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The mystery that is Willy Hernangomez

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The 25-year-old center has been buried deep on the Hornets’ bench until their last two games, where he nearly matched his point total for the entire season.

Atlanta Hawks v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Kent Smith/NBAE via Getty Images

There are two categories that most Hornets players fit into: young prospect, or again veteran. Devonte’ Graham, Terry Rozier, PJ Washington, Miles Bridges, etc., all fall under the former, while Marvin Williams, Cody Zeller, Bismack Biyombo, Nic Batum, etc., fall under the latter. Still, there is one player who doesn’t seem to fit under either of those umbrellas;

Willy Hernangomez.

Hernangomez is in his fourth season at 25 years old, so he sort of fits into the Hornets’ timeline as a franchise. He’s still on his rookie contract, earning $1.68M this season before entering unrestricted free-agency this summer. As a center, those ahead of him on the depth chart are almost certainly not in the team’s long-term plans. On paper, he seems like the type of player that would be getting consistent minutes for a squad that’s trying to find out what it has, and more importantly what it doesn’t, for the years ahead.

Before last Friday’s game in Utah, Hernangomez was as close to an “afterthought” as could be on the Hornets. He’d only appeared in 12 games, totaling 32 points. It was then that head coach James Borrego decided to insert him back into the rotation, and Hernangomez decided to make it worth his while.

Hernangomez was 6-6 from the floor (1-1 3PT) against Utah, finishing with 15 points and six boards in 10 minutes, the most he’d played in a game since the 10 minutes he saw on Nov. 18 against Toronto. The following Monday in Portland, Borrego bumped him up to 16 minutes, and Hernangomez responded by putting up 14 points on 7-8 shooting with four rebounds and a block. Remember, he’d only scored 32 points all season; he combined for 29 in those two games, missing only one shot. In Denver, he was solid again in meaningful minutes, posting five points (1-2 FG, 3-6 FT) and six rebounds (three offensive) in 11:08 of playing time.

Granted, opposing teams have seen very little film of him this year and probably were not anticipating him getting extended run, so perhaps his numbers are slightly skewed by unpreparedness. Regardless, I think it shows something about Hernangomez as a player that he can jump off the very end of the bench and contribute for three games in a row after not seeing the court since he played two minutes on Dec. 31.

For all the trade discussions and theoretical rotation adjustments that go on amongst Hornets fans, Hernangomez is usually the odd-man out. Rarely is he mentioned as someone Borrego should be giving more playing time, nor is he ever included in trade talks. It just seems strange how he’d been lost by the wayside prior to his last two performances. Whether or not this is a permanent change to the rotation remains to be seen, but Hernangomez is forcing Borrego’s hand a bit. He really can't glue him to the bench again after two solid offensive showings (“offensive” is a key word there), especially when the team has fully-committed to a youth movement.

With the Hornets aiming to be sellers at the trade deadline, it will be interesting to see if a team would take a flyer on Hernangomez. It’s unlikely that general manager Mitch Kupchak could recoup an asset for him, but perhaps some team would be willing to swap a bench-ridden big man of their own for Charlotte’s (Thon Maker, anyone?). If Kupchak can swing a deal for a different veteran big, Hernangomez is sure to get playing time similar to the last two games.

The whole point of this piece is; Willy Hernangomez and his situation in Charlotte are truly an enigma, and if he continues to have games like his last two, it’s hard not to play him. But, it’s also hard to play him, considering Williams and Biyombo are both veterans ahead of Hernangomez on the depth chart that the team wants to showcase for trade suitors. There simply aren’t enough minutes to go around. What Borrego and the rest of the team will decide to do going forward is far beyond me, but we might be seeing more of Big Willy.

Note: I started an NBA 2K20 franchise as the Hornets to run the rebuild myself. I simulated it up until today’s date, and then swapped Hernangomez for Ty Jerome straight-up. The Hornets do need a backup for Devonte’. Get on the phone, Mitch. We’ve long known that video games are exactly like real-life.