Willy Hernangomez was a bit hesitant to answer a question about his offseason plans to prepare for next season.
There are still games to be won and improvements to be made this year, he said. But Hernangomez, who has emerged as the surprise player of the Knicks this season, acknowledged he is formulating an offseason plan and has no intention of resting on the success of his rookie season.
“There is so much I know I can improve on,’’ Hernangomez said. “I can get stronger. I can improve my shot. My defense. I have a lot of work to do on my defense.
“I am happy with the progress I’ve made but what is the saying, ‘scratch the surface?’ Yes, this is how I feel.’’
The Knicks weren’t certain what they were getting in the 6-foot-11, 255-pound Hernangomez. Now, there is an optimism that Hernangomez and Kristaps Porzingis can form a frontcourt bedrock of the future.
It’s a concept not lost on the two big men. They were teammates in Europe, where a friendship blossomed. They played against Mindaugas Kuzminskas, who said the trio has discussed working out in the offseason.
“It’s going to be great if we can make that work,’’ said Hernangomez. “We know we can better each other. We can be ready for next year, make a couple of steps up and make a big impact.
“I think if I can make improvements, me and Kristaps can play the four/five. This is what we can work on.’’
The Knicks season began with great optimism focused on, ‘The Big Three’ – Carmelo Anthony, Derrick Rose and Porzingis. Anthony has sat the last two games and four of the last six with a sore back. The Knicks learned prior to Sunday’s loss to the Boston Celtics that Rose will need arthroscopic knee surgery and is done for the season.
He’s averaging 7.8 points and 6.8 rebounds in just 17.8 minutes. His 53.7-percent shooting from the field is tops among rookies. He’s had nine double-doubles.
“His offense was always there. It’s in his genes from his mother,’’ Kuzminskas said, referring to Hernangomez’s mother, Margarita “Wonny” Geuer, who played for Spain in the 1992 Olympics.
“He has a feel for the game you can’t coach. Either you are born with it or you aren’t. Early in the season, we had a lot of very good big men so he wasn’t getting much minutes. But now with injuries, he is playing more and you see what he can do.’’
So where does Hernangomez go from here? How about developing into one of the best all-around centers in the game?
“For me, offense is easy,’’ Hernangomez said. “I feel I am an offensive player. I have to do better on my defense. Really, really focus.
“I want to have great offense and great defense, and be a complete player.’’
It would make the acquisition of Hernangomez one of the best trades in Knicks history. The Knicks traded for Hernangomez in a 2015 Draft Day deal with the Philadelphia 76ers, who took the Spanish league star with the 35th pick. The Knicks got him for a pair of second-round draft choices.
Hernangomez had to spend last season with Real Madrid as his buyout was finalized. He played sparingly as the team sought to develop players that would remain with the European powerhouse.
His stats dipped from 10.2 points and 6.2 boards a game in 21.1 minutes with Baloncesto Sevilla — where he played alongside Porzingis — to 6.6 points and 3.8 rebounds in 12.6 minutes. It made Hernangomez a little more tentative when the season began.
“First couple of months I was thinking how to make the least amount of mistakes possible,’’ he said. “Right now I just play. I don’t think too much. I just let my body play, follow my instincts.’’
Hernangomez smiled when asked how much different he feels today compared to the beginning of the season.
He played sparingly in Spain and joined a roster that had Joakim Noah, Kyle O’Quinn, and the 7-foot-3 Porzingis, who has played some five this season in addition to his natural stretch four position. But Hernangomez caught the attention of the coaching staff with his energy and his skill quickly became apparent.
“Whew,’’ said Hernangomez. “It’s way, way different since the start. My level of confidence is so high. I feel I can do all the things on the court now. I want to keep working the same and help the team win this year, and more next year.’’