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Is Spain’s Next Brotherly Duo Ready to Take the Gasol Throne?

What EuroBasket tells us about the futures of Willy and Juancho Hernangomez, siblings who each represent a side of basketball’s unending old-school/new-school debate

Juancho and Willy Hernangomez Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Gasol brothers will have to pass the torch soon. Pau and Marc have been the backbone of the Spanish national team for more than a decade, but at 37 and 32, respectively, every major tournament they play in from here on might be their last. For a country without a talent pool as deep as the United States, a family that produces multiple NBA-caliber players is an incredible luxury. The good news for Spain is they have another one waiting in the wings. Willy Hernangomez, 23, and Juancho Hernangomez, 21, just finished their rookie seasons in the NBA, and both are playing well in roles off the bench at EuroBasket.

Like Pau and Marc, Willy and Juancho have dramatically different games and body types. At 6-foot-11 and 240 pounds, Willy is the big brother, a bruiser who loves to throw his body around and muck things up in the paint. Juancho, at 6-foot-9 and 230 pounds, is slender and angular, a combo forward who can light up the defense from behind the 3-point line. Willy was drafted at no. 35 overall by the Knicks in 2015, and he gradually earned playing time over the course of his rookie season, forming a supersized frontline with Kristaps Porzingis, his former teammate at Sevilla. Juancho was taken by the Nuggets at no. 15 overall in 2016, and he carved out a small role as a reserve as part of a crowded frontcourt rotation in Denver. They play like guys who have been influenced by the Gasols: They are intuitive players who can read the floor, move the ball, and make their teammates better.

Juancho has the bigger role for the Spanish team because he can play with both of the Gasol brothers. He is averaging 9.3 points and 6.3 rebounds in 20.6 minutes per game at EuroBasket. Spain uses him primarily as a floor spacer. He runs around screens and spots up like a much smaller player. He’s a capable shooter, shooting 6-of-17 (35.3 percent) from deep in the tournament after going 46-of-113 (40.7 percent) from 3 in his first season in the NBA. A guy who plays with Ricky Rubio and two traditional big men has to be able to stretch the floor, and Hernangomez can open up space by moving off the ball:

Juancho can also make plays for others off the bounce, adding an element of flexibility necessary for an offense to function with so many bigger players on the floor. He doesn’t get to play with the ball in his hands much, either in Denver or with Spain, but he can serve as a secondary playmaker and take some pressure off the guards:

While combo forwards are automatically slotted as small-ball 4s these days, the resulting logjam at power forward leaguewide means minutes are hard to come by. Just look at how many other players the Nuggets can use at the 4: Paul Millsap, Kenneth Faried, Wilson Chandler, Darrell Arthur, Trey Lyles (whom they traded down 11 spots in the draft to acquire), and Tyler Lydon, whom they took with the no. 24 overall pick. Of those six, only Chandler, the Nuggets’ starting 3, could function as a small forward. Juancho’s ability to shoot and make plays from the 3-point line means he can as well, and it benefits his team in several ways.

One is on the glass, where Juancho has a knack for getting his hands on balls. He has a rare combination of 3-point shooting and offensive rebounding ability: He was one of only five players in the NBA last season who shot 40 percent from 3 on at least 100 attempts while also posting an offensive rebounding percentage greater than 5. Even when he doesn’t get the board himself, he will keep it alive and create a chance for one of his teammates:

The other is increasing the amount of length on the floor defensively. Juancho averaged 1.3 steals and 0.5 blocks per 36 minutes of playing time as a rookie, and he has three steals and six blocks over seven games at EuroBasket. Watch him track former Boston College guard Tyrese Rice, pick him up when he cuts to the rim, and pin his shot off the glass:

The key to making a positional downshift work for the bigger guy is having the ability to stick with smaller players on the perimeter. With neither Sergio Llull nor Rudy Fernandez playing for the national team this summer, Spain has needed Juancho to spend a lot of time on the other team’s primary wing scorer. His best showing came in their 79-73 win over Croatia in group play, when he helped hold Pacers wing Bojan Bogdanovic (who averaged 22.5 points on 57.7 percent shooting in the tournament) to 15 points on 6-of-16 shooting. Juancho isn’t an elite athlete, but he’s a smart defender who uses his size well. In this sequence, he fights over a screen, funnels Bogdanovic into a shotblocker, recovers on him at the 3-point line and then forces him into a difficult fadeaway:

Of course, there’s a big difference between guarding Bogdanovic and guys like Gordon Hayward and Khris Middleton, much less LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Combo forward is the position where the difference between international play and the NBA is most pronounced. Juancho is one of the best athletes his size at EuroBasket, but he’s just a guy in the NBA. He has to get much stronger if he’s going to hang with the best players at his position at the next level, without losing any foot speed. One fascinating matchup to watch at the EuroBasket semifinals Thursday is Juancho guarding Luka Doncic, the 18-year-old phenom who has been tearing it up for Slovenia and is one of the front-runners to be the no. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft.

The playing-time situation is reversed for Willy, who is averaging 16 minutes per game at EuroBasket but could have a much bigger role for the Knicks this season, depending on how much they get from Joakim Noah. He averaged 8.2 points and seven rebounds a game on 52.9 percent shooting as a rookie, and his activity in the paint provided a needed shot of energy to a Knicks team that was often going through the motions. Willy has picked up where he left off in New York at EuroBasket; not many guys with his frame can stop on a dime and make the right pass when rolling to the rim, like he does here against Croatia:

He plays a little like Marc Gasol in that he knows how to use his body to his advantage and create angles to get his shot off. Willy is the better shot creator of the two brothers, and he can demand a double-team when he’s in a rhythm. He flat-out embarrasses Nikola Vucevic with this up-and-under:

However, for as many moves as Willy has around the basket, he was in only the 13th percentile of post scorers in the NBA last season, according to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports. He’s not particularly long (7-foot-1 wingspan) or athletic, and he doesn’t have much range on his shot, as he shot 52-of-139 (37.4 percent) outside of 5 feet. His only option is to power through defenders and bully his way to the basket, which can be only so effective against the Goliaths he faces in the NBA. Vucevic isn’t one of the better defenders at the position, and he’s still able to swallow Willy in the post in this play:

The bigger issue for Willy, like most traditional big men these days, is whether he can stay on the court against NBA offenses that spread the floor and force them to guard in space. It’s a worst of both worlds situation: He’s not fast enough to get out and cover smaller players on the perimeter, and he doesn’t offer much of a defensive presence at the rim. He has had only one block in seven games in Turkey, and opponents shot 59.6 percent at the rim against him last season, according to the tracking numbers at NBA.com. Watch how easily Rice is able to turn the corner on Willy in this clip:

Most of Montenegro’s limited offensive success against Spain came from shredding Willy in the pick-and-roll. He doesn’t have the physical tools to make up for being out of position: Once someone gets a step on him, he’s not quick or long enough to recover. His only chance at being passable is to play like Marc Gasol, who is always one step ahead of what the offense is trying to do and can anticipate where on the floor to put himself in order to make a play. Learning how to play good interior defense is one of the toughest things in the NBA to master, as you can see from Willy’s poor defensive metrics as a rookie:

Willy Hernangomez Defense by Play Type

Type of Play Defended Possessions Points Per Possession Allowed Percentile Rank
Type of Play Defended Possessions Points Per Possession Allowed Percentile Rank
Pick-and-Roll Ball Handler 338 0.87 47th
Post-up 72 1.028 22nd
Isolation 63 1.175 6th
Pick-and-Roll Roll Man 42 1.024 34th

In theory, Porzingis could cover for a lot of Willy’s shortcomings, since KP can protect the rim while also stretching the floor. However, if KP is guarding 4s on the perimeter, it’s going to be hard for him to recover quickly enough to protect the paint, and Willy can’t track smaller players along the 3-point line. Even in New York, if Willy can’t become better defensively, it’s hard to see him being able to hold down the starting center job long term. Centers who can’t protect the rim or stretch the floor are an endangered species in the NBA, and he might be better off coming off the bench like he does for Spain, where he can be a primary focal point against less talented big men.

There are just fewer ways for Willy to contribute to a good NBA team than for Juancho, who has the offensive game that allows him to mesh with almost anyone. Juancho doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be effective, and he can improve an offense by spacing the floor and moving the ball, allowing him to impact the game without a high usage rate. In a league where so many players need touches, guys with Juancho’s skill set can be extremely valuable. Despite being two years younger than Willy, he’s more important to Spain’s chances of winning EuroBasket. Together, the Hernangomez brothers will pick up where the Gasols left off as the cornerstones of the Spanish team. But in the NBA, where versatility is king, Juancho has the brighter future.