Jeff Hornacek didn’t say anything most of us were already thinking in regards to the Knicks playoff reality at this point in the season, but what he did say was how important these remaining games are for the new priority: next season.
Hornacek pointed to “some of our other guys” who should take advantage of this time to “show what they really can do and build something for next year.”
Look no further than Willy Hernangomez.
He entered the season as somewhat of a mystery. The Knicks gave the 76ers cash and future considerations (a pair of second round picks) for the 6-foot-11 big man, whom Philadelphia drafted with a second round pick in 2015. Hernangomez, at 21, came with little expectations, but whispers of a Marc Gasol-like upside.
As this season progressed and his minutes increased, so did his production — and the anticipation for his potential.
And now the four-year, $5.8 million deal (a cap-friendly $1.4 million per) he signed to join the Knicks looks like a steal. Hernangomez, since the All-Star break, is among the leaders in rookie scoring (10.9 points per game), rebounding (9.9 per game), offensive rebounding (3.2 per game) and minutes (24.3 per game). He’s shooting 57% from the field and his per-36 averages since the All-Star break are eye-popping: 16.1 points and 14.6 rebounds per 36 minutes.
He posted his eighth double-double of the season in the win over Indiana, with an impressive stat line of 13 points, 16 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals and a blocked shot in 31:21. He made some huge plays going up against a long and athletic young big man, Pacers center Myles Turner, in the latter stages of the game.
That came after Kristaps Porzingis left the game with a thigh contusion, which saw him hit the deck and slap the floor in agony. For a moment, there was a gasp of concern throughout The Garden. “It was pretty painful at the moment,” Porzingis said, but added the injury isn’t serious.
KP then said while he was on the trainer’s table getting treatment, he enjoyed seeing Hernangomez step in and play a critical role in a win. On consecutive possessions, Hernangomez gave great second effort on the glass that locked up the win: first, he aggressively secured a defensive rebound in traffic on a free throw miss, and at the other end reached to slap-back an offensive rebound to keep possession.
Hernangomez and Porzingis, two close friends who started together as teenagers for Baloncesto Sevilla of the Spanish league ACB, now appear to be the skyline of the Knicks frontcourt for years to come. We’ve seen great chemistry between them on the court on offense, but against some NBA teams that play small, can the Knicks keep them in the lineup together?
As we said in the previous blog, what we’ve learned is that KP is most effective on defense at the center position because of how well he defends the rim and can block shots. But Hernangomez is also more effective when he’s in the painted area for defense and his rebounding.
So who defends the stretch-4s?
Hernangomez revealed a change he made in his pick-and-roll coverage — he stays high rather than drop off — and said it worked well for him. That’s a good sign in a league where pick-and-roll defense can make or break your career as a big man (see Jahlil Okafor).
So if Hernangomez masters pick-and-roll defense, can Porzingis work on his quickness and activity enough to handle stretch-4 players who will try to pull him away from the paint? We saw how often Brook Lopez drained threes on Sunday and then there was the first half on Saturday when Tobias Harris went to work against KP from the perimeter.
There’s more learning to be done and more strategy to consider. In today’s NBA, can a team have two big men and still manage to be a good interior defensive team?
In recent years, the Memphis Grizzlies were one of the NBA’s best defensive teams with Gasol and Zach Randolph. The Clippers have been among the NBA’s top teams with DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin. The New Orleans Pelicans, with Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins, are trying to see if they can make it work.
The Knicks, with Porzingis and Hernangomez, will need to figure this out too.