The Nuggets selected Juancho Hernangomez with the No. 15 pick in the 2016 draft, investing a first-round selection on a Spanish forward that the team had been scouting for over a year.
The soon-to-be 21-year-old presents an intriguing combination of height, shooting, ballhandling, rebounding, and toughness that teams are looking to find in an era of the NBA where forwards are being asked to have more of a role in creating plays and scoring from the perimeter.
With players like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and other forwards helping lead this position revolution, other teams are scrambling to find players that can do similar things with the ball. While the first decade of the NBA was full of cases where taking a chance on a “tweener” (a player that is neither a 3 or a 4) was a bad decision, nowadays every team is trying to find their own “Draymond Green” in the draft.
But this positional revolution wasn’t started by Green, the Warriors All-Star forward who averaged a ridiculous 7.4 assists per game last season. I would argue that it started much earlier, with a 6’9”, 225 combo forward who played high school ball at Oak Hill Academy - Josh Smith.
The Atlanta Hawks figured out that Smith could fill the role of ballhandler in the pick and roll, with their center Al Horford setting the screen and diving to the rim. This was one of my favorite plays the Hawks would run - toss Kyle Korver in the corner to prevent the defender from helping down, space the floor with two other guards, and voila, buckets.
It’s a magical play. With an intelligent screener in Horford, and the right personnel, the Hawks could run this play and get a clean shot attempt a few times a game. It was difficult for teams to counter until they realized, “Hey, let’s just let Josh Smith shoot.” Smith shot 28 percent on 3-point attempts with the Hawks, and that’s a percentage that teams were willing to live with rather than giving up dunks play after play.
Draymond Green refined the “power forward as ballhandler” role that Smith helped introduce almost a decade ago by serving as the facilitator on offense. The Warriors will plant Green at the top of the key, run a series of screens, and get open shot attempts for Steph Curry and Klay Thompson.
That second play - good lord. If Faried steps out to deny Curry the ball, Draymond can just pass the ball to Bogut diving to the rim with Jameer Nelson being the only Nugget left defending the hoop.
Let’s state the obvious early here - the Nuggets do not have players like Thompson or Curry on the roster. No team in the league does. If you wear a Manimal t-shirt as a pajama top like I do, however, you’re probably hoping that Malik Beasley and Jamal Murray develop into similar types of players for the Nuggets. They were drafted because of their ability to shoot the ball from the perimeter, and in a few years, hopefully they’ll be able to attack defenses with their 3-point shooting ability.
The clip here shows Juancho creating scoring opportunities by passing his teammates the ball (although sometimes he turns the ball over). He has the awareness to make a drop-off pass to a cutting guard, to sling a pass back into the paint when a defender closes out aggressively, and skip the ball to the other corner when the defense rotates.
The reason I brought up Smith as a comparison over Green for Juancho is the difference in height. While Green is able to make plays from behind the 3-point line, it is more difficult for him to make passes closer to the rim because he’s just not as tall as the players defending him. Juancho (6’9”, 230 lbs.) shouldn’t have that problem, especially as he gains experience banging with strong defenders down low.
The Nuggets likely won’t be playing Juancho as part of their regular rotation, but that should give him an opportunity to be on the court with players that will be with him in the future like Beasley and Murray. A lineup of Murray, Beasley, Mike Miller, Hernangomez and Arthur could show up in games where the outcome is decided with five minutes remaining on the clock.
While that’s a far cry from Jeff Teague-Devin Harris-Kyle Korver-Josh Smith-Al Horford, it does have comparable pieces. Murray and Beasley are both threats to shoot or dive to the rim and finish. Miller is a 3-point specialist, with nearly 1,600 3-pointers over his career. Arthur has the acumen to be the roll player with Juancho, with the athleticism to finish above the rim as well as the threat of an outside jumper.
Running that set play for Juancho against the other team’s end-of-rotation players should help give him experience handling the ball against NBA players. With the style of play in La Liga, Juancho wasn’t asked to create off the dribble frequently, thanks to the playmaking ability of the guards. That isn’t to say that he isn’t able to dribble - I haven’t seen enough of his game to make a statement one way or the other. The Smith-Horford play worked so well because Smith was able to attack his defender by dribbling his way to the rim without turning the ball over, and that is something that Juancho was able to do in Summer League.
Eventually, the hope would be that Juancho is able to be featured in the starting lineup, although I don’t expect that to happen for a few years. His chemistry with Jusuf Nurkic and Nikola Jokic will be vital to this 4-5 PnR play, and will have to be something that he develops over time through repetition. With Nurkic and Jokic, the Nuggets will be able to add another threat to that play due to the passing ability of the two young big men. The more players on the court that are a threat to dribble, pass, or shoot with the ball the more difficult that lineup is to defend.
Pin-downs, quick flares to the wing, and passing out of double teams - those are all fairly routine plays for “stretch-fours” to make nowadays. What could help separate Juancho from other forwards in the league is his ability to pass in the pick and roll, and is something I’m hoping to see this season.
We already had a glimpse of what Juancho can do off the dribble in Summer League - I think I speak for many Nuggets fans when I say I want to see more.