Almost one-year ago, Juancho Hernangomez had his coming out party against the best team in the world. The Nuggets were hosting the Golden State Warriors — a matchup they’ve found relative success in compared to the rest of the league. The Nuggets would emerge victorious thanks to a complete team effort, but that effort was highlighted by a career-high 27 points for Hernangomez.
Hernangomez — still a rookie at the time — drilled six three-pointers against the Warriors. Those threes were among the 24 that Denver would knock down that game — a mark that tied the single-game record in the regular season. They were also the genesis of a new go-to catchphrase for Altitude TV’s Scott Hastings. Juancho had arrived, and he planted his flag firmly on the right wing of the Pepsi Center.
It appeared that the Spaniard was going to fit in just fine in the Mile High City, but less than one season later, the Spanish Sensation has fallen all the way out of Nuggets’ head coach Michael Malone’s rotation.
Hernangomez was selected by Denver with the 14th overall draft pick in 2015. Equipped with height, length, and an ability to shoot the lights out, he had the makings of a potential stretch four; the type of player the Nuggets hoped to surround their budding star Nikola Jokic with.
Team-building is fluid though, and the trajectory of a franchise changes on a daily basis. The Nuggets would bring in All-Star forward Paul Millsap in the following offseason and they traded for Trey Lyles on draft night as well. All of a sudden, a log-jam had appeared at the power forward position.
Hernangomez’s path to consistent minutes revealed itself to be not a straight shot, but a windy and thorny road. A road that grew even thornier when he came down with mono in the final week of October.
The illness sidelined the 22-year old for over a month, and when he returned, his spot on the court had been filled. The illness was synched up with the rise of Lyles, who has been nothing short of a revelation in place of the injured Millsap. The two factors compounded and the result left Juancho on the outside looking in. It hasn’t been easy for him.
“Basketball is my world, and I love playing basketball. I can play 24 hours every single day.” Hernangomez told Mile High Sports. “I just love playing basketball, and when I don’t play basketball, I’m mad and not happy. And that is the situation right now.”
There’s a still a strong language barrier for Hernangomez, who struggles at times to find the correct adjectives. He used the word ‘mad’, but that certainly doesn’t describe his demeanor. Hernangomez is considered to be one of the more lovable and happy teammates on this roster.
“He jokes with me every day pretty much.” Torrey Craig told Mile High Sports. “He’s one of the most childish guys on the team. He’s still got a great personality, his energy is good. He’s still being as positive as he can be. He’s been great.”
Mononucleosis is a brutal illness, one that saps your energy and drains you to the core. It can take up to two months to recover, an even longer time to get your body back to where Hernangomez would like it to be — let alone to a place that might allow you to compete at a professional level. But Hernangomez says the mono isn’t what’s holding him back at this point. He’s ready to play.
“No, I don’t think it’s the mono,” Hernangomez told Mile High Sports. “It’s just basketball. Lyles is playing so good so, I’m really happy for him. He deserves that. He practices hard, so I’m happy for him.”
It’s easy for a player to give the politically correct answer in an interview, but discussions with the rest of the roster shed some light on the attitude Hernangomez has kept throughout this process. Even the player who took his spot, Trey Lyles, lauds his approach given the circumstances.
“He’s great. He’s one of the best teammates I’ve ever had,” Lyles told Mile High Sports with a big smile and some uncharacteristic enthusiasm. “He stays in the gym working and stuff like that. You always see him on the sideline cheering for us during the game. So he’s definitely been positive and stayed with the team.”
Hernangomez walked a fine line with his comments. He was unquestionably supportive of his team and his coach’s decision, but make no mistake about it — he wants to play, and he thinks he’s ready to contribute.
“I was in (the) rotation last year, then I got mono. Then after the mono, I thought I’d get back into (the) rotation. I play (well), but it is what it is,” Hernangomez conceded. “I am out of the rotation because the coach makes the decision, but I need to try and keep practicing and be ready when I play; whenever that is.”
Hernangomez is doing everything he can to stay prepared should that chance swing his way. He’s often one of the final players to leave the court following a practice, and he can almost always be found working on his shot with the coaching staff.
“I’m practicing hard. I’m playing 3-3 and playing hard,” Hernangomez told Mile High Sports. His strong work ethic is apparent, and it’s not lost on his teammates.
“He has high spirits every day he comes in. You know he’s putting in the work every day,” Gary Harris told Mile High Sports, “And he’s keeping a clear head, you know, and his time is going to come. He’s just gotta continue to keep putting in the work.”
As the trade deadline approaches, there has been no official word on Hernangomez’s availability in any discussions. He might carry some value in that market as a late lottery pick who has already shown flashes of his tremendous shooting ability.
As Denver looks to offload some less-than-desirable contracts, he could work nicely as a deal sweetener given his absence in the regular rotation. But that train of thought doesn’t concern the young Spaniard. Trade talks are out of his hands and he’s focusing on what he can control.
“It is what it is,” Hernangomez admitted. “I don’t know what’s going on with the trade deadline or anything. You don’t know when it is your chance coming so, you just have to be ready.”
It appears that Hernangomez has his head in the right place. He wants to compete, he’s ready to compete, but all he can do is focus on his approach day-in and day-out. For Juancho, the appropriate approach to his admittedly frustrating situation is simple: stay prepared and stay patient.
“I’m just waiting for my chance. All the players want to play you know? If not, then we are not happy, Hernangomez told Mile High Sports. “But the team is doing great, I’m really happy for the team they play so hard and when I get a chance to help them, I’m going to do it.”