Coming into the season, Willy Hernangomez was regarded as a raw prospect who would need time to develop and make the necessary adjustments in his game.
From the opening tip in October through January, the big man took a back seat to Joakim Noah and Kyle O'Quinn. Seeing limited action was for the best, as the Knicks were hoping to allow Hernangomez's body to get used to the rigorous schedule of the NBA while relying upon proven veterans in the meantime.
Unfortunately, it was Noah's body that proved unable to hold up over the course of the season. In turn, Hernangomez's rookie season has steadily become a trial by fire. Emerging as New York's starting center, he hasn't disappointed.
With one more game left, the Knicks will soon dim the lights and look to put this season behind them. Alas, Hernangomez has represented a glimmering hope. The burly big man now leads all NBA rookies with 11 double-doubles. His minutes skyrocketed from 15.2 per game in January to a much more substantial 25.9 in February. Hernangomez hasn't looked back, averaging 11.7 points (on 51 percent shooting from the field) and 9.2 rebounds as a starter.
His physicality is without a doubt his biggest strong suit. He knows how to use his body and can work his way inside to aid his impact on both ends of the floor. It comes naturally to the youngster to back down his defenders and look to cash in underneath the basket for easy hoops. On the defensive end, Hernangomez is very strong. He crashes the glass and puts up resistance against those looking to drive inside. He doesn't get pushed around easily.
There's certainly room for improvement. His shot-blocking ability leaves much to be desired. He's more of a bruiser. Hernangomez will bump bodies with an opponent much sooner than he'll swat back a shot. His strength makes that a good initial strategy, but can also lead to more foul calls. There's little doubt he has the potential, however. He's already begun to make major strides on offense by developing more mobility and a mid-range jumper. Now the question is: can he make smart decisions on the defensive end?
New York wasn't looking to thrust Hernangomez into a starting role, but here they are. His stellar play and promise shouldn't be ignored. As it is, the team needs him. Noah has only proven to be unreliable.
Was there a plan for Hernangomez to star in the front court with Kristaps Porzingis? That's hard to say, but this at least appears to be a legitimate possibility. Hernangomez has quickly exceeded expectations. That said, his emergence creates a bit of irony.
The Knicks have been resistant to play Porzingis more at the five, but he may simply be a better fit there than Hernangomez. This team needs a rim protector. If New York relies upon Hernangomez to serve in that capacity, he'll be left vulnerable if the depth isn't there.
Much like Porzingis was in his rookie season, Hernangomez is simply more prone to foul trouble. Perhaps with time that'll change, but the rookie might be better suited defended stretch fours out on the perimeter. This would allow the Knicks to utilize Porzingis' size, lengths, and better instincts down low. If their guards get beat off the dribble, New York will need a better line of defense behind them.
Hernangomez's potential has provided the Knicks with a bit of excitement during an underwhelming season. If this team wants to compete and make improvements, however, they'll need to help grow Hernangomez's awareness on the defensive end. That'll come with positioning him properly, too. He's shown flashes of brilliance, but becoming the full player the Knicks will need him to be will take time.