In big wins against Dallas and Detroit last week, Kristaps Porzingis soared on the offensive end and received key minutes at the five position as Joakim Noah remained on the bench. With the veteran big man sitting out Sunday's contest against the Hawks, the Knicks figured to play even more small ball with Carmelo Anthony and Porzingis at the four and five.
While that did happen for certain stretches, there's no way New York could have gone small all game against a much more physical Atlanta frontline featuring Paul Millsap and Dwight Howard. With that in mind, rookie Willy Hernangomez received a well anticipated opportunity.
The youngster has had intriguing performances already this season, including a 14-point effort against the Nets and a 12-rebound outing against the Celtics. On Sunday, however, he received the minutes necessary (a season-high 29) to put it all together and show his potential once and for all.
Alas, Hernangomez's seven-point, eight-rebound effort in the win over Atlanta may not jump off the stat sheet too much. Still, it became clear very quickly that when Howard began playing bully ball, Hernangomez wasn't going to let up. A three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year award winner, the 6'11" and 265 pound Howard looked as though he could throw New York's rookie around like a rag doll if he wanted to. But as Howard looked to assert his way inside on both ends of the floor, Hernangomez proved he wasn't going to be pushed around. Howard threw elbows, aggressively crashed the glass, and looked to back the 22-year-old down on the interior.
Much to Howard's dismay, Hernangomez held his ground. Howard had a good game, but certainly had to work for it with Hernangomez on the floor. Passing the eye test comes down to many different things. In this case, all someone needed to do was watch Howard's frustration to understand the impact Hernangomez was having on the game.
The two went at it all game long, and Hernangomez's own physicality undoubtedly helped spark the eventual Knicks victory. This win was propelled by a very strong defensive effort, so it makes sense that Kyle O'Quinn and Derrick Rose dually led the team in plus/minus with a +12. As fate would have it, Hernangomez was right behind them, boasting a +11.
The NBA may truly be in an age where small ball is beginning to rule all, but Hernangomez's gritty effort proved there's still a need for players like him today. As the Knicks look to match up with varied opponents on a nightly basis, he undoubtedly should continue to play a valuable role. His effort against Howard is sure to be quite the learning experience for him. He met the challenge head on.
One might have expected Hernangomez to have trouble with Howard, but that wasn't the case. Instead of getting schooled and having to learn from his mistakes, the reserve will likely be asked by the Knicks to put forth more of that same effort going forward.