The Charlotte Hornets sent two second round picks to the New York Knicks in exchange for Willy Hernangomez in what will go down as the final transaction of the Rich Cho era in Charlotte. He received sporadic playing time until the Hornets started falling out of the playoff race. Over the last six games of that season, the Spaniard averaged 11.3 points and 9.8 rebounds while shooting over 60% from the field in less than twenty minutes per game. It spawned optimism in the Hornets fan base. Maybe Hernangomez could be the starting center next season. At the very least, he’ll be a strong backup behind Cody Zeller.
It was not to be. Sixteen games into the season, Hernangomez lost his grip on the backup center spot for the first time. He later worked his way back into the rotation, but eventually fell out of favor once more. His counting numbers were great- 18.7 points and 13.8 rebounds per 36 minutes while shooting 52% from the floor and knocking down the occasional 3-pointer. Those numbers didn’t positively impact the team though.
Hernangomez’s main problems came on the defensive end of the floor. He’s strong, but he’s rather heavy-footed and slow laterally. Those problems were compounded by an apparent lack of effort on that end of the floor. There were many instances where Hernangomez would watch opposing ball handlers finish at the basket when he should have been contesting the shot.
His offensive game wasn’t without warts- he fumbled a lot of passes and isn’t as quick of a decision maker as Cody Zeller, but it was still a positive. He scored efficiently, drew a ton of fouls, and gobbled up offensive rebounds. His impact wasn’t felt as much when he wasn’t catching the ball at the rim, but he was still good enough to be a positive factor on that end of the floor.
On the whole, Hernangomez’s defensive shortcomings overpowered his offensive gifts. The team was 6.5 points per 100 possessions better when he sat. His -2.63 Real Plus-Minus ranked 66th out of 72 qualifying centers, bogged down by his having far and away the worst Defensive Real Plus-Minus among centers. He was one of only six centers with a negative defensive RPM, all the way down at -2.04. For reference, the gap between 66th ranked defender Jahlil Okafor and 24th ranked defender Boban Marjanovic is 2.02. Willy’s defense was real bad.
Hernangomez will be 25 in a couple weeks, so there’s still room for to improve. That may entice the front office to bring him back on his very cheap deal. That said, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the front office elected to go in a different, more defensive direction at the center spot.