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With instant-offense Isaiah on the mend, can Juancho Hernangomez be the Nuggets' spark off the bench?
SAN DIEGO — Juancho Hernangomez was pressing last week during Wednesday’s training camp practice, according to his head coach. He’d miss a shot and then drop his head. He’d make a bad pass or read, and immediately start to hesitate on the court. Michael Malone stressed following that practice that his swingman needed to develop a “next-play mentality” and work through his mistakes.
Hernangomez didn’t make many mistakes in the Nuggets’ 124-107 preseason win over the Los Angeles Lakers. He didn’t miss many shots either on his way to a team-high 19 points off the Nuggets’ bench.
In just 23 minutes, Hernangomez made a bold statement Sunday night: That after a dedicated summer where the 23-year-old lived in the weight room and worked tirelessly to try and put last season’s disappointment behind him, Hernangomez can be the instant-offense option off Denver’s bench that the Nuggets lacked last season.
“He’s a guy who works so hard, when he misses shots sometimes he gets down on himself,” Will Barton told BSN Denver. “But I always tell him, ‘It’s a long season. There are going to be games where you’re going to miss. You’re going to be fine.'”
After a promising rookie campaign, Hernangomez’s sophomore season never got going. He contracted mononucleosis early in the year and never regained the rotation spot off the Nuggets’ bench he began the season with. Minus one of their most deadly jump shooters from a year ago, Denver’s bench struggled to score when Nikola Jokic was off the floor.
To add some much-needed offensive firepower to their bench unit, the Nuggets signed Isaiah Thomas, who was able to average 15-plus points per game last season while playing on a bum hip. But after season-ending surgery in March, Thomas isn’t close to returning to the floor, nor are the Nuggets in a hurry to thrust him into rotation minutes with the steady and capable Monte Morris holding down the second unit.
If he keeps shooting like he did Sunday night, who’s to say Hernangomez can’t fill that role?
“He’s worked his butt off,” Malone said. “Last season was a frustrating year for him, and tonight he had a great night.”
Hernangomez got hot early against Los Angeles. He drained his first shot attempt of the game, a three towards the end of the first quarter and poured in eight more points in the second period. Hernangomez drained two more threes in the third before subbing out for good with 2:48 remaining in regulation.
“Everybody knows Juancho can shoot.” Barton said.
The 19 points Hernangomez tallied were the most he’s scored in a game since the Nuggets’ memorable 132-110 win over the Warriors during the 2016-17 season, which came during Hernangomez’s rookie year. The swingman started at power forward that night and hit 6-10 from three-point range on his way to a career-high 27 points.
Against the Lakers, it wasn’t just Hernangomez. Denver’s bench was the story of the Nuggets’ preseason win. Morris chipped in 12 points, six rebounds and four assists. Trey Lyles finished with 14 points in 21 minutes. Malik Beasley added 12 points on a perfect 4-4 from three-point range. Backup center Mason Plumlee had a strong showing as well scoring 11 points to go with eight rebounds and six assists. Plumlee, a 57 percent free-throw shooter, also hit all five of his free-throw attempts much to the delight of assistant coach Mark Price, who the Nuggets hired in the offseason to help correct the team’s shaky foul shooting.
Denver’s five-man bench unit outscored Los Angeles’ 76-61. Lyles was a team-high plus-32 in 21 minutes. Morris was a plus-30. Beasley Plumlee finished a plus-28 and plus-27, respectively. The Nuggets outscored the Lakers by 29 points when Hernangomez was on the floor.
Hernangomez also did the little things Denver has been asking of him. On offense, he cut with a purpose. In transition, he ran the floor. On defense, Hernangomez gave consistent effort and was quick on his feet, something he’ll have to do with regularity this season against quicker small forwards.
“It wasn’t just his shooting,” Malone said. “One thing I love about Juancho, everything he does, he does hard.”
One strong preseason showing from Hernangomez won’t assure him consistent rotation minutes this season by any means. He’ll have to piece together more showings like this one over the remainder of Denver’s preseason slate. Gary Harris (left hamstring strain) missed tonight’s matchup meaning Torrey Craig, who’s ahead of Hernangomez on Denver’s depth chart, started at shooting guard. There were more minutes available for Hernangomez tonight than there would be if the Nuggets were fully healthy.
But his fit in Denver’s equal-opportunity offense as a ball-mover and multi-positional floor spacer is easy to see. The spirit and charisma Hernangomez played with his rookie year was back for the first time in quite a while against the Lakers. The Spaniard was all over the floor, talking trash in his native tongue to LeBron James, and Co. as he darted around the Valley View Casino Center floor.
Next up, the Nuggets again take on the Lakers in a rematch Tuesday night in Los Angeles, eager to see if Hernangomez can do it again.