Carmelo Anthony was standing with a towel draped over his head, cheering. At one point, he flexed his biceps after rookie center Willy Hernangomez hit a tough fourth-quarter basket inside.
As long as he’s a Knick, Anthony won’t be in that position often, watching from the bench during crunch time of a tight game. But Hernangomez is showing he should be in the spot he was in on a regular basis.
The rookie big man from Spain had a 16-point, 16-rebound game Wednesday night — his second straight double-double — to help the Knicks to a 95-90 comeback victory over the Nets. As coach Jeff Hornacek continues to shake up lineups and rotations, it’s becoming more and more puzzling why Hernangomez isn’t a fixture in the rotation, if not starting.
“Coaches always say, ‘Make the coaches not want to pull you off the court.’ That’s how you get minutes,” Hornacek said. “Willy’s done a great job. Not just on the boards, I think his defense is picking up.
“Most young guys, guys coming from Europe, they don’t know these players that well. But we always said as he goes on through this year, he’s going to get better and better once he sees guys a second and a third time. He’s improving every day and we love when he’s out there.”
Kristaps Porzingis, 21, and Hernangomez, 22, played well off each other against the Nets and did much of the heavy lifting in the fourth quarter to spark the Knicks. It could have been a look at the team’s future. It also could be their near future — whether Anthony is here or not.
Conspiracy theorists should realize that Anthony wasn’t benched in the fourth quarter to upset him and try to get him to waive his no-trade clause. Hornacek found a unit that was working. But the Knicks continue to look for a trade that works for them and that Anthony would approve.
The Knicks reportedly are talking to the Cavaliers, Clippers and Celtics. The trade deadline is in less than three weeks, Feb. 23.
But this could be the start of something for the 7-3 Porzingis and the 6-11 Hernangomez, whose familiarity and chemistry from playing together in Spain for one year is showing. Hornacek also noted that having two of them in the lane kept the Nets from getting easy shots, so it would stand to reason that they will be playing together more.
“I think KP and me, we have special connection,” Hernangomez said. “When he looks to me, I know what he wants. The same [for me]. I think it’s nice. We play more time together, we played a couple years ago together and the things are going good, so I think we have to keep working the same way and be ready.”
“He has made huge improvements every day,” Porzingis said. “He’s learning new things every day and the way he works every day . . . He’s been having great games whenever he gets his minutes. I’m really, really happy for him.”
On most nights, Hernangomez is the third center behind Joakim Noah and Kyle O’Quinn. Hornacek has considered changing the starting rotation, yet Noah, who is averaging 5.1 points and 8.8 rebounds in 22.4 minutes a game, continues to start.
When Hernangomez gets minutes, he produces. He is averaging 11.0 points and 10.8 rebounds in the 14 games in which he’s played at least 20 minutes. Hernangomez’s five double-doubles match Noah’s total, and four have come in the last two weeks.
Hernangomez started for the ill Porzingis on Tuesday night in Washington and had 15 points and 14 rebounds, yet O’Quinn was the first big man off the bench against the Nets. Hernangomez also never got off the bench against the Wizards on Jan. 19 the night after a 17-point, 11-rebound performance against the Celtics, and he played only 3:12 of Sunday’s quadruple-overtime loss to the Hawks.
“We do have two other centers in Jo and ‘KO’ that have had some great games, too,” Hornacek said. “So they were kind of going back and forth, so it makes it difficult. Willy’s really establishing that he’s being consistent with it.”
Seldom-used guard Sasha Vujacic also provided a huge lift against the Nets. He scored 12 points and became the first Knick to have two four-point plays in the same game.
Derrick Rose is expected back from a sprained ankle Saturday against the Cavaliers, so Brandon Jennings will come off the bench. Vujacic likely will go back to having a limited role, awaiting an opportunity to play.
“At this particular moment, I have to prove myself once again,” he said. “It feels like a rookie, being put on the side and having that one seat reserved that you will never get in. It is frustrating, but you got to stay positive. It feels like that, but I am not going to give up. I know that there is plenty more in me.”
Porzingis in Skills Challenge. The NBA All-Star Skills Challenge isn’t just for guards anymore. Porzingis, along with fellow big men DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis and Joel Embiid, will participate.