La Familia-First Hernangómez Prepping for Summer “Process”, Then FIBA World Cup

by Sam Perley

Like a handful of other players on the Charlotte Hornets roster this season, center Willy Hernangómez moved in and out of the rotation all season long. Through it all though, the-soon-to-be 25-year-old was all smiles as he now heads into another busy summer for both himself and the Spanish National Team.

Hernangómez began the 2018-19 campaign as the team’s primary backup center to Cody Zeller. He played in 15 of the first 16 games and averaged 7.5 PPG on 51.4% (58.8% from three; 10-of-17), 4.9 RPG and 1.0 APG in just 14.2 MPG. A nightly double-double threat, Hernangómez’s strengths were reflected in his post play (60.7% shooter at the rim this season), offensive rebounding, put-backs and some fluid, rim-running footwork.

A mild ankle injury in mid-November knocked him out for five games, but he was back in the rotation at the start of December. He played consistently for the next month-and-a-half, supplying the Hornets with paint scoring and a multitude of second-chance opportunities.

He fell out of the lineup when Cody Zeller returned from a broken hand in early February, giving way to the more rim-protection-oriented Bismack Biyombo. When Zeller went down again with knee soreness in March, Hernangómez got more minutes down the home stretch with Head Coach James Borrego utilizing the younger players more and more.

The Spaniard finished his third NBA season with averages of 7.3 PPG on 51.9% shooting (38.5% from three; 15-of-39), 5.4 RPG and 1.0 APG over 58 appearances (three starts). Notably, Hernangómez became just the third different NBA player since the 1994-95 season to average at least 2.0 ORPG in 15.0 or fewer MPG (Danny Fortson, Dewayne Dedmon).

“I think I learned a lot. I really grew as a player and person,” said Hernangómez. “I’m very happy to be a part of this organization. Most importantly, I’m very proud to be around this group of guys, this team, this coaching staff. I’m really excited for this summer. I’m ready to work again, be stronger, be better and be ready for next year.”

When asked about having to constantly adjust to his shifting role this season, Hernangómez, who has one year remaining on his current contract, was quick to credit the Hornets veterans for helping ease the situation.

“I think one of the things we have on this team is great vets who help the young guys a lot,” he said. “Kemba, Marv, Nico, Biz all really helped me. You always want to play. You always want to help your team, but sometimes, [you] just have to be ready and use your opportunities.”

“I have fun supporting my teammates,” he added. “I feel like this is my family. I spend more time with all my teammates here in Charlotte than my family in Spain. I feel like this is my closest family right now, so I’m super happy to be a part of it and to try and help as much as I can.”

A relentless gym rat in both Charlotte and his hometown of Madrid in the offseason, Hernangómez plans to get bigger and stronger this offseason, which should help his game on both ends. He also wants to add more offensive range after taking a significant step forward this year with his three-ball (went just 5-of-12 last season).

“It’s going to be my shooting stuff and having more confidence,” he confirmed. “I could do more things, [other] than being a five and setting screens. I can open more of the court. Maybe have the ball on the dribble. I want to get stronger, be more explosive. Last year, I really enjoyed the process, but this year, it’s going to be another process to get stronger and better.”

Hernangómez plans to be back in game action earlier than late September’s Hornets Training Camp if he’s chosen to play for the Spanish National Team at this summer’s FIBA World Cup in China. Spain begins group play on August 31 with Tunisia, Puerto Rico and then Iran.

“Obviously, I would love to play if Coach [Sergio] Scariolo wants me to be there and the Hornets let me go,” he said. “I would love to go, especially after last year. I made a tough decision [and] went to Summer League and said no to the National Team [during FIBA World Cup Qualifying]. It’s a big tournament for us and it’s going to be big if I can go.”

The competition’s top eight finishers will automatically qualify for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Spain has finished at least fifth in each of the last five World Cups, winning its only-ever such medal – a gold – in 2006. The federation also medaled at the last three Olympics, most recently grabbing a bronze in Rio de Janeiro with Hernangómez three years ago.

This summer will likely be the last World Cup the Hornets center gets to play with seven-foot brothers Pau and Marc Gasol, who currently play for the Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors, respectively. Ricky Rubio (Utah), Nikola Mirotić (Milwaukee), 2017 EuroLeague MVP Sergio Llull and former NBAers Sergio Rodriguez and Rudy Fernández could be on the Spanish squad as well.

“I think every time I’m playing with both Pau and Marc, it’s just another opportunity to be better,” Hernangómez said. “It’s another day to get better, another day to learn something on and off the court. There’s nothing better than being with the Gasol brothers and being with them every day. I’m excited to be with the National Team again and have this opportunity to be around Pau and Marc and just keep growing and growing.”

Hernangómez’s younger brother, Juancho, a third-year forward with the Denver Nuggets, is also a candidate to join the team this summer. The two are separated in age by just a year and a half and have been extremely close and supportive throughout their careers.

“In the summer, we spend time together every day,” said Juancho last December to “Our relationship is really, really close. We talk every single day. We play video games together every single day. We help each other. When one has a hard time, the other one is there to support. He helped me a lot growing up. I helped him, too. When he talks, I listen and when I talk, he listens.”

One of the most selfless players around, Willy Hernangómez was a valuable frontcourt depth piece for the Charlotte Hornets this season as he’ll look to take a step forward in his NBA career with another beneficial summer. And while he’s at it, maybe there’s another World Cup medal waiting for him at the end of it.


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