DALLAS — Rookie center Willy Hernangomez is breathing down the necks of veterans Joakim Noah and Kyle O’Quinn, showing the Knicks he deserves to be in the regular rotation.
Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek has had no choice but to take notice and plans to reward Hernangomez with more playing time.
The big man from Spain had 14 points and 10 rebounds off the bench in the Knicks’ 109-103 victory in Indiana on Monday. It was his second double-double in his last three games, which could lead to minutes being taken away from Noah and O’Quinn more frequently.
“I know I’m young; I need to improve a lot of things, but I’m ready,” Hernangomez said after practice Tuesday. “Always when I have the chance to be on the court, I try to do my best, I try to spend all my energy on my teammates. If they can see my energy and the effort, I feel pretty happy because I feel great when I can help the team get wins and get better and improve the team.”
Hornacek said he won’t change the starting lineup Wednesday against the Mavericks, but he did say he could go to Hernangomez earlier.
On most nights, the 22-year-old skilled Spaniard has been the Knicks’ third-string center. In a game last week against the Wizards, Hornacek called on seldom-used Marshall Plumlee against the Wizards and didn’t play Hernangomez, who had 17 points and 11 rebounds the night before in a win over the Celtics. The Knicks lost to Washington by three.
But Hernangomez is working well with the second unit, playing off point guard Brandon Jennings, who always tries to set up his teammates. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Hernangomez, who says he’s in the best shape of his life, helped spark the Knicks’ last two victories with his play. He has good post moves, can shoot from the outside and is aggressive around the basket.
“He’s playing great now,” said Kristaps Porzingis, Hernangomez’s close friend and former teammate in Spain. “He’s coming with a lot of energy, running the floor hard, he’s in great shape. You can see that. He’s everywhere. He’s getting dunks, blocking shots. He’s looking comfortable out there. He’s helping us win these last few games.”
Hornacek said it’s been difficult finding minutes for all the Knicks’ big men, especially now that Porzingis is playing some center. But Hornacek has been impressed with Hernangomez’s play, and just wants to see him do it consistently.
“He’s got great knowledge of the game, understanding and feel,” Hornacek said. “He has no fear when he gets out there about who he’s playing against. When you have a guy who knows how to play the game, a lot of good things happen.”
Production hasn’t been a problem for Hernangomez. In the last seven games, he’s played 20 minutes or more, he’s averaging 12.1 points and 10 rebounds. But those seven games have come over a 23-game stretch.
“Last year in Spain, I had a difficult situation, I didn’t play a lot,” Hernangomez said. “For me, that was a great experience to be ready and work hard every day. When I have a chance to be on the court, I try to show my teammates and the coaches I can help the team. I’m going to keep doing that.”