With the trade of Carmelo Anthony to the Thunder came a fresh start for the Knicks. By moving its star forward of seven plus seasons, the team was ready to embrace its youth, exercise patience, and nurture some of the rare bright spots from last season. In addition to allowing Kristaps Porzingis to take center stage as the headlining attraction of the Big Apple, that also included developing Willy Hernangomez and subsequently watching this pair rise up as the frontcourt of the future.
Moving Anthony became a game of addition by subtraction. New York needed to move on, regardless of what kind of value such a deal brought back. That’s why the return haul of Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott and a 2018 second round pick seemed underwhelming for a player of Anthony’s caliber. What’s more, Kanter has an expiring deal with a player option for next season. He’s always been considered a reserve (who has been widely criticized for his defense), so it would have made sense for the rebuilding Knicks to start Hernangomez and then simply cut ties with Kanter after this season. After all, shedding what was once Anthony’s salary and taking advantage of the flexibility that comes with it is part of the rebuilding process.
Like Kanter, Hernangomez has garnered criticism for his lack of defensive prowess. He’s still just 23 years old and isn’t that far removed from playing overseas. He hasn’t been exposed to as much just yet (especially as it relates to the NBA stage) and his IQ on that end of the floor is still coming along. Now in the midst of his seventh season, Kanter is a much more polished player. He plays with heart, passion, and is incredibly vocal both on and off the court. He has leadership qualities and it all seems to come so naturally. That can’t always be taught. Kanter just gets it. All of this, combined with his familiarity with Jeff Hornacek dating back to their days with the Utah Jazz, made Kanter a sensible choice to get the starting nod over Hernangomez from a competitive standpoint.
It would be much easier to make the argument that Hernangomez should be getting more minutes if things were going according to plan. This was expected to be a transitioning year for New York. But wouldn’t you know it, expectations were low and the Knicks happen to be playing at a high level. At 10-9, they look poised to continue making a push toward a playoffs. As fate would have it, Kanter and his respective impact stand tall as a primary reason why.
The big man is having a terrific year, boasting an array of career-best numbers. Kanter is averaging 13.6 points on a career-high 64% shooting while converting on 91% of his free throws, also a career-best. He’s pulling down a career-high 10.2 rebounds. His 1.4 assists per game are also a high mark for him. While that might not seem like much, Kanter has developed some nice chemistry with his teammates and appears to keep an eye out for the open man when the opposing defense swarms him inside. The biggest boost he provides comes in the form of an outstanding defensive rebounding ability: Kanter keeps possessions alive and fights for his team’s scoring opportunities with grit and determination. His career-high 3.7 boards on the offensive glass are the icing on the cake.
Still only 25 years old himself, there’s no doubt Kanter has the potential to fit in to the Knicks’ youth movement going forward. If he keeps this level of play up, the organization will be thanking its lucky stars if he opts in for next season.
What all this will continue to mean for Hernangomez remains to be seen, but so far playing time has been difficult to come by. Despite tallying 8.2 points on 53% shooting and 7 rebounds in 18.4 minutes per contest last season, the young gun has been a rare sight thus far into his sophomore campaign. He’s received eight DNP-CD’s and has played 15 minutes or more just three times.
Two of these occurrences have come in the Knicks’ two most recent games. Hernangomez logged 6 points and 4 rebounds against the Hawks, and subsequently put up a 4/4/4 line of points, rebounds, and assists in Houston. Such efforts were all for nothing, however, as New York dropped both games with Kanter sidelined.
Here’s the thing: Hernangomez’s confidence appears to be visibly shaken, and rightfully so. Once a highly regarded prospect, he’s been tossed to the side without the opportunity to develop any rhythm on the hardwood. He looks lost, unable to find his place.
It’s imperative that the Knicks do what they can to fix it. Kanter has looked like one of the NBA’s better big men this season and could very well be part of this team’s future, so it’s impossible to displace him. The Knicks are competitive again and largely in part have him to thank. That said, Hernangomez needs minutes. He has all the potential in the world and showed tremendous promise last season — enough of it, in fact, to warrant playing time this campaign. His contract runs through 2019-20 with a partially guaranteed pact. He’s locked in for the future and New York needs to embrace that, especially if they feel the need to anticipate Kanter’s departure next summer.
Kanter is playing out of his mind, but Kyle O’Quinn is not. the 27 year old has had some solid games and truly has value, but he doesn’t have all the tools that Hernangomez can tap into. What you see is what you get. O’Quinn is the better trade bait. That’s a realization New York needs to come to, and soon. Hernangomez should be able to assume playing time backing up both the four and five positions. It’s time to resume the process of continuing to scratch the surface with their international stud before they let his talent go to waste due to a lack of motivation. New York has to get Hernangomez back into the swing of things.