Charlotte Hornets

Charlotte Hornets to Hernangomez: ‘They want me to be Billy’ (only a better version)

Charlotte Hornets center Willy Hernangomez

Charlotte Hornet Willy Hernangomez will have an expanded role at center with Cody Zeller injured. The Spaniard talks about the opportunity.
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Charlotte Hornet Willy Hernangomez will have an expanded role at center with Cody Zeller injured. The Spaniard talks about the opportunity.

Center Willy Hernangomez says he’s fallen in love with Charlotte. He wants the Hornets to be more than a stop along the way. He wants to end his basketball career here.

He can make a statement about all that over the month of January, because the playing time is available. Hernangomez will play as much as he guards.

”I think my defense is getting way better,” Hernangomez said Tuesday of what has been his relative weakness at the NBA level. “Really knowing all the coverages (and) knowing all the scouting for the defense. All the coaches have talked to me of late and said I’m doing good things. The offense will come. I know it’s really important to focus on defense, particularly if I start. To lock in.”

The Hornets’ starter at center, Cody Zeller, broke his right hand in Monday’s victory over the Orlando Magic. The Hornets haven’t announced a projection for how long Zeller will miss, but at minimum it’s weeks, maybe months. The Hornets have a daunting January schedule — 10 of the 14 games are on the road, and 10 of the opponents have won at least half their games this season.

If Hernangomez can keep the center position stable in Zeller’s absence, that by itself would justify the trade the Hornets made last February, sending two future second-round picks to the New York Knicks for Hernangomez.

The Spaniard, who pronounces his Americanized first name “Billy,” is solid as a rebounder and a scorer. It’s defense where his performances have been spotty.

“He has to protect that paint for us now,” Hornets coach James Borrego said. “He’s got to stay in front of the ball, and rebound and defend. Not just allow guards and bigs to come down and horse us inside. He has the ability to do that.”

As of Tuesday’s practice, Borrego hadn’t committed to starting Hernangomez, but that looks like the most likely scenario for Wednesday’s home game against the Dallas Mavericks. If Hernangomez can’t handle it defensively, then you’ll likely see more of Bismack Biyombo, a proven post defender but a limited scorer.

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Huge opportunity

The trade for Hernangomez was low-risk. He asked the Knicks to look for a deal because the presence of Enes Kanter and Kristaps Porzingis made it hard for him to get steady minutes.

During his first trip back to New York to play the Knicks last month, Hernangomez repeatedly told media up there how happy he was for the change, and how quickly Charlotte feels like where he wants to settle, both for the town and the team.

“I love Charlotte: The landscape, and they treat me well,’ Hernangomez said Tuesday. “I feel that with all the effort they put into this trade, I’ve got to give it back.”

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His summer reflected that. When the new coaching staff arrived last spring, Hernangomez broke a commitment to train with the Spanish national team to focus on Borrego’s needs, including playing for the Hornets’ summer-league team in Las Vegas. His goals for the summer were getting stronger and extending his shooting range.

So far this season he’s made 12 of 25 3-point attempts, but the greater gain has been in strength. Borrego describes him as “a more confident, physical player.”

“He’s in the weight room more than anybody else on our team,” Borrego said.

Hernangomez got pushed around a lot his first two seasons in the NBA. He believes he’s now equipped to push back.

“I feel more comfortable playing against those big centers, whether it be yesterday against (Orlando’s Nic) Vucevic or tomorrow against DeAndre (Jordan of the Mavericks).

“I’m a guy who really enjoys the fight, to push in those kind of games.”

Lots of pushing

He’s going to be pushed plenty the next few weeks, and not just in games. The coaches need productivity and consistency.

Zeller might not be elite at any one aspect of being an NBA center, but he’s solid at everything. By comparison, Hernangomez is more up-and-down, and that’s reflected in how Borrego has used him: Hernangomez started a game against the New Orleans Pelicans that Zeller missed with sore ribs, but he also didn’t play in six games by coach’s decision.

So far, Hernangomez has been more a tease at the NBA level than a consistent performer. Among young Hornets (he’s 24), he has one of the highest upsides. But that’s still unrealized potential for now.

“I’m stronger, I’m faster, I’m more mature in how I see basketball,” Hernangomez said. “This is going to be my seventh year (as a pro) with Spain, too. Every year you learn something new. It’s great.

“They want me to play hard: Set a screen, run the floor, play with energy. And they want me to be Billy.”

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