As Jeff Van Gundy watched Willy Hernangomez can a midrange jumper with roughly 40 seconds remaining in Wednesday’s victory over Brooklyn, the ESPN commentator could no longer contain himself. “I love Hernan-gomez,” squealed the last great Knicks coach, with all the cadence and fervor of Mike Myers saying “I loved ‘Prince of Tides’” on the old SNL Coffee Talk sketches.
It was the culmination of a strong 14-point, 6-rebound, 2-block effort for the young Spaniard, who had not played in New York’s previous three games. Brandon Jennings, Mindaugas Kuzminskas and Sasha Vujacic (???) all contributed to the Knicks’ second-half bench bench surge — by far the best performance by the second unit this season — but Hernangomez was the anchor.
Sure, the Nets have little in the way of talent, but it wasn’t a hugely surprising development given what we’ve seen from the kid in limited action. Willy knows where to be on the court, has the soft hands needed to catch passes from a wild-man point guard like Jennings, keeps the ball moving with his passes, finishes at the rim on one end, and occasionally finds his way between opposing ball-handlers and the rim on the other end.
The sample size is minuscule, to be sure, but consider the dude he replaced in the second half as the Knicks’ backup center — a dude who has increasingly shown he can do none of the things I listed above.
One of the Knicks’ biggest problems this season is also one of the easiest to quantify — simply put, the dropoff from starting center Joakim Noah to primary backup Kyle O’Quinn is preposterous. The team’s lowest net rating is with O’Quinn on the court and their highest net rating comes with him off the court, which gives you a breakdown like this:
For approximately a quarter of every game they play, the Knicks put Kyle O’Quinn on the court and hemorrhage buckets all over the hardwood. O’Quinn shows flashes of brilliance, but those flashes haven’t added up to jack squat.
O’Quinn is still fairly young (26 years old), but replacing him in the rotation would not be yet another case of New York squandering development by tossing out some old codger (-cough- Sasha -cough-). Willy is a mere 22 years old, the closest Knick in age to the franchise’s future, Kristaps Porzingis. Maybe he will struggle if given consistent minutes — hell, he’ll almost certainly struggle, as all rookies do. But just take one more look at that chart — O’Quinn has been a disaster.
The time has come to unveil Willyball (pronounced ‘Billyball’, of course.) Hernangomez should be the Knicks’ first center off the bench.