Charlotte Hornets: Is Willy Hernangomez Ready to Take the Next Step?

The Charlotte Hornets experienced deja vu last season, posting consecutive 36-46 seasons. It was the same problems that plagued the Hornets, injuries, struggles in close games, inconsistency and a defense that frankly underachieved. This, of course, led to massive changes. Both the GM Rich Cho and the head coach Steve Clifford was fired, as well as several staff members from the training and analytics department. In comes Mitch Kupchak and first-time head coach James Borrego to try to turn things around.

The roster is mostly the same, except Dwight Howard is gone, so is bench favorite Treveon Graham, Tony Parker comes in to back up Kemba Walker, and rookies Miles Bridges and Devontae Graham join the team. Many thought the Hornets would trade Kemba this offseason and start the rebuild, but owner Michael Jordan is not about that life. He wants to compete. To climb the standings and make the playoffs in the east, improvement must come from within.

This starts with second-year players like Malik Monk and Dwayne Bacon, but to me, the player to keep an eye on is third-year center Willy Hernangomez. Charlotte acquired Hernangomez from New York at the deadline last season, and we saw flashes of what he could do. He didn’t play much at first, but once Cody Zeller was lost for the season to injury, he got consistent minutes behind Dwight Howard and played pretty well down the stretch. Now, in his third season, he will get regular minutes backing up Cody Zeller to start the season. Who knows, with Zeller’s injury history he may start a lot of games this season as well.

Charlotte decided to play him in Summer League, and it paid off. Hernangomez dominated, for the most part, showing a new three-point stroke especially from the corners and a much stronger physique. In four games, Hernangomez averaged 18.3 points, 12 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.8 blocks on 50% shooting from the field. His advanced stats were strong as well. He had a true shooting percentage of 58%, a PER of 27.91, a total rebound percentage of 20%, an offensive rating of 112 and a defensive rating of 93.

Yes, the competition is weaker, but these are strong and efficient numbers. The new skills that Willy debuted along with a stronger body give reason for excitement. Now, after a strong summer league, how does Willy take the next step in the regular season, and how do the Hornets get the most out of him?

Hernangomez main roll on offense is as a roll man, and that is likely to be his primary role going forward. Last year he averaged 2.5 screen assists per game in only 12 minutes per game with Charlotte. He is a big body, a savvy screener and has good hands. While he is not the best athlete and his midrange game still needs work, he is a good roller. Last year he ranked in the 73rd percentile as a roll man according to Synergy Sports, with a 59% score frequency. His main strength is drawing fouls; he uses a series of fakes to get defenders to bite. This is his best part of his offensive game. Watch this play.

Hernangomez goes to set a ball screen for Malik Monk and gets the ball off the feed from Monk in the middle of the paint. He realizes Joel Embiid is lurking nearby, so he takes his times. With Embiid on him, he hits him with a half spin in both directions, and then goes back towards the middle, hits Embiid with a small pump fake and then pivots, so he can get his body into Embiid’s and then finishes with the left to prevent the shot block. Excellent patience here from Hernangomez and a big-time move.

Last season he drew shooting fouls on 22% of his touches, one of the best marks amongst all bigs according to Cleaning the Glass. He is a solid free throw shooter at 75%, so getting to the line is a big part of his game and helps makes up for some of his deficiencies.

For one he struggles to finish at the time. This is mainly for a lack of strength and athleticism because he has good touch. A stronger body should help him a lot this year. Last year he shot 54% at the time, which was one of the worst marks amongst all bigs. His midrange game wasn’t much better as he shot 33% on all midrange jumpers. To make up for this Willy has to rely on drawing fouls, floaters, runners and his post game. Watch for him to spot up more this year, especially from the corners with a new improved three-point stroke.

Hernangomez only spent 13% of his possessions in the post last season, but when he did good things happened. He ranked in the 83rd percentile, drawing fouls on 31% of his possessions and scoring on 56% of his possessions. Usually, he is on the left block, but he’s got moves on both sides. He is at his best when he goes quickly. Watch this play!

Jeremy Lamb has the ball on the wing and looks for the feed to Hernangomez, and Willy does an excellent job of coming to the ball to get a better position. He makes his move quickly. Hernangomez reverse pivots takes two hard dribbles while attacking the body of Enes Kanter and then finishes over the top of him while drawing the foul.

With Dwight gone, Hernangomez will likely be Charlotte’s go to post up option. The only other player that posts is Frank Kaminsky and Hernangomez is better. Kaminsky may be a little better pass, but Hernangomez is a solid passer as well. His assist ratio is average for a big man, and by no means is he an elite playmaker, but he makes the right pass most of the time. In Summer League this year his passing looked better as well.

This is a strength and a weakness for Willy. Let me explain. He is good at getting offensive rebounds; he is not good at finishing once he gets them. Hernangomez last season got 14% of all available offensive rebounds, which is an elite mark for a big man. The problem is that he only shot 40% on putbacks, and that put him in the 31st percentile in putbacks. Against this is where added strength will help him. He is good at tracking the ball, getting positioning, and timing his jump to tip the ball in.

Where he gets himself in trouble is when he gets the rebound, goes back down and is surrounded by defenders. Then he has trouble finishing over length. Still, I think this can become a strength for him. His offensive rebounding percentage was the best on the team last season and should be again this year. With added strength and a better understanding of when to go back up, this should be a strength for him this season. He is capable watch this play.

After setting a screen for Kemba Walker, Hernangomez does an excellent job of getting to the rim to get positioning. Once the shot goes up, Hernangomez is in position for the miss. He is in between two defenders, and once the shot rolls off the rim, all he has to do is tap it in with the left. This is a good example of doing your work early, and then finishing quickly.

It is safe to say that defense has been a concern for Hernagomez, and he still has a long way to go. However, he has some strengths on the defensive end as well. Let’s start with the positives. His best attribute is defensive rebounding. Hernangomez was second on the team only slightly behind Dwight Howard with a 32% defensive rebounding percentage. His other strength is getting steals. This goes back to him having food timing. While he is not the quickest, he knows how to time his interceptions. Steals have gotten a bad rap in the NBA community recently, but they are still valuable. His block percentage is also average for a big man.

Hernangomez tries on defense and has good timing. Last year he had a 1.51 defensive RPM, so he is not the liability that people think. However, there are weaknesses mainly due to lack of foot speed and athleticism. Mostly he still fouls a lot. His foul rate of 4.9% is too high, but this is a common problem amongst young players. Staying near the rim, and not taking unnecessary risks will help. The only way to lower his foul rate is through experience. He gets himself in trouble when he is on the perimeter defending pick and rolls. Against pick and roll ball handlers he ranked in the 12th percentile. I don’t think this will ever be a strength of his, so it’s up to the coaching staff to put him a defensive scheme that keeps close to the rim.

He is good when he can stay attached to the roller and can hand near the rim. His defensive instincts are alright, so he also faired well-defending spot up action. The other weakness was defending post players. Again the added strength should help with this.

I don’t’ think he is as bad on defense as a lot of Hornets fans and NBA Twitter thinks. His defensive rating was sixth on the team last season. Remember this year; he will be going against back up bigs, so his defense won’t be as much of an issue. With added strength and another year of experience, I think Willy can be an above average defender. The key is not putting him in too many situations that he can’t handle.

So now that we have broken down Hernangomez’s game, how can head coach James Borrego get the most out of him? Last year in looking at two-person lineups, I noticed Hernangomez played best with Kemba Walker and Marvin Williams. It is no surprise he played well with Kemba. Walker is a pick and roll maestro, and Hernagomez’s skills perfectly complement him. Marvin, on the other hand, provided floor spacing on offense for Hernangomez, and on defense he allows Hernangomez to stay by the rim, due to his ability to defend on the perimeter.

I like the lineup of Hernangomez, Walker, Williams alongside Dwayne Bacon and Jeremy Lamb. Lamb gives the group a secondary playmaker, who is a decent passer and can get to the rim. Bacon provides the group with a legit wing defender, who is also a decent shooter. This group only got four minutes last season but had a 124 net rating. I think it is the best lineup to maximize Hernangomez.

People in Charlotte are focusing on young players like Malik Monk and Miles Bridges, but they should not sleep on Hernangomez. I think in his third season, with an improved body and an expanded role, he is more than capable of averaging 12 points, eight rebounds, two assists, one block, and one steal per game off the bench. It’s time to buy some Willy Hernangomez stock!

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