Willy Hernangomez was touted over the summer as a cornerstone player who was part of the Knicks’ long-term future. He became an ex-Knick Wednesday.
The Knicks traded the second-year center to Charlotte for forward Johnny O’Bryant and the Hornets’ second-round picks in 2020 and 2021. General manager Scott Perry said the Knicks would waive O’Bryant.
Perry intimated that the open roster spot could be filled by one of their two-way players — Luke Kornet or Isaiah Hicks — who will be traveling with the team to Toronto for Thursday night’s game. The draft choices were the reason Perry made the trade, which also netted the Knicks a $1.5-million trade exception.
“We talk about trying to build something sustainable,” Perry said. “We were void of second-round picks in ’20 and ’21. This deal allowed us to fill that and at the same time, as it relates to Willy, it’s no secret he was looking for the opportunity to play, play more minutes that he was not getting at all this year.”
Hernangomez’s representatives recently spoke to Perry about moving him before Thursday’s 3 p.m. trade deadline if he wasn’t going to get playing time. Hernangomez said Tuesday he expected something to happen, and it did.
“All I can say is that I want to be somewhere where I can have minutes, where I can play and where I can keep developing,” Hernangomez said before playing 109 seconds of garbage time in Tuesday’s loss to the Bucks. “The only thing I really want is to find the best way for my future before Thursday.”
Hernangomez didn’t want to leave his close friend Kristaps Porzingis, but he was prepared to because “I really have to play.” The 6-11 Hernangomez appeared in only 26 of the Knicks’ 55 games this season and averaged 9.0 minutes.
It’s been a rough 24 hours for Porzingis. He suffered a season-ending torn left ACL in Tuesday’s game, and now his closest friend is a former teammate.
Hernangomez, a second-round pick in 2015, was an All-Rookie first-team selection last season after averaging 8.2 points and 7.0 rebounds in 18.4 minutes. Perry and Knicks president Steve Mills wrote in blogs on the team website and told reporters that Hernangomez was a building block. But when the Knicks acquired Enes Kanter from Oklahoma City in the Carmelo Anthony trade, Hernangomez was squeezed out. He became the third-string center behind Kanter and Kyle O’Quinn.
Kanter is a more skilled scorer and O’Quinn a better defender than Hernangomez. Coach Jeff Hornacek liked how Kanter and O’Quinn gave the Knicks different looks.
“We had a lot of centers in the building and it became a competition,” Perry said. “That’s how the competition played out. In Willy’s case it didn’t work out in his favor in terms of the minutes played. We decided we had to move forward. I wanted to thank him. He’s a terrific young guy. He has some abilities and talent, and hopefully things work well for him when he goes to Charlotte.”
Hornets general manager Rich Cho said of Hernangomez, “He showed last season that he can contribute when given the opportunity and we believe that the added depth he provides will benefit our frontcourt rotation.”
The Knicks may not be done dealing, although Perry wouldn’t say he anticipated another trade by the deadline. “We’ll see what happens,” he said. “The phone calls have increased during this week. But I wouldn’t want to handicap it.”
It’s possible the Knicks could be changing course now that Porzingis’ season is over. Originally, they hoped to be able to pick up pieces to help make a run at a playoff berth. But they’re a season-worst nine games below .500 (23-32) and have lost their best player. So they could look to move veterans such as O’Quinn and Courtney Lee.
The Knicks also would like to deal Joakim Noah. Unless they sweeten the pot with an attractive young player or perhaps draft picks — they’re not expected to trade their No. 1 choice — it could be difficult to move Noah. He is owed $37 million over the next two seasons and has played only seven games this season.
Noah has been away from the Knicks since Jan. 24, after he and Hornacek had a heated argument in Denver. The Knicks said Noah would be gone “until further notice.” It’s unclear if or when he will return.