Last season, New York Knicks center Willy Hernangomez started 22 games and played in 72, averaging a solid 8.2 points and 7.0 rebounds in just 18.4 minutes per contest.
This season, he’s been the recipient of a number of healthy scratches and has only logged minutes in 25 games, posting 4.4 points and 2.6 rebounds in 9.2 minutes, exactly half of his season average in minutes during his rookie year.
Although veteran center Enes Kanter was acquired in the offseason and immediately became the starter, coach Jeff Hornacek has elected to play Kyle O’Quinn at backup center while also giving Kristaps Porzingis minutes at the five.
The 23-year-old Hernangomez has been the forgotten man.
Ahead of the trade deadline, the Spaniard is looking forward to getting an opportunity, either in New York or elsewhere.
“I’m kind of excited to see what happens,” Hernangomez recently told Al Iannazzone of Newsweek. “I’ve been really patient. I’m working hard every day. I try to be ready for when my opportunity comes. But I’m ready for anything that comes. I just want to play. I love New York, I love my teammates. But I need to play. I love basketball so much. I need to play.”
He remains optimistic that he will find himself in some kind of improved situation before the deadline passes.
“After Thursday, something good is going to happen,” Hernangomez said. “I really want to be here with KP, with my teammates. I love New York. I love New York fans. But I really have to play. I’m ready for anything.”
Since the 23-30 Knicks are in the midst of a rebuild, they can’t afford to let Hernangomez go for a few reasons.
The Porzingis connection
Hernangomez and Porzingis have a strong friendship and played alongside each other in Seville before they made the move to the NBA. In October, Porzingis openly told reporters that Hernangomez deserves more playing time.
“I know he’s in a tough spot where he wants to play and he worked hard all summer,’’ Porzingis said at the time, per Marc Berman of the New York Post. “He was on the national team and now he obviously he loves basketball, he wants to be on the floor every moment. … I’m trying to talk to him to make sure he has his head up and doesn’t focus on the bad things, but focus on the things he can do better. And that way, prove that he needs to be on the floor, and we need him to be on the floor. As a close friend, I’m trying to talk to him and make sure he has his spirits up.”
When asked directly if Hernangomez should be on the court more, Porzingis replied, “I think so. He deserves it. But we have a lot of big guys on the floor and I understand everybody’s fighting for those minutes. And not everybody is going to get what they deserve.”
Although chemistry between teammates doesn’t exactly guarantee success, it seems as though both Europeans are comfortable playing alongside each other. Since they’re both very young, they could be viable building blocks alongside Tim Hardaway Jr. in what could be a dominant Knicks frontcourt in a couple of years.
As last season rolled along, Hernangomez began to see more and more playing time. With the added minutes, he delivered. In February, he averaged 10.7 points and 9.5 points in 25.9 minutes per game. In March, he averaged 11.4 points and 9.4 boards in 23.1 minutes before posting 12.5 points and 8.5 rebounds over six games in April.
Most impressively for a young player, he scored in double-figures in nine of his last 11 games to close out last season.
Last year, he shot 52.9 percent overall and already appeared to be a mature offensive player, especially when it came to decision-making skills. This season, he has gone 48-for-80 (60 percent) from the floor in his limited minutes.
It is widely assumed that Kanter will opt into his $18.4 million contract for next season.
"It's always on your mind," Kanter told Stefon Bondy of the New York Daily News regarding his contract situation earlier in the season. "But the season is going really well right now. It's just a contract. I think people worry about it too much and it gets into their head.”
He continued, ”People think about it too much and then it affects them, it affects their game, it affects their whole team. When the season is over, that's the time to think about it.”
Although he’s not thinking about his contract, the Knicks should be.
After making $18.4 million next season, Kanter would likely eclipse the $20 million-per-year mark in free agency during the following summer. It's worth noting that he's currently averaging 14.1 points and 10.4 rebounds in 25.7 minutes per contest. Therefore, a trade involving him would make a ton of sense, as it would rid the team of a large contract, most likely land a young player at another position and would provide valuable playing time to Hernangomez, who has been a patient professional throughout the season.
Because he was drafted in the second round, Hernangomez is making just $1.4 million this year and will make just under $1.5 million next season and just under $1.6 million in 2019-2020 before he will become an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2020 if he doesn’t sign an extension. If he emerges to put up similar stats as Kanter, he could become a huge value for New York.
Therefore, since the Knicks are more pretenders than contenders at this point, why not give the young guy some run? What is there to lose?
If the team decides that they want to move a different direction after the season, they will be able to. But, if they continue to sit their young center on the bench, they might never find out what they have before he's gone.