Upgrade Your Fandom

Join the Ultimate Denver nuggets Community!

How Will Barton helped Juancho Hernangomez stay ready for his opportunity

Harrison Wind Avatar
November 15, 2019

Will Barton knows what the end of the bench feels like. The uncertainty of whether or not your name is going to be called. How imperative it is to stay ready at a moment’s notice, not sure if or when an opportunity will come. The art of not getting too high or too low while seconds tick off the clock and you’re trending towards another DNP-CD while still draped in your warmups.

Barton lived that mentality for the first three seasons of his career in Portland before a mid-season trade to Denver in 2015 gave him a defined role for the first time, so it was fitting that it was the Nuggets’ starting small forward who was in Juancho Hernangomez’s ear most-often ahead of the Spaniard’s first significant minutes of his season.

“He knows how it is when you’re out of the rotation and how things are going,” Hernangomez said. “We are really cool together. We’ve been here for a long time. He knows how I am, he knows how ready I am, and he knows how I always want to play. He knows what the tough moments mean. He told me to have fun and do your thing.”

At Barton’s counsel, Hernangomez continued to stay ready for an opportunity despite logging mostly garbage time minutes throughout the Nuggets’ first 10 games of the season. He stayed engaged on the bench, cheering on his teammates for 48 minutes every night. He got in extra reps, routinely descending from the Nuggets’ practice court after home games dripping in sweat after a postgame shooting session long after many of his teammates had vacated Denver’s locker room. He didn’t sulk about his standing as the fourth option at the small forward position.

That opportunity finally came in game No. 11 of the season and unsurprisingly, Hernangomez was ready for the moment. Denver’s bench has struggled mightily to open the season, regularly hemorrhaging leads that the Nuggets’ starting group had built, and in his most drastic lineup adjustment of the young season, Michael Malone called on Hernangomez to inject energy, pace, and life into the second unit.

Boy did he ever.

After Denver’s bench endured a poor first-half which in part allowed Brooklyn to build a 61-49 halftime advantage, the Nuggets gradually found their footing. Denver’s starters began to erase a 16-point third-quarter deficit midway through the period before handing the reigns over to its second unit. A lineup featuring Hernangomez along with Monte Morris and Mason Plumlee, who both also shined against the Nets, helped spur a game-altering 14-6 run to end the quarter and tie the score at 79 entering the fourth.

“I thought Juancho was a difference-maker tonight,” Malone said following the Nuggets’ 101-93 come from behind win. “I give Juancho so much credit. He hadn’t played in the first 10 games. I wanted to throw him out there knowing he’d provide a spark, energy. Jerami (Grant), Mason, Monte, seven assists and no turnovers, I thought those guys were terrific.”

Morris and Plumlee, who tallied 10 points, seven rebounds, and two assists in 20 minutes off the bench, stuck out when scanning the Nuggets’ postgame boxscore. But as Malone eluded to, Hernangomez’s impact was felt as soon as he stepped on the floor.

He only knocked in one of his four-shot attempts from the field but tallied eight rebounds including two key clutch offensive rebounds in the second half. His energy, effort, and how hard he played seemed contagious to the rest of the Nuggets’ roster and the near-capacity crowd that packed Pepsi Center which upped the arena’s decibel level every time Hernangomez involved himself in the action.

“The crowd loves him because they know, it’s kind of like Ryan Bowen back in the day,” Malone said alluding to his longest-tenured assistant coach who played with a workmanlike attitude for the Nuggets from 1999-2004. “Ryan Bowen’s going to go out there and play hard. You knew exactly what you were going to get. With Juancho, same thing. He might make a mistake. He might only be 1 of 4 from the field, but he plays hard and you can’t put a dollar sign on that.”

Behind an injection of energy from their second unit, the Nuggets outscored the Nets 52-32 in the second half and held Brooklyn to 0 of 17 shooting from 3-point range.

“Their energy was just crazy,” Barton said about Denver’s bench. “Everyone who got in, I think Juancho changed the energy of the game with his hustle plays, getting a couple of offensive rebounds. He was good on defense, flying around, getting his hands on loose balls. Monte played big. Mason played big. Jerami, all of them.”

Hernangomez was Denver’s human wind up toy against Brooklyn and played as if all the energy he had built up sitting on the bench over most of the first nine games of the season was finally released against Brooklyn in one fell swoop. He played with a pace that Denver was lacking and a spirit that’s been distinctly absent from the Nuggets’ offense this season.

The way Hernangomez maneuvers around the floor with or without the ball on offense inspires more ball and player movement. He shoots with confidence when he’s open. He tries to make the right pass based on how the defense is playing him. He’s an unselfish cutter and aware floor spacer who carefully picks his spots and when and where to look for an advantage. He’s willing to do what’s asked of him on the floor.

“Juancho plays his role,” Morris said. “He don’t try to play outside of himself.”

The Nuggets need Hernangomez’s energy more than ever right now. Denver has lost the unbridled joy that they played with on the offensive end of the floor for the last couple of seasons while Jokic works through a poor offensive start to the year, and that’s why Hernangomez’s sudden insertion into the rotation was so vital.

He brings a fresh look and feels to the Nuggets’ offensive flow, and after beginning the year fourth on the small forward depth chart it’s hard envisioning his current inclusion in Denver’s rotation as a one-off. It feels as if the Nuggets — with their 21st-ranked offense currently playing in quicksand — need Hernangomez’s spark even though the forward didn’t want any credit for how he helped change the tune of Thursday’s matchup.

“I’m not any difference-maker. I think our second unit played great,” Hernangomez said. “We played with energy. We ran the floor. It’s not one guy who did everything. Mason played great defense, Jerami made tough shots, Monte ran the team and Thrill was great, he’s been playing great all season long. It was a combination of everything.”

Hernangomez has been through a full NBA life cycle throughout his three-plus seasons in Denver. He’s been a key part of the Nuggets’ attack, most notably over the first half of last season when Hernangomez was Denver’s starting small forward from mid-November through the beginning of January when Barton was lost to injury. He’s also been buried on the depth chart, at times due to injury and also because of the sheer depth of the Nuggets’ roster.

The 24-year-old has managed to stay true to himself despite an inconsistent role. He’s an incredibly genuine teammate who deflects all individual praise, is the least bit concerned about individual success, and is willing to do whatever is necessary for the betterment of the team. He lifts his teammates when they’re down and they’re eager to return the favor when he gets his chance to shine,

Through it all, Hernangomez stayed ready.

“You’ve got to be ready. They pay you all this money, it’s your job. There ain’t no time to pout, none of that,” Morris said. “Juancho don’t ever do that. First one here, always great energy. He just shows you how to be a professional.”


Share your thoughts

Join the conversation

The Comment section is only for diehard members

Open comments +

Scroll to next article

Don't like ads?
Don't like ads?
Don't like ads?