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Can Willy Hernangómez Be the Face of This Year’s Rookie Class?

Philly’s Embiid is out for the year, and without a clear-cut frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, can the Knicks’ Hernangómez make his case as 2017’s real deal?

Photo: Michael Reaves/Getty Images

If you’ve followed me, or any member of The Knicks Wall on Twitter, by now you’d know how we’ve felt about Willy Hernangoómez for much of this season.

We knew he’d be good, at least better than Joakim Noah, if given ample opportunity. It only took 50 some-odd games, but after Noah was ruled out for the remainder of this season, Willy was finally given his chance, as Coach Jeff Hornacek ruled Willy the starter through the rest of the season.

Let’s get one thing out of the way immediately before I make the case for Willy; if Joel Embiid wasn’t missing the rest of the season due to his meniscus tear, Willy would have zero shot at winning this award. Hell, Embiid still might win it.

At first glance, Willy’s numbers are unimpressive:

via NBA.com/Stats

On the year, Willy is averaging a paltry 6.8 points, 6.1 rebounds, and about half a block a game. Nothing to write home about, but some context is important. Willy was buried, more or less, on the Knicks bench to start the season. He’s gotten more opportunities as the year has gone by, and as Joakim Noah has gone down.

Let’s take a look at his month-by-month totals:

via NBA.com/Stats

As you can see, there’s been an uptick in Willy’s playing time, as well as his production, with each passing month. Some of those increases are small, but his stretch in February is what really stands out. In 10 games, he averaged nearly double-double with 10.7 points and 9.5 rebounds, while doubling his assists, steals, and blocks per game.

Assuming his minutes continue to increase, it’s likely his production will as well, putting him in the same ranks as the other new favorites to win the Rookie of the Year Award, namely Dario Saric and Malcolm Brogdon.

Embiid’s numbers will not be topped this year, but let’s see how Willy stacks up next to the Saric and Brogdon in Per 36:

Per 36 numbers via Basketball-Reference.com

Assuming Willy plays around 30 minutes per game moving forward, as he did in the month of February, it’s not inconceivable to believe he’ll be able to thrust his name into this conversation.

The problem at this point is less about who his competition is, but how large their body of work is in comparison to his own. The biggest knock on Joel Embiid for the ROTY award is that despite is unparalleled production, he has only played a measly 786 minutes this season. The fewest minutes ever by a winner was Kyrie Irving, with 1,559 minutes played. Willy is currently at 866 minutes played through 53 games. If he can average close to 30 minutes a game to finish the season, he should be able to clear that threshold.

If you aren’t sold on Willy yet, a final set of advanced statistics should do the trick.

via Basketball-Reference.com

Per 100 possessions, Willy ranks 10 points higher than Embiid in ORtg, while ranking second behind Embiid in DRtg.

via Basketball-Reference.com

Finally, he ranks second in win shares, highest in win shares per 48 minutes, and is tied for second in VORP (Value over replacement player).

In short, Willy’s production since stepping into a larger role has been excellent, though the issue is it may be too little, too late.


Photo: Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE

Look, barring a truly exceptional run to close out the season, Willy won’t be winning this award. Had he started the entire season, he might have had a chance, but the fact of the matter is Saric and Brogdon have likely locked this award up in the scenario where Embiid doesn’t win it. For what it’s worth, and I know he’s only played 31 games, I’d still give it to Embiid. That kind of production on a minutes restriction is unheard of, and despite the historically low minutes played, I would give it to him.

Hernangomez can play, and knowing we have a bonafide center to play alongside Kristaps while he’s groomed for the position is reassuring. For now, we’ll have to settle for Willy being a second round steal, who was selected to the Rising Stars game over the All-Star break, and who is likely the second coming of Marc Gasol, as our social media editor trey as often and always said. He’s a talented, offensive-minded big who’s so much more polished than we ever could have hoped for.

I mean…*kisses finger like Italian chef*

Also:

And finally:

Willy’s season has essentially been one large learning curve, and now we’re really starting to see him play well across the board, not just in one facet of his game.

He won’t win the award, but seeing him throw his hat into the ring should make the remainder of a disappointing season worthwhile, and provide us something to look forward to for next season.

Kyle Maggio, senior writer

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