The sudden emergence of rookie center Willy Hernangomez can be attributed to a number of concrete factors:
- Hernangomez has grown more comfortable playing the NBA game.
- His confidence has soared as coach Jeff Hornacek has given the 6-foot-11 center more playing time.
- He’s added about 13 pounds of muscle since last season, allowing him to parlay his strength and an impressively quick first step, into a tour de force in the lane.
All of these factors have contributed to Hernangomez’s recent success. He’s averaged 11.3 points on 55.6-percent shooting and 11.3 rebounds over the last five games.
But there is an abstract, albeit no less important reason, why the former Spanish star is flourishing.
Hernangomez is at his best when he feels a bond with those around him.
He didn’t have that last season when he played for Real Madrid. The European sports power had agreed to a buyout of Hernangomez, so they used him sparingly, opting to develop other players.
“Last year in Spain I had a difficult situation, I didn’t play a lot,’’ Hernangomez said. “It was a great experience to be ready for this.”
“I wanted to play last year, learned a lot. I couldn’t control that. I have a chance to be on the court now and try to show my teammates I can play.”
Hernangomez has shown his Knicks teammates day-in and day-out, not just game-in and game-out, that he can play. He feels he’s truly become a part of this Knicks’ family, which taps into his innermost fabric.
“I feel at my best when I am around people I trust and want them to trust me,’’ Hernangomez told MSGNetworks.com earlier this season. “Nothing is more important to me than my family and friends. Most of my friends I have since [I was] six or seven. I think of myself as a very loyal person.’’
Hernangomez felt comfortable with the Knicks from the get-go. He was teammates with forward Kristaps Porzingis in Spain and played against forward Mindaugas Kuzminskas of Lithuania.
Kuzminskas once joked he was thrilled to be playing with Hernangomez so he could continue to work on his Spanish. Upon hearing this, Hernangomez joked, “Yes, Spanish is more popular than Lithuanian.’’
But he needed to prove himself on the court and the universal language of the NBA, of course, is production. Hernangomez’s play has spoken loud and clear of late.
He rocked the Boston Celtics with 17 points on 8-of-13 shooting and 11 rebounds in the Knicks 117-106 win on Jan. 18. On Monday, he battered the Pacers for 14 points on 5-of-8 shooting and 10 rebounds in a 109-103 win in Indianapolis.
The Knicks (20-27) will need that kind of effort Friday night when they host the Charlotte Hornets (23-23) at The Garden (7 p.m., MSG Network). The Hornets are currently in seventh place in the Eastern Conference, three and a half games ahead of the Knicks.
“I know I’m young; I need to improve a lot of things, but I’m ready,” Hernangomez told reporters this week. “Always when I have the chance to be on the court, I try to do my best. I try to spend all my energy on my teammates.”
“If they can see my energy and the effort, I feel pretty happy because I feel great when I can help the team get wins and get better, and improve the team.”
Hernangomez’s teammates are seeing him become a force in the paint. Those that played with him in Europe have noticed the added 13 pounds of muscle. They’ve seen his improved ability to score with either hand.
“He’s playing great now,” Porzingis said. “He’s coming with a lot of energy, running the floor hard, he’s in great shape. You can see that. He’s everywhere. He’s getting dunks, blocking shots. He’s looking comfortable out there.”
Which is giving Hornacek a good problem.
When Joakim Noah suffered a sprained ankle, Hornacek moved Porzingis to the ‘5’ spot and Carmelo Anthony to power forward, a position he dominated in the summer Olympics.
With Noah healthy again and Kyle O’Quinn playing some of the best ball of his career, the center position suddenly has become quite crowded.
Hernangomez had another strong outing in the Knicks 103-95 loss in Dallas on Wednesday night. He scored eight points and grabbed a career-high 16 rebounds.
“He’s got great knowledge of the game, understanding and feel,” Hornacek said. “He has no fear when he gets out there about who he’s playing against. When you have a guy who knows how to play the game, a lot of good things happen.”