One thing Jeff Hornacek knows he has are options. His rotations may look inconsistent, but when your team has been in a bit of a tailspin like the Knicks have been in over the past month, minutes distribution becomes a meritocracy.
And while veteran players will always get the benefit of opportunity, there comes a time when you can’t ignore what you’re getting from a rookie.
So begins the case for Willy Hernangomez.
He produced 14 points and 10 rebounds in 24 minutes off the bench and led a second-quarter charge that saw the Knicks score 40 points to climb back into a game that had already seemed lost after just one quarter. His box score production was notable, but it’s also what he did on defense in the pick-and-roll that was a difference-maker.
“He just has a good feel for the game,” Hornacek said of the 21-year old. “Knows where to be.”
You know where he wants to be? On the court.
“I work hard every day and try to be ready,” he said. “When I get a few minutes, I try to expend my energy, do my best 100 percent every time.”
[By the way, doesn’t he look a bit like if Jimmy Fallon and Ben Affleck had a younger brother?]
Hernangomez had been playing well recently, but twice earned DNP-CDs over the previous five games. Hornacek gave minutes to Marshall Plumlee, who’s hustle and muscle helped get a win in Boston. And as Wally Szczerbiak suggested on Knicks Extra on MSG after the game, perhaps Plumlee showed Hernangomez exactly how hard he needed to play at both ends of the floor.
“He’s a young player but some young guys, young players, there’s no fear,” Hornacek said. “And that’s Billy.”
He’s a big, active body with great hands around the basket. The numbers tell you that right now, Hernangomez is the Knicks’ most effective big.
Consider that over the last six games, he has played four and is averaging 11.3 points and 10.5 rebounds in those games. He’s also a +32 in 79 minutes of play.
Starting center Joakim Noah also only played in four of the last six (due to injury) and his averages are 2.5 points and 11.5 rebounds with a -28 in 89 minutes. Kyle O’Quinn has played in all six games and has averages of 4.8 points and 4.3 rebounds with a -12 in 71 minutes.
Yes, Hernangomez has made a strong case for more minutes.
The challenge for Hornacek is who gets cut out of the rotation and what impact does it have on the locker room? That’s the politics of coaching.
So the Knicks won for the third time in their last seven games, with three of the four losses by a combined total of six points. These have been close games and when you consider the struggle it’s been for the Knicks (20-26) to get wins this month, it’s amazing to say they’re still just 2 1/2 games out of a playoff spot with 36 games to go.
They’ll try to put consecutive wins together for the first time since Dec. 22 when they face the Mavericks in Dallas on Wednesday night. We’ll have the pregame coverage on Knicks Game Night at 8 p.m. on MSG.