Willy Hernangomez is coming off one of the biggest summers of his NBA career. He represented Spain at the FIBA World Cup as a key reserve for the eventual gold medalists. He averaged 7.0 points and 3.9 rebounds per game (19.6 points and 10.8 rebounds per 36 minutes) backing up Marc Gasol. He chipped in 11 points in just 14 minutes of action in the gold medal game to clinch the tournament for Spain. He’ll look to parlay that summer success into a strong campaign for the Charlotte Hornets in his second full season with the team.
Hernangomez came to the Hornets via a trade with the New York Knicks during the 2017-18 season. He’s put up huge numbers on a per minute basis from the moment he got here—he’s averaging 18.4 points and 14.3 rebounds per 36 minutes as a Hornet. However, he’s been unable to ingratiate himself to either of the Hornets last two coaching staffs, largely because of his defense.
Last season, the Spaniard was one of the worst defensive centers in the league according to almost any advanced metric. His -2.02 defensive real plus-minus was the worst among 70 qualified centers last season, well behind Enes Kanter’s second worst mark of -1.46. Out of 50 centers who played at least 500 minutes, Hernangomez was one of just six who posted a defensive box plus-minus less than zero. He fared better than only Jahlil Okafor and Alex Len in that metric.
The 2019-20 season gives Hernangomez the opportunity to change the course of his career. The Hornets are rebuilding and have extra incentive to play their young players through their mistakes. Cody Zeller is the favorite to receive the lion’s share of the center minutes, but he’s missed at least 20 games in each of the last three seasons. The other players competing for center minutes are Bismack Biyombo, Thomas Welsh, and rookie PJ Washington. Biyombo is surely not in the team’s long term plans, Welsh isn’t guaranteed to be on the roster all season, and Washington is better suited to play more minutes at the four. There’s no reason Hernangomez can’t claim a consistent spot in the rotation.
That isn’t to say his spot in the rotation is guaranteed. Head coach James Borrego plans to hold his players more accountable this season, particularly on the defensive end. That’s been Hernangomez’s bugaboo throughout his career, and it’s a threat to eat into his minutes once again, even on a rebuilding team.