For an organization who’s had many disappointing draft-picks in recent years, the New York Knicks haven’t been successful with developing their prospects long-term.

Former players Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari, who were both first-round selections, played very well during their first few seasons in New York. Nevertheless, they were soon to be traded midway through the 2010-11 season. And for what was a three-team “blockbuster” the Denver Nuggets ultimately sent All-Star Carmelo Anthony to the Knicks, while New York traded Chandler and Gallinari to Denver.

Although, New York’s most recent first-round picks turned out to be even worse than Chandler and Gallinari:

  • Jordan Hill, who was selected 8th overall in the 2009 NBA Draft, didn’t receive much playing time with the Knicks. He averaged 4.0 points and 3.7 rebounds in only 10.5 minutes per game. After just 24 games into the season, Hill was traded to the Houston Rockets in a three-team deal.
  • Iman Shumpert, who was selected 17th overall in the 2011 NBA Draft, might’ve had the best two-way potential of any previous draft pick in the last decade. He had a very promising rookie year with averages of 9.5 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists, and 1.7 steals in 59 games (66 game season following the NBA lockout). However, Shumpert wasn’t able to consistently improve his offensive game, as he, along with J.R Smith, were traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2015.
  • Tim Hardaway Jr, who was selected 24th overall in the 2013 NBA Draft, was another first-round pick to only spend two seasons with New York. During his rookie season, he averaged 10.3 points and shot 36% from three. In his sophomore year, Hardaway’s efficiency slipped terribly, averaging 11.5 points on nearly 39% shooting from the field and 34% from three. Hardaway was eventually traded to the Atlanta Hawks on draft night (2015).

As it’s been noted, it’s going to be vital for the Knicks to prioritize their prospect development. For a team struggling to compete in the Eastern Conference (28-46), New York seems to have two common paths to decide on.

The first option is luring free agents, starting with an impressively deep 2018 class. This option is more likely, since the Knicks are willing to contend heavily in the postseason. New York has approximately $43,409,656 in the luxury tax heading into this summer, and for a big market, they want to remain an ideal destination for the league’s best upcoming free-agents.

The second option, of course, is to begin their rebuilding project, which will give them the green light to tank for more lottery picks. But again, that isn’t likely.

With the lights of Madison Square Garden shining brightly on Latvian sophomore Kristaps Porzingis, there’s no denying that New York is preparing to keep him long-term, whether they’re building to become postseason contenders or not. However, with Porzingis becoming a rising star, he isn’t the only prospect for whom the Knicks should be (if they already aren’t) invested in. Don’t peep at your television screen now, but 22 year-old rookie Willy Hernangomez just might be a franchise cornerstone in New York.

And perhaps, it could be for many, many, seasons.

2016-17 SEASON AVERAGES (64 games, 14 starts): 7.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.5 steals, and 0.6 blocks, on 54% field-goals in 17.6 minutes per game. 

Standing at 6’11” and 240 lbs, Hernangomez immediately gives you an interior presence with his imposing frame. He’s in terrific shape for his size, and he moves really well around the floor. More inevitably, he can play very physically against the league’s premier centers.

*Note: Hernangomez is currently coming across averages of 15.7 points, 13.8 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.2 steals, and 1.2 blocks per 36 minutes. 

And as far as his strengths may appeal, Hernangomez has a comfortable feel to his offensive game. He has such great hands to secure different types of passes, giving him an ability to finish with both hands around the basket. In this area, he draws reasonable comparisons to Memphis Grizzlies All-Star Marc Gasol (Thanks, ‘Melo), and it’s not just because they’re both from the same country (Spain).

Hernangomez is already a considerable pick-and-roll/low-post option for the Knicks. They don’t always look for him to score, but whether it’s finishing a reverse layup after driving past a defender, or a left-handed hook with the shot-clock winding down, he always seems to be in the right place at the right time.

Going into depth, Hernangomez shoots 61% in the restricted area, and 54% in the non-restricted area. And while he’ll give you some fancy baseline hooks or emphatic one-handed throwdowns, the majority of his points come off offensive rebounds, such as tip-ins and put-backs.

Willy is a prolific rebounder for his age, and should continue to be once he becomes more acclimated to the NBA. He’s currently ranking second amongst all rookies in rebounding, under Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (7.8). And per 100 possessions, Hernangomez averages 6.3 offensive rebounds and 12.8 defensive rebounds.

If the Knicks, who are actually fourth in the league in total rebounds (45.4), can continue to receive this kind of effort from Hernangomez, he and Kristaps will be an exciting yet effective frontcourt to watch. And while Hernangomez continues to play large minutes at center, this alleviates Porzingis to remain at power forward, which is his natural position.

The two-man lineup of Hernangomez and Porzingis have a Net Rating of -2.1, but in 488 minutes played, their 106.6 Defensive Rating is better than most four/five combinations from which head coach Jeff Hornacek has ran.

I personally would enjoy seeing New York move forward with Porzingis and Hernangomez (as starters), since they’ve had the experience playing together on with the Sevilla team last year. But if you’re the Knicks, it’s much more preferred to continue exploiting different lineups, as it’s not a rush for Hernangomez to start right away.

The Knicks do have options at center. Kyle O’Quinn has provided consistency off the bench, as they signed him back in 2015 to a four-year, $16,000,000 deal. But when the 2016-17 season began, Neither Hernangomez or O’Quinn were expected to be full-time starters, as former Defensive Player of The Year winner Joakim Noah was brought in for four years worth $70,000,000 last summer.

Hernangomez has been receiving plenty of minutes following Noah’s absence, as he’s missed much of the season due to arthroscopic knee surgery. Noah will also be suspended 20 games for violating the league’s Anti-Drug policy, which digs a deeper hole for the former Chicago Bulls All-Star. His overall future with the team is uncertain, and even worse, the 32 year-old just might be a former shell of himself.

But for now, the door has flew open for Hernangomez — as he’s now able to showcase his abilities on the court. And while he has some very intriguing parts to his game, there are certainly areas where he’ll need to improve on.

 

Hernangomez doesn’t necessarily have the highest basketball IQ in the world, and that’s putting it mildly. While he tends to get into foul trouble quite often, most of it is due to how hard he plays in limited minutes. However, it’ll be critical for him to continue understanding basic plays, especially on the defensive end. Coming into the league, effort was a growing concern, but it hasn’t been too much of an issue so far.

Willy also tends to become overconfident in his game. While most of it is predicated off of simply not knowing his limits, he gets caught forcing passes/drives for which he knows he can’t execute. But I believe once he settles down and adjusts to the speed of the game, he’ll be fine.

Overall, I see plenty, and I mean heaps of potential for Willy Hernangomez. I’m rooting for Hornacek to continue handing him quality minutes (somewhere in the 20-25 range), whether Noah is in the lineup or not. I also wouldn’t be surprised if Hernangomez ends up as a full-time starter within the next two seasons.

In the time being, I’m enjoying every minute he gets.

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