My take on the Charlotte Hornets’ decision to trade for center Willy Hernangomez:
▪ The front office already knew what Johnny O’Bryant, the player dealt to the New York Knicks for Hernamgomez, was and wasn’t.
▪ Hernangomez is skilled offensively in the post, which has some value in the ball-must-touch-the-paint way Hornets coach Steve Clifford prefers to play.
▪ The two future second-round picks the Knicks will get aren’t of much value to this Hornets front office, based on past behavior.
Think of the Hernangomez trade as an extended audition. He makes about $1.5 million next season and slightly more than that the following season. That’s a bargain if he develops into a rotation player. It also makes him tradeable down the road, either by himself or as part of a package.
That makes him a worthy experiment. But it you expect this trade to improve the Hornets in any significant way in the short run, I think you’ll be disappointed. That’s not what this was about.
What he is
Spain is a basketball hotbed that has sent, among others, big men Marc and Pau Gasol and point guard Ricky Rubio to the NBA.
Hernangomez is nowhere near as good as either Gasol brother (or the Knicks wouldn’t have traded him for so little), but there are similarities. For instance, he scores efficiently in the post (a 54 percent shooter from the field in 96 NBA games) and is a strong passer, in regard to recognizing on-coming double-teams.
Those who have seen him play regularly praise his hands and his footwork in the lane. He earned minutes late last season with the Knicks, and his performance in those minutes earned him a spot on the All-Rookie team.
He has true center size at 6-11 and 240 pounds. However, he doesn’t have the skill set, at least not yet, to also play much at power forward, the way the NBA is evolving. Power forward has become less a low-post position and more a range-shooting position. The Hornets’ offense is mostly 1-in, 4-out sets – a post player and four shooters – where the power forward is expected to be a 3-point threat. Hernangomez is a career 25 percent shooter from the 3-point arc, and that percentage deteriorated to 20 percent so far this season.
“I’m an energy guy, a hustle guy,” Hernangomez said Sunday, when asked to describe his skill set. “I like to set good screens. I like to play in the low post, and make plays. Rebound. Do a lot of things at both ends of the floor.”
Hernangomez wanted a trade off the Knicks because there seemed little or no opportunity for him there, despite the strong finish to his rookie season. Enes Kanter, acquired from the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Carmelo Anthony trade, became the Knicks’ starting center. Kyle O’Quinn backed up Kanter and emerging star Kristaps Porzingis played some center as well as power forward. That left Hernangomez to average just nine minutes per game this season.
Hernangomez was candid with New York-area media before the trade about how frustrating it was to play only sporadically.
“All I can say is that I want to be somewhere that I can have minutes, where I can play, where I can keep developing,” Hernangomez said before the trade, adding it’s been “very hard” to sit so much this season.
Hernangomez passed his physical, completing the trade, and was at the Hornets’ Sunday-morning walk-through before the home loss to the Toronto Raptors. He wasn’t activated for that game.
His first practice with his new team will be Tuesday, before the Hornets fly out for Wednesday’s game against the Magic in Orlando, the last game before a weeklong All-Star break.
Where he fits (or doesn’t yet fit)
A lack of minutes might have been a factor in this trade, but there is no reason to assume there is more opportunity for playing time at center with the Hornets than there was with the Knicks.
Center is this team’s deepest position, by far. Starter Dwight Howard is a future Hall of Famer, averaging 15.6 points and 9.6 rebounds. Howard’s backup, Cody Zeller, is a former Hornets starter who has NBA starter talent.
“He’s a guy who our staff has always liked,” Hornets coach Steve Clifford said of Hernangomez. “Very skilled and intelligent. Plays with a good level of physicality and is versatile. His shooting, his passing and his basketball IQ are big strengths.”
Still, Clifford isn’t going to immediately shake up his rotation to accommodate Hernangomez’s presence.
“There’s not, right away, a big role” for him, Clifford said. “When you like the way a guy plays, and he fits with your style of play, you bring him in and get him acclimated, and then you kind of take it from there.”
A place to learn
Hernangomez says there’s a lot he can absorb being around Howard.
“It’s great to have Dwight here. I want to learn so much every day,” Hernangomez said. “(Sunday) morning, he talked to me and gave me advice, and he doesn’t know me a lot. I’m very happy to be with one of the best centers in the league. I’m going to learn a lot from him.”
Howard said he’s happy to help mentor young teammates.
“I was asking him questions throughout (Sunday’s) game to see what he saw out there, and the answers he was giving me lets me know he’s a really good thinker,” Howard said. “In order to play this game at a high level, you’ve got to outsmart your opponent. It seems like he has that.”