his benching being somewhat mysterious and seemingly out of the blue, the reason(s) behind his benching is legitimate and warranted, and behind closed doors, you have to trust the coaching staff’s decision due to their knowledge of Willy’s effort during practice.
I’d love to see Willy back in action sooner rather than later, no doubt he was one of the most exciting players to watch last year. It would be neat to see Willy thrive after being plugged into a Knicks team that is competing for a playoff spot, because I do believe he can be a good player. It’s on him at this point to keep his head up let it serve as motivation to improve and work his way back into the rotation and maybe even the starting five.