When word began to percolate through the Denver Nuggets locker room that a trade was nearing its completion, Juancho Hernangomez started to realize that he would be on his way out of Denver very shortly.
“I already knew,” Hernangomez told reporters on Saturday when he was asked if he had any idea that a trade was coming or not.
Even though Hernangomez knew he would be wearing a new uniform in the near future, he still had one last game at the Pepsi Center left to play as a member of the Nuggets prior to the trade deadline. He began mentally preparing for that final hurrah in the Mile High City, but as the game drew near, Nuggets head coach Michael Malone called Hernangomez into his office to give him some bad news.
“Before the game we played, coach talked to me and told me to go in his office,” Hernangomez explained. “So I go to him and he told me he didn’t want me to play because if I get hurt, I don’t get the chance to get traded or something like that.”
While Malone and the Nuggets front office may have wanted Hernangomez to sit out to avoid injury, Hernangomez had other plans.
“I told him that I wanted to play,” Hernangomez said when explaining how he convinced the Nuggets organization to let him play. “It was my decision and I was going to play and I was ready to help the team. (Malone) talked to Tim Connelly. Tim Connelly loves me and I love him so much so he knows how hard it is for me to not play. I want to play every time. Even if I am hurt, I play. Even if I have bad days, I play. He knew that being a competitor is the best way for me so he let me play.”
That night, Hernangomez had one of his better games in recent memory as he put up seven points, 11 rebounds, one steal and two blocks in 28 minutes of action. His play had a massive impact on the Nuggets win as Denver outscored Portland by 17 points when he was on the floor.
But by the time most of the players had filtered out of the locker room after the game, the news of the Nuggets inclusion in a four-team trade had been leaked which sent Hernangomez, Beasley and Jarred Vanderbilt to the Minnesota Timberwolves. Because of how late at night it was, Hernangomez did not get the time to properly say goodbye and thank you to everyone who helped him during his time in Denver.
That is why, when Hernangomez was speaking to the media as a member of the Timberwolves in Denver for his first trip back to take on his former team, he spoke about how strange it was, but also just how appreciative he is of the Nuggets organization for allowing him to fulfill his dream of playing in the NBA.
“It is like a weird feeling, you know? It was my home for four years,” Hernangomez explained. “I grew up here. I am the man who I am because of Denver, because of the organization, all of my teammates and all of the coaches. The way it all happened was really fast and I kind of got sad because I did not get a chance to say goodbye to everybody and say bye the way I want to say it, but right now I got the chance right here so I just want to say thanks to everybody for making my dream come true; taking a chance on a kid who was dreaming about the NBA, believed it and make it true. So thank you first of all to the Kroenke family, for Tim (Connelly) and (Arturas Karnisovas) and coach Malone to make my dream come true. To tell all the kids that dreams come true if you pursue, if you consistently work really hard. I just have a lot of words about — thank you to everybody who tells me to grow up as a man and the person who I am. I am a better person and a better player then when I came. That is all thanks to them. And of course the Denver fans. They would always cheer for me; even during hard times they cheer for me when I subbed in or started. It was like unconditional love for me from all the Denver nation and I love them and all the fans too.”
Of course being traded is far from a positive experience for most players and for Hernangomez it was no different. While he was undoubtedly thankful for his time with the Nuggets and his new opportunity with the Timberwolves, there was still the whole being traded thing that he had to cope with.
Hernangomez didn’t just flip teams when he was traded. He suddenly had to pack up and move out of Denver where he had lived for four years after leaving his home country of Spain. He was also leaving his best friend in Nikola Jokic. For Hernangomez, his life was flipped upside down, but that was a challenge he was immediately ready to accept.
“It is really difficult; I am not going to lie. It was hard times,” Hernangomez admitted when asked about the struggles of being traded. “This was my home, but my thing is that when players get outside of their comfort zone is when they work harder and fight for their chance. I know I was happy here with all of the players, but I think this change and this opportunity for me as a player is the best for me. I talked to (Jokic) a couple weeks before the trade. Like, he is my best friend. He wants the best things for me. I know he is going to be sad, but every time he sees me playing 35 minutes or starting or scoring, he is going to be happy for me because he knows how much I work, how much I work hard with the team and he knows I deserve the chance.
“For sure it is tough times, but a tough decision at the end is good for a person. I love the challenge — it is one big challenge. When I came to the NBA, it was come here and compete against the best players. I love the challenge. In my life, it sucks, but I want every challenge every year.”
Now, Hernangomez will begin a new chapter of his career in Minnesota where he has already found himself in a starting role with more opportunity than he has ever had in Denver. After four games, he is averaging 15.5 points, 5.8 rebounds and one assist per game with the Timberwolves and he is shooting a scalding hot 52.6% from three-point range.
But if you asked Hernangomez, he will be the first person to tell anyone in earshot that he would not be where he is today without the Nuggets organization.
That is why he fought so hard to play in his final game as a member of the Nuggets. This organization meant, and still means, a great deal to Hernangomez. That is why he wanted to make sure his swan song was, as he called it, “the great goodbye”.
“I told (Malone) that the best way for me to get out of Denver is to fight for a win and I played good and played great and we got the win. For me, it was like the great goodbye, you know? I knew the trade was going to be soon, but I did not know that soon. I knew it was my last game in Pepsi Center so I just enjoyed it and we got a win that night.
“That was the best way to say goodbye.”