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Leading up to Summer League, the common sentiment around No. 15 overall draft pick Juancho Hernangomez was he would have to greatly impress the Nuggets’ front office if he wanted to start next season with Denver rather than overseas – and based on the five games the 20-year-old played in Las Vegas, he certainly did.
Hernangomez’s counting stats won’t fly off the page, but he did average a healthy 10.2 points, 8.2 rebounds, and shot an efficient 54.6 percent from the field at Summer League. He showed off an innate basketball IQ while in Vegas, along with a versatile skill-set which includes above-averaging ball handling for a four-man, a capable jumper that stretches out to 3-point range, and the makings of a plus defender that can move his feet well enough to stay with guards on the perimeter.
Hernangomez certainly impressed and was arguably Denver’s best player on the floor in their 92-81 loss to the Miami Heat where he finished with 14 points and 12 rebounds on 6-7 shooting. In fact, Hernangomez was one of the most efficient players at Summer League. He scored 1.14 points per 100 possessions over Denver’s five games in Las Vegas, the third-highest efficiency out of the 30 first-round picks drafted in June. Thanks to Synergy for this handy graphic.
On any other team, Hernangomez would be in line for a roster spot next season. His draft slot, combined with his encouraging play at Summer League would signal that he’s ready to be on and around an NBA team next season. However, the Nuggets are not your typical franchise due to how they’re roster is constructed, making Hernangomez’s situation a fluid one that’s sure to be a highly debated topic throughout the Denver front office over the next couple of weeks.
Where do Hernangomez’s minutes come from?
When looking up and down Denver’s youthful roster it’s difficult to find enough minutes to warrant Hernangomez coming stateside next season. He’s behind Kenneth Faried, Darrell Arthur and seemingly Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler at the four. He also wouldn’t play ahead of Nikola Jokic or Jusuf Nurkic if Denver wanted to play him as a small-ball five. The Nuggets have to determine if Hernangomez playing less than five minutes every couple of games, or more than 25 minutes per game in Europe better for his development. He would get more experience abroad and would spend more time on the court, but there’s also something to be said for players being around their teammates in some capacity whether they’re playing or not.
I’d tend to side with the argument that the best way for young players to progress and grow is by actually playing. Getting great coaching and building chemistry with your teammates is of course valuable, but the best way to improve is by playing and making mistakes on the court.
Hernangomez is a free agent internationally, meaning he can sign with any team that wants him. Typically, international coaches rely on more experienced players and don’t play younger prospects who have their eyes on the NBA as much as they should, but since Hernangomez would have say on which team he would wind up with, he wouldn’t go somewhere that would relegate him to the bench.
The No. 1 goal the Nuggets have next season as a team is to make the playoffs and for their games in March and April to matter. In order to compete for that illustrious playoff spot, Denver will have to rely on their veterans – possibly cutting into Hernangomez’s potential time on the court even more. Also, as playoff spots become a possibility, coach Michael Malone will most likely shrink his rotation down to eight or nine guys. Sure Hernangomez would benefit from being in that type of environment, but he can play big minutes in games that also matter overseas.
Defensively, Hernangomez would likely struggle, at least, initially against more physically four-men. At Summer League he was pushed under the basket on offense by the likes of Adreian Payne and JaMychal Green, pinned beneath the rim on the defensive glass, and needs to get stronger in order to hold his own down low. Under Malone, if you don’t play defense, you’re not going to play. Ask Faried, who averaged less fourth-quarter minutes than Arthur last season, or Jokic, who struggled defensively early on during his rookie campaign. Hernangomez’s learning curve on the defensive end of the floor, won’t help him get minutes and I could see Malone relying on someone like Joffrey Lauvergne, who’s a player that at least brings consistency and familiarity, over a rookie.
Reevaluate in January
One option the Nuggets should explore with Hernangomez is to initially stash him in Spain and see where the team stands after the trade deadline. For instance, what if the Nuggets finally pull the trigger and trade their assets or mortgage their veterans for a star-level player leading up to the deadline? Or, what if they’re so far out of playoff contention they deal some of their assets for future draft picks? Then a roster spot opens up for Hernangomez and it makes more sense to bring him over.
Frankly, the minutes aren’t there for Hernangomez to start the season. Looking at the current Nuggets roster, there are 12 guaranteed contracts that will likely be on the roster for next year. Gallinari, Faried, Chandler, Arthur, Nurkic, Jameer Nelson, Will Barton, Emmanuel Mudiay, Gary Harris, Jamal Murray, Malik Beasley, Mudiay, Harris, and Jokic could all be in Denver to start the 2016-17 season. Throw in Mike Miller who is rumored to be coming back and that’s 13. That means Lauvergne, JaKarr Sampson, Axel Toupane, and Hernangomez would be battling it out for two spots. Jimmer Fredette may have some backers in the front office as well.
Simply put, the situation in Denver should have some clarity in January when the Nuggets are either in contention for the eighth seed or lining themselves up for another lottery appearance. It would make more sense to reevaluate the state of the roster and team later in the year and then think about bringing Hernangomez over in the middle of the season as they’ve done previously with Lauvergne.
Denver is also going to be relying on a roster that’s prone to injury, again, and if the Nuggets lose role players for significant amounts of time during the season, it would make sense to have Hernangomez waiting in the wings.
Hernangomez has a bright future ahead of him, but starting the year overseas is the best way for him to develop as a player and for the Nuggets to progress as a franchise over the course of this season. Players who performed well at Summer League are starting and will continue to sign contracts abroad over the next couple of weeks, so expect a decision on Hernangomez’s fate soon.