December 1, 2017, 1:23 pm
Juan and Willy Hernangomez is another pair of siblings that have made their way into the NBA the last few years. We will be focusing on the youngest one today, Juancho Hernangomez, a sharpshooting combo forward who was the No. 15 selection in the 2016 NBA draft by the Denver Nuggets. It’s really surprising that Juan was a player who did not receive much attention coming into the draft while his fellow international Dragan Bender received the majority of the coverage and ended up being drafted fourth overall.
Experienced scouts will tell you that, when assessing a kid’s potential, you have to be able to connect with his family, his coaches and his teammates to get a better understanding of who that player exactly is. Truth of the matter is that these days a lot of NBA teams don’t have regional scouts on the ground anymore since video highlights are providing plenty of material to be studied online. The Nuggets are the exception to that trend and it really pays off as, when it comes to international scouting, they are considered to be one of the best in the business. Their front office discovered and hired Masai Ujiri as a scout back in 2003 while the team has invested 11 draft picks in players born outside the United States in the last few years. Nikola Jokic and Evan Fournier are obviously the most successful ones but Juancho is the Nuggets’ latest international hidden gem.
Hernangomez is coming from a family with deep basketball background as his father played professionally in Spain for one of the most successful middle-tier teams (CB Estudiantes) and his mother was an Olympian in the sport of basketball. Juan also has two siblings playing professional basketball, with his sister Andrea also playing for Estudiantes and his brother Willy a member of the New York Knicks since 2015.
Juancho had a pretty successful tenure in Europe before entering the NBA draft pool. He averaged 9.3 points and 5.7 rebounds per game while shooting 45.5 percent from the field in roughly 24 minutes of action per game with Estudiantes. Playing as a combo forward in Europe he often dominated against his less athletic opponents but the Nuggets weren’t sure if he was ready to contribute immediately since the transition to the NBA style is often rocky for many international players. In fact, their initial reaction was that they were going to stash him overseas but his demeanor prevailed since he chose to prove himself and play in the 2016 Summer League instead of joining the Spanish national team in the Olympics. He really stood out averaging 11.0 points, 8.3 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1.0 steals per game forcing his way into the Nuggets opening night roster. So what’s so special about him?
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We have seen DeMarcus Cousins become a ball handler this year and running the Pelicans’ offense, especially during Rondo’s absence early in the season. I really wish this would happen more at the youth level in United States instead of simply having the tallest guy play the center position. The difference with European basketball is that coaches develop everyone as a guard and then when the kids grow, their skill set is there. There are many examples of Euro bigs in the NBA who make a difference with their passing skills and Juan is slowly becoming one of them.
His game fits perfectly the evolution of modern basketball with the need for big men who are able to switch in the PnR and hit shots from distance. The Spaniard is most effective as a catch and shoot threat while Mike Malone has mostly utilized him as a stretch small forward. In an offense with constant moving, cutting and passing defenses collapse and are unable to predict the various outcomes of dribble hand-off action (DHO). The DHO is a variation of PnR with a big body running with the ball towards a guard who is simultaneously cutting in the middle. Jokic’s combination of vision, accurate passing and anticipation creates opportunities for easy layups or uncontested three point shots. His teammates have developed sensational chemistry with him and know there’s always a good chance that the effort of sprinting through a screen will be rewarded. Here’s a sequence where Jokic runs a DHO, Gary Harris receives the ball, drives to the basket and the defense falls for it while he is able to find Juan for the easy three.
Denver didn’t know what to do with Jokic until last January when Malone decided to run more DHO plays instead of traditional PnR action and the results have been extremely positive. It’s also one of the reasons we haven’t been so high on Jamal Murray this season here at Hoop Ball since he is used more as a spot-up shooter instead of a typical ball handler in a Nuggets dynamic offense that also added Paul Millsap. The challenge with all the cuts is that they force defenses to make difficult choices. Many of the assists in the Nuggets’ offense result from all the cutting, which can lead to open shots even when the cutter isn’t receiving the pass. Look at Jokic leading the fast break while Kenneth Faried runs into the middle and Jamal Murray and Juancho quickly move to the corners manufacturing uncontested looks.
With a collection of playmakers in Denver and by playing both forward positions Hernangomez can be inserted into any lineup helping the offense make the most out of it because defenses simply have to respect his shooting. He is not going to post eye-popping numbers but his impact on the offense comes from what the defense is forced to do while he is on the floor. Here is Will Barton running a simple PnR with Mason Plumlee where Kyle Kuzma opts to stop the drive to the basket instead of closing in on Juancho who drains the three.
Possessing one of the quickest releases Juancho accomplished something almost unprecedented for his size and for a player in his role. He shot 40.2 percent from behind the three point line matching only four rookie forwards in history who have been as efficient in their first season: Larry Bird, Mike Miller, Paul Pierce and Vladimir Radmanovic. In his nine starts last year Juancho netted 11.3 points and grabbed 6.1 rebounds but he is not just a very good pick and pop player. He has the strength to set screens and the footwork to leap open for a jump shot and is also a very athletic and mobile player who can identify gaps in the defense and score easy buckets around the rim. Here is him capitalizing on Bogdanovic’s mistake to rotate and cover Jokic after Z-Bo’s slow switch.
Other than his early days with Estudiantes Juancho doesn’t get to play a lot with the ball in his hands. Regardless, he can easily serve as a secondary playmaker when needed and take some pressure off the guards by reading the floor, moving the ball, and making the offense more fluid. And although accustomed to the catch and shoot action he will gladly go for the extra pass.
Juancho is considered an average athlete at the NBA level and that’s why he has put a lot of work on his upper body, becoming stronger and developing a solid frame without losing any mobility and explosiveness. What makes him an above average rebounder is that he’s got a knack for the ball and is able to anticipate its’ bounce off the rim. He has maintained a 12 percent rebounding rate in his two seasons so far (Rebounding rate is an estimate of the percentage of missed shots a player rebounded while he was on the floor). To give you a perspective of that number Paul Millsap had a 12.4 percent rate last season with the Hawks. Juan is especially active on the offensive side of the ball and even bigger guys struggle to box him out once he establishes position.
The Nuggets’ success in recent years has to do with them becoming a great all around rebounding team. Paul Millsap is still one of the league’s best rebounders, Nikola Jokic makes up for his lack of verticality by positioning himself well around the basket while Plumlee and Faried are good enough athletes to contribute in their limited roles. Hernangomez crashing the boards from the wing is an added bonus as the Nuggets rank first in offensive rebounds in the NBA this season with a whooping 12.3 per game and are also a borderline top-5 team on the defensive side as well.
What impresses the most about Hernangomez is his stamina and energy as he is constantly moving and hustling for a rebound or a loose ball, finding ways to impact his team, even when not directly involved in the offense. The kid simply has a great motor which is something that cannot be taught and whenever he steps on the court he goes full speed. Look at him intervening the passing lane and driving cost to coast for the layup in this fast break opportunity.
That energy level has a tremendous impact on the defensive side of the ball and Hernangomez’s defensive potential could be the key to becoming more than a rotation player. He is a great athlete who can efficiently defend wings who play the three and he provides the Nuggets with a much needed amount of length on the floor. In his rookie season he averaged 1.3 steals and 0.5 blocks per 36 minutes and he is the perfect tool for a coach like Michael Malone who enjoys having hustle players that compete on both ends of the floor. There has been a lot of talk about whether he is playing out of position but I believe Malone is being very smart playing him at the three while having him defend the PnR by either hedging to stop ball handlers or switching onto smaller guards. Take a look into this play to understand his impact as a relentless defender who can turn defense into easy offense.
Lots Of Room For Improvement
Juancho still has to work on expanding his offensive skills as he lacks a solid traditional post game and fails to finish against bigger opponents. He rarely utilizes his mobility in order to take position back to the basket or maneuver his way around it with some footwork. The lack of a reliable hook shot and his inability to create space translates into him simply running against defenders and getting easily blocked. That also hurts his chances of getting to the line and scoring easy points as he has been a career 70 percent shooter from the charity line.
Last year he was scorching hot at the Pepsi Center knocking down 46.2 percent of his shots from beyond the arc but he made just 34.9 percent as a starter. This could just be a direct result of fatigue but the percentage has to improve and so does his one on one defense.
The Spanish sharpshooter will be an integral to the Nuggets for a long time as a jack of all trades who can stretch the floor, run the lanes and provide help defense. When Danilo Gallinari departed Denver this summer, the Nuggets’ lack of a corresponding move to add another wing proved that they are confident in Hernangomez being able to fill some of that void. He hasn’t disappointed becoming a regular part of the Nuggets’ rotation proving that they were smart to draft him before the rest of the league took notice.
Thank you for reading and please don’ t hesitate to let us know about an international prospect that you would want to learn more about in the next weeks.