Juancho Hernangomez was the surprise of summer league. Coming into the week-long event, little was known about Juancho. He climbed draft boards for weeks leading up to the NBA draft as he was one of the players that started generating buzz. When his name was called on draft night, the two-dozen NBA bloggers, reporters, and media members furiously googled his name to freshen up on just who exactly the young kid was.
By the time the Nuggets tipped off for the final summer league game on Saturday, everyone knew his name and knew his game. Even the national ESPN announcers were singing his praises. Throughout the week-long event, Juancho showed a rare skill set, a mental toughness and determination, and a whole lot of promise. In just one week he went from an unknown player who would likely spend an additional year in Europe, to an intriguing prospect that might be better served coming over to the NBA right away.
A lot of the things that Juancho is really good at are things that are difficult to teach. He has tremendous instincts on the offensive end of the court, especially when it comes to drawing fouls and snagging offensive rebounds. As of Monday, Juancho was 8th in rebounds per game despite playing fewer minutes per game than five of the seven players ahead of him and despite weighing just 230 lbs. Often times stretch fours trade play-making and floor spacing for rebounding but Juancho has the rare ability to do both.
He's been compared to Danilo Gallinari because of his all around offensive game and his craftiness at drawing contact and that comparison is not far off. Juancho shot 10 free throws in his first summer league game and consistently showed an ability to draw contact on rebounds, drives, and cuts. His ability to get to the line is even more impressive when you consider that he had limited touches on offense, playing primarily off ball.
Because of his relatively low usage in summer league, we didn't get a lot of examples of Juancho's all-around talents but there were flashes of it here and there. In the clip below, Juancho realizes that he has a lumbering center guarding him in the post and wisely gets a re-entry further out on the wing where he could blow by the bigger, slower defender. Plays like this show an excellent court awareness to get into a favorable spot on the court as well as the skill set to take advantage of a mismatch.
Juancho looked very much like a 20-year-old rookie for portions of summer league but there were actually very few weaknesses to his game that aren't relatively correctable. He has a solid foundation for nearly every aspect of his game including shooting, ball-handling, passing, etc. The biggest knock on his game and the largest obstacle for him to overcome are his strength and quickness, especially on the defensive end.
The opening quarter of summer league was probably Juancho's worst quarter of the tournament. It looked like he was completely caught off-guard by the speed and physicality of the Timberwolves players. In the first two clips below, notice how he moves with heavy feet on pick and roll defense. His defensive stance is a bit upright and his feet are a half step slower than the guards he's trying to contain. In the last two clips, Juancho struggles to cover the amount of ground on the weak side that he will need to in order to be an effective off-ball defender.
Juancho also struggled with bigger players throughout summer league. In the first game, Juancho was completely mowed over on two occasions by stronger opponents. He'd get pinned under the basket on defensive rebounds and post ups, and pushed over on drives to the basket. He's got the height and frame to add a lot of strength over the next few years but it will take a consistent effort in the weight room over the course of several years to build the body he'll need to be competitive as a power forward.
Oddly enough, while Juancho plays skinny and undersized on the defensive end, he actually plays bigger than his size on the offensive end. In the final game against the Suns, Alan Williams owned the glass, grabbing 16 rebounds including seven offensive boards. But Juancho responded with 12 boards, including six offensive rebounds of his own. Juancho plays with a sort of toughness and willingness to get physical on offense that he probably isn't able to maintain on the defensive end. Offensive rebounding relies on agility, speed, and instincts. Defensive rebounding relies more heavily on strength.
While Juancho has his weaknesses, he's proven that he has the tools to play in the NBA this season. The Nuggets, who have said that they were "50/50" on bringing him over for the 2016-17 season, are now faced with an interesting dilemma. Do they bring him over now or let him play another year in Europe?
Pros to staying in Europe
The biggest positive for Juancho staying in Europe is that he'll almost certainly get a lot more playing time. The Nuggets currently have two full-time power forwards, Darrell Arthur and Kenneth Faried, who will be well ahead of him on the depth chart at power forward. They also have three rotation players that will play at least some minutes at power forwards in certain lineups in Gallo, Wilson Chandler, and Joffrey Lauvergne. Juancho can play minutes at small forward but even there he is behind Gallo, Chandler, and Will Barton who will likely play more minutes at the small forward as the back court becomes more crowded.
Nuggets Projected Depth Chart
|Emmanuel Mudiay||Gary Harris||Danilo Gallinari||Kenneth Faried||Nikola Jokic|
|Jameer Nelson||Will Barton||Wilson Chandler||Darrell Arthur||Jusuf Nurkic|
|Jamal Murray||Jamal Murray||Jakkar Sampson||Joffrey Lauvergne|
|Malik Beasley||Axel Toupane|
Depending on where he ends up, in Europe, Juancho can be both a starter and a star player. He'll get a lot more live game reps. Another year in Europe may also boost his confidence. Nikola Jokic entered the 2014-15 season with Mega Leks as a talented prospect but finished the year as the Adriatic league's MVP. A similar leap could happen for Juancho that would make him even more prepared for life in the NBA.
Pros to coming to Denver right away
However, Juancho's biggest weaknesses are strength and speed. He has the talent to play in the NBA and if you could somehow throw an additional 20 lbs of muscle on him and increase his speed and timing, he'd be an instant rotational player. So if that is the biggest hold up in his game, the question becomes, where will he improve his speed and strength the most? The answer is almost certainly here in the U.S. Coming straight to Denver means Juancho would spend every day with the Nuggets training staff, working on his body and getting more and more reps with NBA-level speed.
NBA speed is impossible to replicate. It's like trying to prepare for a boxing match with Mike Tyson. At his peak, there was only one person in the world with his power and speed so sparring against anyone else wouldn't fully prepare you for climbing into the ring with Iron Mike. The same is true of the NBA. Juancho can get all of the reps he wants in Spain but none of those reps will prepare him for players like Lebron James, Russell Westbrook, and Draymond Green.
Then there is the issue of camaraderie. One of the most interesting developments around the Nuggets over the last year has been the bonding and friendship around the young guys on the team. The Nuggets currently have nine players on the roster that are 23 years old or younger, seven players that are 22 or younger. This team is uniquely young and it is clear to all who watched this team interact with each other this summer that they all are developing very close friendships. Returning to Spain for a year would force Juancho to miss out on a lot of that team building.
Lastly, there might be an elephant in the room with the Nuggets - whether or not Kenneth Faried is a part of the team's long term plans. There is a growing sense around media members covering the Nuggets locally and media members covering the NBA at large, that Faried doesn't fit the Nuggets' long-term plans. The Nuggets front office has never indicated that they plan to part ways with the Manimal so at present, this may not be an issue at all. But Faried's contract has become a lot more tradeable under the new salary cap and it will become even more tradeable in February as the NBA trade deadline approaches.
If Faried is moved and another power forward is not brought back as part of the deal, Juancho could find his way into the rotation. It's also possible that the Nuggets bring Juancho over mid season, the way that they brought Joffrey over in late February of 2015. And this says nothing of injuries. Last season, the Nuggets were low on bodies for stretches of the season. With injury prone players in Gallo and Chandler, it's perfectly reasonable that Juancho could make his way into the rotation just because everyone else gets hurt.
At summer league, Juancho did everything he could to make this decision even more difficult for Tim Connelly and the rest of the Nuggets decision makers. Juancho, like the rest of us, will just have to wait and see what they decide.