The Sophomore Campaign of Willy Hernangomez


The fortunes of the New York Knicks over the course of the 2017-18 season will be primarily concerned with the fates of three players: Carmelo Anthony, Kristaps Porzingis, and rookie Frank Ntilikina. In Melo’s case, the franchise is no longer tied to his performance on the court but rather what they can get in a trade (spoiler: it won’t be much). KP, on the other hand, is set to be the team centerpiece while Frank will hopefully show signs of being a solid contributor on both sides of the ball.

But lost in that shuffle is another Knick whose season might cast an outsize shadow on the future outlook of the team. That player, of course, is one Willy (pronounced Billy) Hernangomez (pronounced Hernangomez) who will be entering his second year in the NBA. Prior to Willy being drafted by the Sixers and promptly having his rights traded to the Knicks he was best known for having played alongside Porzingis for CB Sevilla. He came into the 2016 rookie class relatively unheralded but ended up demonstrating a very mature post-game, elite footwork, and a rapacious rebounding rate.

Indeed, Willy started the season strong coming off the bench and ended up taking over near full-time starting duties with the injury of Joakim Noah. He was named the Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month for April after leading all East rookies in rebounding with 8.5 RPG and ranking second in scoring at 12.5 PPG. Clyde often says that boxing out has become a lost art, so Willy’s presence on the boards must have made him smile.

Box plus/minus (BPM) rated Willy quite well. A replacement level player grades out at -2.0 and Willy was at exactly 0.0.  If this doesn’t sound particularly impressive, consider it in these terms. There are roughly 450 players in the NBA and Willy rated right around the middle on both ends of that mass in his rookie season by bpm. If a player comes into the league and is immediately league average, that player can reasonably be projected to have star level potential. Now there’s more to Willy’s season than his bpm, which we’re going to get into later. But if we project even reasonable development for Willy over the course of the next 5 years, it’s conceivable that he becomes an above average starting player. Not bad for 2nd round pick.

Willy grabbed a very impressive 20.4% of all available rebounds while on the court. This isn’t an aberration either as this summer he is second on the Spanish National Team in rebounding despite playing off the bench behind Marc and Pau Gasol.

If Willy’s mark were translated over 36 minutes, he would have been 4th in the league in rebounding. That would place him narrowly behind DeAndre Jordan and Andre Drummond and ahead of stalwarts like Rudy Gobert, Dwight Howard, and Karl-Anthony Towns. This is tremendously valuable. Last year the Knicks ranked 13th in Rebound Differential at a modest +.05. If Willy plays starters minutes at near the rate he produced last year they could vault up those standings.

Speaking of the Spanish National Team, Willy has openly said that he considers Spanish teammates Pau and Marc Gasol both his mentors and role-models. Early in the season, Carmelo Anthony compared him favorably to Marc Gasol when speaking to the New York Daily News:

"I like the Big Baby. He's a guy who can score, he can pass, he can play D. He can do it all," Anthony said. "I try to not make comparisons but I see a lot of Marc Gasol in him. That's a great sign because Marc is a great player. So for him to have the skills knowing that he has at his age, it's something special."

And sometimes, if you squinted, you could see it too.

If we compare Pau’s 22-year-old season (his 2nd in the NBA) and Marc’s rookie season with Willy’s rookie campaign, the signs look very good for Willy. The tables below, per Basketball-Reference, compare Hernangomez and the Gasol brothers' per 36 numbers:

Player

Age

G

GS

FG%

FT%

TRB

AST

STL

BLK

TOV

PF

PTS

Marc Gasol

24

82

75

0.53

0.733

8.6

2

0.9

1.3

2.3

3.8

13.9

Pau Gasol

22

82

82

0.51

0.736

8.8

2.8

0.4

1.8

2.6

2.7

19

Hernangomez

22

72

22

0.529

0.728

13.6

2.6

1.1

1

2.7

4.1

16

And a few of their advanced numbers:

Player

PER

TS%

FTr

TRB%

AST%

STL%

BLK%

TOV%

USG%

WS/48

OBPM

DBPM

BPM

VORP

Marc Gasol

16.7

0.59

0.567

14.7

9.7

1.3

2.9

16.6

18.3

0.121

-0.2

1.5

1.2

2.1

Pau Gasol

20.7

0.57

0.506

13.7

13.6

0.6

3.4

13.5

24.1

0.138

1.5

0.6

2.1

3

Hernangomez

19

0.564

0.269

20.4

11.5

1.5

2.2

16.1

20.3

0.123

-0.6

0.6

0

0.7

Pau was a much more dominant scorer and Marc was an undeniable force on the defensive end, but Willy was seemingly an able contributor on both ends to such a degree that he grades out quite favorably compared to either of them.

But before we get too excited, some of these statistics deserve (huge) caveats in addition to some debunking.

Willy only played 18.4 minutes per game, so it is fair to wonder if his production would maintain its high efficiency if he was asked to play closer to 36 minutes per game. The early signs are that it would not.

Willy played primarily against second units, not starters. Over the 50 games in which Willy played coming off the bench his bpm was .5, but in the 22 games he started, his field goal percentage dropped 5 points and his bpm dropped to negative 3.8.

Further, defensive bpm is not a holistic evaluation of individual defensive talent. Russell Westbrook was number 2 in defensive bpm in 2016-17 and he is a net negative defender, much like Willy is right now.

Opponents shot 52.2% overall against Willy (Incidentally the same mark as Karl Anthony-Towns, an underrated bad defender) and 59.6% when he was defending the rim. Given that league average field goal percentage within 3 feet of the basket was 63.1% in 2016-17, this is not exactly quality rim protection.

In some ways, defensive basketball analytics is still in the primordial stages in the NBA, as anyone who was paying attention to Kawhi Leonard’s Synergy metrics last year could tell you. In short, every shot in a game is assigned a player by Synergy, so even if a player isn’t strictly “guarding” the shooter, whether the shot goes in or not will affect a players rating. For this reason, Post-Up and Isolation statistics are the only semi-reliable individual defensive metric info that Synergy provides as you can be relatively sure that the defender assigned the credit or blame is accurate. Unsurprisingly to anyone who watched much of Willy last year, in those two categories Willy scores abysmally.

Against post ups, Willy allowed 1.028 PPP, or in the bottom 22nd percentile per Synergy. While this grades out as merely “Below Average” in Synergy terms, this is unsustainably bad for a player that will be charged with anchoring a defense.

But don’t worry, it gets worse. Willy ranked in the bottom sixth percentile defending in isolation during his rookie season, letting in a ghastly 1.175 PPP. The Cleveland Cavaliers were the league’s premier isolation squad last year and they could only squeeze 0.99 PPP out of the one on one brilliance of LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. The Synergy designation of “Poor” doesn’t quite do it justice.

Players that could put it on the floor and drive against Willy usually met with very little resistance. He turned isolation basketball, generally one of the least efficient offenses in the NBA, into a go-to option for opposing teams.

Yes, rookies typically struggle on defense. But for Willy to have success at the center position the bare minimum he must be capable of doing is guarding his position (let alone developing as an effective help defender).

This doesn’t mean that Willy is hopeless, only that he has a long way to go. He has the size, speed and necessary desire to play quality defense as you can see demonstrated below where he snuffs the life out of a Gortat/Beal pick and roll.

His instincts didn’t seem all that bad either and his performance surely suffered due to the Knicks porous perimeter defense. In the below clip Willy correctly identifies the threat at the basket due to Rose dying on a pick and moves off his man to protect the hoop.

All that is to say, that from a certain point of view Willy had a very productive season. His rebounding, in particular, was elite. But he will need to make big strides on the defensive end to solidify his role as a quality starting center. Still, let’s not underrate a rookie with the ability to move like this.

Given that he was a second-round pick and the team-friendly nature of his contract (around $1.5 million annually through 2020) Willy’s play has been extremely encouraging and is yet another coup for the European scouting division of the New York Knicks. But the NBA is a rapidly changing ecosystem, where the value of a traditional center has never been less clear.

What is clear is that a score-first center that cannot play defense and provide effective rim protection has never had less value to a team. Add to that the fact that the Knicks already have the prototypical center of the future in one Kristaps Porzingis.

Kristaps is a rim running, shot blocking, 3 point bombing honest to goodness unicorn. KP might struggle against stronger centers now but long-term it’s a near certainty that his maximum value will come from actualizing his rim protecting potential. He’s already in the top five for opposing field goal percentage around the basket at 22.

This creates real questions about Willy’s long-term future fit with the team.  But for now, the Knicks should be satisfied that they have drafted another European prospect of Willy’s caliber.

If Willy can maintain close to his prior efficiency in a starting role and grow into a plus defender, wondering about the long-term fit of their 2 stud frontcourt players will be the best problem the Knicks have dealt with in years.

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