Hernangomez Ready for Fresh Start, Change of Scenery in Charlotte

By Sam Perley

The newest member of the Charlotte Hornets, Willy Hernangomez, experienced one of the craziest and most emotional 12-hour-long stretches of his basketball career last week.

It all started Tuesday night, which in hindsight, would be Hernangomez’s final time dawning a New York Knicks jersey. Midway through the second quarter, the sophomore center watched longtime teammate and best friend, Kristaps Porzingis, land awkwardly on his left knee following a dunk attempt, causing a season-ending ACL tear.

Hernangomez rose from the bench to help the Knicks superstar into the locker room, not knowing it would be the final time they’d share the court as teammates at Madison Square Garden. Early the next morning, the Spaniard was notified he was being traded to Charlotte in exchange for Johnny O’Bryant and two future second-round picks. 

Prior to the Hornets’ home game against Toronto on Feb. 11, Hernangomez (whose first name is pronounced “Billy”) reflected on his first time being traded as a NBA player.

“[I want to say] thanks [to] the Hornets. I think it’s a new chapter for me. I’m very excited to be part of this team and this family and I think I’m going to learn a lot with this coaching staff and teammates. I can’t wait to meet the fans, too. I know [my teammates] are going to help me a lot. Coach Cliff is going to do the best for me and I’m going to try and make my teammates better.” 

He added with regards to his longtime companion, “I want to wish a healthy [recovery] to K.P. He’s my brother. It was a very sad moment. I know he will be back stronger and better than he was. All my prayers for him.”

Taken 35th overall in the 2015 NBA Draft, Hernangomez spent another year playing in Spain before coming stateside to the Knicks. He averaged 8.2 points, 7.0 rebounds and 1.3 assists over 18.4 minutes across 72 appearances on his way to NBA All-Rookie First Team honors last season.

Despite the promising year, Hernangomez had been limited to just 9.0 minutes per outing over 26 games this season, thanks largely to a crowded frontcourt rotation in New York.

“Maybe that wasn’t my place,” he said. “I want to say thank you to the New York Knicks organization. All the people that are working there, they helped me a lot from the beginning for two years. Right now, here, I just want to do my best and show my teammates and coaches they can trust me.”

Prior to the NBA, Hernangomez spent five years playing for European powerhouse Real Madrid in the Spanish ACB League. He was loaned out to nearby Cajasol Sevilla from 2013-15, which is where he first started playing with Porzingis. 

The 23-year-old has also made numerous appearances for the Spanish National Team, winning a gold medal at the 2015 European Championships and bronze at both the 2016 Summer Olympics and 2017 European Championships.  

Although no player on the current Hornets roster has ever played with Hernangomez, Frenchman Nicolas Batum has the most familiarity with the Spaniard having faced him in international competitions over the summers.

“I’ve played against him a couple times. He’s a good player,” Batum says. “Very skilled, very physical, very smart. I don’t think a lot of people really know him, but he’s going to bring a lot to us because he’s a very smart player.”

“It’s great to have Nic on the team,” Hernangomez says. “[He’s] a guy who can do many, many things on the court – pass, score, rebound. He’s from Europe, so that’s an important thing for me. I think we can really have a great chemistry in the locker room.”

Back home, basketball runs quite deep in the Hernangomez family. Willy’s younger brother, Juan, currently plays for the Denver Nuggets and his younger sister, Andrea, is one of the top young players in Spain. His mother, Margarita Geuer, played on the Spanish National Team from 1985-93 and his father, Guillermo, was a professional player as well.

“I think my sister is going to be the best one,” said a smiling Hernangomez when quizzed on the topic. “She’s still very young, but I think she will be the best, hopefully.” 

Hernangomez has previously called the large metropolises of Madrid and New York City home, although has already warmed up (literally) to his new confines in Charlotte.

“I like the city. The weather is nice. New York is very cold. The people are very cool with me from the beginning [in Charlotte]. It’s a clean city. It’s a small city. I really like it. I’ve been here a couple days walking around the city, so I got to know a little bit more. I feel at home from the beginning, so that’s great.”

“I have everything I need here. I feel at home. New restaurants. New places,” he added with a grin. “I don’t smell food everywhere I go like in New York. I don’t hear noise like the police or whatever like in New York. It’s super quiet. I can really rest, really sleep. Really be focused on what I need to be and that’s great.”

All indications point to the relationship between the Hornets and Hernangomez as being off to a great start. An experienced, young center is now in Charlotte with the hopes of jumpstarting his NBA career, while the team finds a source of potential long-term stability in the frontcourt position. It’s still early, but the Spaniard seems to be quite happy to call Charlotte his new home.