As Juancho Hernangomez drilled one 3-pointer and gobbled up one rebound after another against Golden State in February, igniting one of the best performances of the season by the Nuggets, it was easy to picture the rookie forward becoming a key piece of Denver’s future.
That future could approaching quickly for the 6-foot-9 small forward from Spain.
With the Nuggets working on a sign-and-trade deal as of Tuesday that would send Danilo Gallinari to the Los Angeles Clippers — probably for draft compensation, according to ESPN — Hernangomez is in line to become a major piece to the roster puzzle at small forward.
The Nuggets believe the 27-point, 10-rebound performance by Hernangomez against the Warriors, which included six 3-pointers, provided a window into what he could contribute in his second season and beyond: namely, a small forward mobile and big enough to create mismatch problems with his shooting and provide versatility on the defensive end.
“One thing Juancho always does is play extremely hard,” said Nuggets assistant coach Micah Nori, who will be coaching Hernangomez and the rest of the team’s summer league roster in Las Vegas beginning Friday. “Now what you’re going to get is a kid who has a year’s worth of NBA experience under his belt. Whereas last year you’re going into everything as a new experience and you’re surviving on energy, now he doesn’t have to burn as much saying, ‘Hey, what am I doing?’ He’s been through it.”
Hernangomez will play only a few games at the summer league, which the Nuggets begin at 8 p.m. MDT on Friday against Houston, before returning to Spain to practice with the national team ahead of its play in Eurobasket 2017 at the end of August. In the time he does spend in Las Vegas, Hernangomez will have a featured role as a scorer. Nori and Nuggets head coach Michael Malone went over sets Tuesday that the team will run for Hernangomez.
There is probably more roster change coming for the Nuggets, who reached an agreement with power forward Paul Millsap on a three-year, $90 million contract Sunday. Point guard George Hill had been a reported target for Denver, but he agreed to terms on a three-year deal with Sacramento on Tuesday. Players can officially sign new contracts Friday.
It wasn’t immediately clear Tuesday where the Nuggets will turn their attention next. They still have to consolidate the crowded power forward position. And their reported pursuit of Hill and their exploration of an opportunity to acquire Phoenix’s Eric Bledsoe on draft night last month point to a desire to upgrade the point guard spot.
Regardless of the moves that are made going forward, Hernangomez will certainly see an elevated role next season. Replacing Gallinari’s production at small forward would be no easy feat. The 6-10 Italian averaged 18.2 points and 5.2 rebounds while shooting 44.7 percent from the field and 38.9 percent from 3-point range. Despite injuries that sapped him of some of his athleticism, Gallinari had been one of Denver’s most consistent players since arriving in 2010 through the trade that sent Carmelo Anthony to the Knicks.
Wilson Chandler, a 6-8 forward who averaged 15.7 points over 71 games and was also a part of that trade, is an obvious replacement as the starting small forward, though he played multiple positions last season.
Still, it will take depth at the position, along with improved defense, for the Nuggets to take the next step in their pursuit of their first playoff experience since 2013. Nori and other Nuggets coaches and front-office personnel have been effusive in their praise of Hernangomez’s work ethic. Tuesday provided a common scene this summer, they’ve said: Hernangomez shooting shots by himself well after practice had ended.
“Every summer I try to make some goals, and this summer it’s to try to get my body ready for next year,” said Hernangomez, who averaged 4.9 points and three rebounds during his rookie season. “I’m trying to be consistent on my shot, be consistent playing one-on-one and become the most complete player I can be.”