Former Charlotte Bobcats guard Gerald Henderson always said the thing he loved about playing for Steve Clifford is not having to guess where you stand with him.
That isn’t always pleasant, but it is constructive. It took a month for center Willy Hernangomez to figure out playing for Clifford. Part of that was about the basics: offensive sets and defensive coverages. It was also about setting a new standard for focus.
“You have to be smart with this game, do the right things for teammates,” said Hernangomez of learning Clifford’s priorities. “I think I tried to do that from the very start, but coach Clifford really expects it.”
Hernangomez came to the Hornets shortly before the February trade deadline from the New York Knicks, in return for the since-waived Johnny O’Bryant and two future second-round picks. Hernangomez made the NBA All-Rookie team last season, but then the Knicks acquiring Enes Kanter made Hernangomez extraneous.
The Hornets are deep at center with Dwight Howard and Cody Zeller, but the front office and Clifford saw Hernangomez, a 6-foot-11 Spaniard, as a good opportunity.
Initially, it was less than smooth. When the Hornets played in New York against Hernangomez’s prior team March 17, Clifford was blunt in describing that.
“If you were in one place and didn’t play much, if you want to play more in the next place, I’d say work harder and kill myself,” Clifford told the New York Post when asked why Hernangomez hadn’t cracked the rotation. “The reality is, he wasn’t playing there for a reason. He’s got to change things.”
That kick in the butt inspired self-reflection that has made an impact. Hernangomez still isn’t playing much, even with Zeller out with a swollen left knee, but he’s drawing more positive reviews.
“You never know a guy until you coach him, but the guy can really traffic rebound,” Clifford said of Hernangomez’s ability to grab the ball in a crowd of huge bodies. “He’s a big guy, and when he gets his hands on the ball, it’s usually his. That’s a great strength.
“If he can rebound in traffic, that would add a dimension to his game I didn’t know about.”
Hernangomez was chosen 35th overall in the 2015 draft by the Philadelphia 76ers, then traded to the Knicks, so he was no sure thing. Second-round picks do not automatically get the multi-year guaranteed contracts first-rounders (top 30) do.
Hernangomez comes from a strong basketball culture in Spain, which has produced great big men, such as Pau and Marc Gasol. So, Hernangomez has been coached hard. Just maybe not quite as hard as he initially encountered with Clifford.
“With every player, you have to find a way that you’re comfortable talking with them and they are comfortable talking with you. Serious players, they want a coach who can help them play better,” Clifford said.
“I don’t think you always have to sugar-coat it. I think they appreciate (being direct) and he’s very coachable.”
Hernangomez figured out quickly that slow learners don’t survive often playing for Clifford. He tapped into power forward Marvin Williams – probably the Hornets’ most cerebral player – for pointers.
That’s a common theme around the Hornets’ locker room. Three seasons into his NBA career, Frank Kaminsky still marvels at the things Williams immediately recognizes and works to counter about opposing offenses.
“They want me really intense, fighting for every ball,” Hernangomez said of the theme from the coaches. “Be focused on the details – more than I was – and really talk to my teammates.”
Hernangomez plans to spend most of the summer in Spain, but he’ll depart with a detailed off-season plan and assistant coaches will be dispatched overseas to monitor his progress. He’ll work on extending his shooting range, and getting stronger and quicker.
But mostly, he’ll think about the nuances of the game.
“It’s an IQ job,” Hernangomez said.
Translation: Clifford’s message received.