Willy Hernangomez did not start for the Spanish national team at the European championships this summer – not with the Gasol brothers going strong.
But the 6-foot-11 bullish Spanish center figured as the lock to start for the Knicks in the pivot, especially after gleaning valuable intel from the great Gasols. In addition, Joakim Noah faced a 12-game season-opening suspension because of his PED violation.
Then the Carmelo Anthony trade happened two days before training camp and Oklahoma City’s behemoth Enes Kanter became part of the haul.
A battle royale for the starting center job has ensued during Knicks camp. Hernangomez was expected to make his first start of preseason Sunday in Brooklyn after Kyle O’Quinn and Kanter were starters in the opening two preseason matches.
None of this has fazed Hernangomez, who still has a lot going for him — a strong chemistry and friendship with starting power forward Kristaps Porzingis.
Hernangomez is always mentioned as part of the young corps the new regime of Steve Mills and Scott Perry have focused on developing. He weaved a solid first year in which he was named to the NBA’s All-Rookie First Team.
“I have more confidence in myself,’’ Hernangomez said before facing the Nets. “My second training camp with the team, I know the team and coaching staff better. It’s easier for me to come back to the NBA. For sure, it was an unbelievable learning year. I learned something new every day. I learned as a player and person, too.’’
Averaging 13.9 minutes, Hernangomez netted 7.6 points and 5.9 rebounds and shot 52 percent for Spain, which won the bronze at EuroBasket. Defensive rebounding and agility in the low post are his strengths. Developing a more reliable mid-range jumper and getting nimbler on defense are areas at which he needs to improve.
Practicing and playing alongside the Gasols from late July until mid-September figures to have aided the 23-year-old’s growth. Hernangomez called his summer alliance with the Gasols “something special.’’
“I think I’m really more complete player right now,’’ Hernangomez said. “They gave me great advice. They told me a couple of tricks about reading the defense, how to be more focused during the game and before the game and be more ready. On offense, a couple of tricks Pau showed me. Marc [showed me] how to play in the low post and read the defense because now everybody knows me a little more.”
At some juncture, the Knicks regime will need to make a trade to alleviate the glut. It could be as small as trading O’Quinn. Or something bigger, like using the stretch provision to move on from Noah, who has three years left on his monstrous pact.
For now, Hernangomez said he is enjoying the extra competition.
“We have competition between us,’’ Hernangomez said. “It’s special to have a second year with Joakim. He’s a great defender and a great mentor for me in the NBA. He spent all the time with me, gives me great advice during the games, too. Enes, I can learn things from him — a big guy who can play in the low post. I think I can add things from him in my game. It’s going to be a challenge to fight every day.”
Kanter is a prolific scorer, even off the bench last season in Oklahoma City. He’s only 25. One of them may have to go in another blockbuster some day. Maybe that’s part of what this season is about.
Regarding the glut, Hornacek said: “We have four centers. We can’t play all of them.’’
Trading Porzingis’ best friend on the team, however, wouldn’t be an easy sell.
“KP for me is like a brother,’’ Hernangomez said. “It’s something special. He makes it easier for me — helps me on the court and off.”
They were teammates, too, in Seville. Mills, while scouting Porzingis, noticed Hernangomez, and they got him in the second round after executing a trade with Philly in 2015.
“We speak less Spanish last year with new players,’’ Hernangomez said. “So everyone can understand, we have to speak English. If we want nobody to understand, we speak Spanish.’’
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