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What position will Juancho Hernangomez succeed at?

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After the departure of Danilo Gallinari, there’s an opening at small forward for Juancho Hernangomez. Will the young forward succeed at that position?

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Denver Nuggets Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Denver Stiffs staff is composed of bright individuals whom have opinions on many things, ranging from the Nuggets 2017 starting point guard to attending Ke$ha concerts. Gordon Gross and Daniel Lewis had a discussion over the future of Juancho Hernangomez.

Gordon Gross (@GMoneyNuggs): Daniel, on the most recent Pickaxe podcast I heard you lay out your argument for Juancho Hernangomez as the backup three. Can you recap it here? I'm not sure I see it the same way.

Daniel Lewis (@minutemandan): Juancho isn't the same player as Danilo Gallinari. When people say "We want him to step into Gallo's shoes," we want him to eventually step into his minutes, but he won't necessarily have the same role as Gallo had because they had different strengths. The offense has been different for Gallo than it will be for Juancho, because Gallo spent more time playing with Ty Lawson and Juancho will be playing with Nikola Jokic. With the way the Nuggets offense has developed and projects with Jokic as the primary playmaker, I don't think that the Nuggets need Juancho to be a guy that dribbles and attacks the rim as often as Gallo did, becaause with Gallinari, he didn't have playmaking centers. Last season we saw more screens being set by guards, and small forwards setting screens to create mismatches because Jokic has the ball and that pulls the center away from the hoop. I don't think the Nuggets need Juancho's role to be an attacker off the dribble, they can have him shoot extremely well from 3-point range, to rebound, and to set screens on opposing guards.

Gross: I know you're saying you don't want Juancho to play the same way that Gallo did, but I don't see how what you want for Juancho is different as a wing than as a stretch 4. I expect him to play combo forward but Juancho is a pretty big dude (much stouter and even taller than Tyler Lydon who was drafted for the same purpose) and he doesn't really have the quick feet that Gallo had as a young man. In fact, he's taller than Paul Millsap and in another year or two will probably have the same mass as Denver's highest paid player, a guy who plays PF/C. Gallinari didn't particularly like banging inside and I'm not sure how Juancho feels about it, but he'll have the frame for it. What's the benefit of playing Juancho at the 3 while he tries to defend wings rather than teaching him post defense and closeouts behind Millsap?

Lewis: If we can think of Juancho as that guy, then I think his role becomes more clear. We also have to consider the role he'll have with the second unit. He's going to be playing with one of Jamal Murray, Emmanuel Mudiay or Jameer Nelson with Will Barton at the other guard position. Mason Plumlee and Trey Lyles, whom I believe will play as the backup power forward, will fill out the frontcourt. That gives Denver two guards that can attack the rim in a more traditional offense, a center that knows how to set screens, and two forwards that can rebound, shoot, and defend in space.

Why do you keep on bringing up height? While Juancho Hernangomez is not Kevin Durant, for the Warriors, there are times when Durant is the tallest player on the floor for them and he's playing small forward. It's more about his ability to play defense well in space, because he'll have to switch onto some guards at times as a small forward while also having responsibilities on the defensive glass. Gallinari was taller than Wilson Chandler, but frequently played as the small forward with Chandler playing as a stretch four - it was because of Gallinari's individual strengths and weaknesses.

You're also focusing on the defensive end. In my opinion, the Nuggets gave up on trying to be better than league average on defense when they acquired Trey Lyles and Tyler Lydon on draft night. They didn't invest in defensive players, so I'm not going to invest time on that end of the court for the Nuggets either. I think Juancho can play as a small forward on offense because of some of the things I talked about earlier. They also don't have the minutes available for Juancho to play in smaller lineups as a power forward, because, as you are well aware, they have four power forwards on their roster and seven players that could get minutes there throughout the season. What they don't have is a better option than Juancho as a backup small forward - every defensive concern you have with Juancho is there for Will Barton, except Barton is like a Prius trying to win a demolition derby when he plays up a position.

Gross: I'm focusing on defense and height because if Juancho is ever going to be a complete player then it seems more likely that he does it at the 4 than the 3. Yes, he can stand around on the perimeter on offense and hit open 3s but I do not trust him with the ball in his hands. Chandler and Barton can at least drive the hoop - Juancho is utterly lost in that regard. Summer League bums who will soon be restocking shelves at Costco ripped the ball from him at every opportunity. What he does as a perimeter 3 on offense right now is hope to cut or get an open look. If the ball is in his hands with a defender on him, he's just moving it - and not for a basket. That's a good understanding of his current weaknesses but doesn't make me want to see him asked to do more off the bench as a creator.

With a bench headed up by Emmanuel Mudiay, someone else will likely have to do some creating as teams sag off Mudiay defensively until he proves he can hit open shots. Barton is no defender at the 3, as you said, but I'd rather see Barton next to Juancho than Juancho next to Trey Lyles off the bench. Yes, Denver has a ton of power forwards but if none of them are better prospects than Juancho then what do I care how many there are? Let Hernangomez practice at things he can be better at (bodying up an offensive player, hedging and screening and providing open threes and pop shots) rather than requiring him to carry any sort of creative or isolation load. If he improves his handle then let him play more 3, but his skillset and stat line (in admittedly few minutes) looks more like a big playing out, like a Ryan Anderson type, than a tall wing to me. What are you considering the difference between a stretch 4 and a tall 3 that makes you so adamant about this anyway, if it has nothing to do with their defensive roles?

Lewis: We're debating over Juancho, so I'll avoid addressing your Trey Lyles libel. I tend to ignore Summer League tape when I have actual NBA tape to watch, especially considering Juancho was playing with goggles to help his eyes recover. Nuggets fans were going bananas over Juancho's potential after last season, a couple bad games at Summer League won't change my opinion of him.

You bring up a trend in the NBA where there seems to be no difference between a traditional small forward and a modern stretch four. Cole Zwicker, a fellow draft nerd, has a great reference system where he has created categories to group players together in. Juancho falls into his "wing four" category in my opinion.

Where his value comes from being a small forward that can swing to power forward at times, but isn't necessarily a good fit at either position. I think Juancho has the mobility to defend more on the wing than what his category as a “face up ballhandler with low defense/feel” might be as a power forward.

For example, Ryan Anderson plays at power forward because he has the frame and length to somewhat compete there, but realistically, he should be a small forward, he's just too slow. Juancho exemplifies the "problem" with tweeners in the NBA. It's hard to define their position generally, but once placed in a situation, it's easier to define their role. With another team Juancho might be spending most of his time as a four, but with the Nuggets, he'll be at the three.

I'd rather see them roll with Juancho as the backup three than Will Barton or Torrey Craig. One of those guys we are certain can't provide more value at the three than Juancho, and the other is a 26 year old rookie. What separates Juancho from not being categorized as a wing and as a power forward instead?

Gross: That's what I wanted to get at: Juancho IS a tweener, which is not the curse word that it was just a handful of years ago. There are things he does that are more like small forward and things that lean toward power forward. The Nuggets love their combo forwards, as both Gallinari and Wilson Chandler are in that mold. That said, I prefer my wings to be able to create either by drive or assist and Juancho is currently not capable of either. Gallinari could drive the hoop even if he looked like a lumbering giraffe who fell down at first contact - it worked. He could also pass from both the perimeter and off the drive. Wilson Chandler doesn't pass but he can get to the rack with the ball still in his hands. Chandler being less effective at both creating for himself and others is part of what makes him more of a 4 in my book, so he too will be out of position as a 3... but he can still do it.

Having both Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap as shot-creating assist men in the front court lifts much of that burden off of the wings and will allow Juancho to play more at the 3 on this team, as you said. I fully expect him to be manning both positions for this team off the bench. I hesitate to make too much hay off of 843 minutes of NBA time, but Juancho has rebounding potential on the defensive boards that most of the wing fours mentioned in that Face-Up Handlers article don't show. His offensive rates will be lower because he's stationed out by the three point line, but that's the same for any Ryan Anderson type. I'd consider Terrence Jones to be a good mid-line for Juancho if this is the player he always is, and I've never thought he was anything but a 4. If the Nuggets are running Juancho and Lyles out there together they may just switch them on defense, and then Juancho can play the 3 on offense like you want. He just has a lot of big man skills (and some big man weaknesseses). If he is too slow-footed to guard 3s and not hefty enough for 4s, we can have him put on muscle. He's got the frame for it, and his brother does it just fine. I think Juancho is a good basketball player, but knowing what we want from him can give him direction for improving his game. You've said that the situation will determine his direction while I'd look at it through this lens: which parts of his game he is most likely to improve. What's your ultimate vision of Juancho? At 25, what's his game like?

Lewis: Not everyone can just "put on muscle" though. Some of us are blessed that we can handle the extra mass, but for others, it's really difficult. It's like saying, "oh he'll develop a jumper in the NBA." Most of the time that isn't how things end up working out. Even if his brother can (and is) hefty, that doesn't mean anything for Juancho other than the fact that his brother is different than he is.

I think that he can improve his ability to attack closeouts and pull up for a midrange jumper. He shoots well enough he doesn't always have to get to the rim. I think he can improve his passing as he gets more minutes with his teammates and becomes more familiar with the NBA.

My ultimate vision of Juancho is like Otto Porter, but more offensively skilled than defensively skilled. He'd be an elite perimeter threat, and someone that averages about 14-17 points per game. He wouldn't be playmaking as much to help save energy for defense where he can use his length to contest on the perimeter and his agility to help defend the rim and rebound.

This is for another time, but I also am a believer in Trey Lyles. He'll have to prove it, but I think they have the ability to be a part of the Nuggets future for the next six years. What do you think is the ultimate version of Juancho?

Gross: Juancho will always be a little smaller than his brother, but I consider Juancho the more skilled and I don't think he's struggling to put muscle on. Speaking of the brothers, this NBA 2k18 video of them facing off will never be anything other than awesome. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4K-o881oO9c But Otto Porter makes sense as a three because of his defensive capabilities. I'd see Juancho as an Antawn Jamison type (also a 3/4) who gets more possessions inside but can shoot threes and space the floor as Jamison did in his Washington days. I don't think we're really that far off in our hopes for Juancho but I think it'd be easier to build his power forward skillset (certainly as a small-ball 4) and then go about enhancing his ability to defend small forwards than do it the other way. He can be an elite perimeter threat as either a 3 or a 4, but as you've said the Nuggets seem to have a bigger need at backup 3 since they have half the roster capable of playing the 4.

For Juancho's sake, though, I think he'd grow faster by letting him take on more traditional 4 responsibilities against the non-Enes-Kanters of the world. As long as he's getting minutes with Jokic and Millsap and not just playing next to Denver's non-shooting bench lineup, he'll probably be fine. Juancho has the most upside of any young player we have at the 3 OR the 4, so it's hard for Denver to mess up their investment in him in either role.