Film Study: Will Juancho Hernangomez’s Strong FIBA Play Help Him Crack The Nuggets’ Rotation?

Argentina v Spain: Final - FIBA World Cup 2019
VCG via Getty Images

Eight three-pointers out of 47 attempts. Seventeen percent shooting. And 29 out of 36 games without a make from beyond the arc.

Last spring, Juancho Hernangomez finished his third season with the Denver Nuggets on a brutal shooting drought which included nine-game, seven-game and six-game stretches in which he didn’t hit a single three-pointer. His slump was especially disheartening given the knowledge of just how proficient a shooter he can be when he’s in top form and locked in, as he had shown just months earlier.

Although the Nuggets acknowledged he was playing through injuries, they were a bit cagey about the exact nature of his ailments at the time, and with the exception of some scattered “DNPs,” they continued playing him through the remainder of the season. The fact that Denver kept putting him on the court somewhat obscured the extent of what we now know was a core muscle injury which was serious enough to ultimately require surgical repair in May.

In a sense the news of the operation was almost a relief, as the drastic plummet of his shooting percentages could more assuredly be attributed to debilitating effects from his injury rather than issues with his actual game. Because at its best, his game had proven to be highly efficient, and valuable to the Nuggets when Juancho was on the court.

Even as a rookie Hernangomez wasted no time in demonstrating his range and accuracy. According to Cleaning the Glass, his 44% three-point percentage in his first year put him in the 98th percentile for his position. While the volume on that was not incredibly high (113 total attempts), it was still an impressive accomplishment for a relatively unknown rookie.

A bout of mononucleosis at the start of his sophomore season, however, undermined his opportunity to keep building on that success and effectively cost him his entire second year. This set off the bumpy trajectory that would unfold from there, and the fairly extreme highs and lows in Juancho’s shooting over his career can be seen in the chart below showing his three-point percentages by month (excluding months in which he played fewer than four games).

When fully healthy, Juancho has displayed a ceiling as a legitimately elite three-point shooter, as seen most recently when he started in 25 games from November 11 through January 5 last season. In order to jumpstart an offense which had been sputtering out of the gates, head coach Michael Malone replaced Torrey Craig (who himself was a replacement for the injured Will Barton) in the starting lineup with Hernangomez, who in turn was subsequently returned to the bench apparently after incurring his core muscle issue, and just before Barton returned from injury to resume his starting role..

In that two-month set of games as a starter, however, Hernangomez averaged 11.2 points and 6.3 rebounds in 30.7 minutes, including 1.8 made three-point shots at a clip of 42.5%, and his on-court net rating of +4.2 was fourth highest on the team after Paul Millsap, Monte Morris and Nikola Jokic, per NBA.com. While 25 games certainly isn’t a big enough sample size to ensure that he can sustain that level of production and over the course of an entire healthy season, it does point to his upside as a high-efficiency role player whose ability to knock down threes provides a legitimate enough threat to create the kind of floor spacing gravity that really opens things up for Denver’s offense.

It was in the context of all of these ups and downs (and recently, mostly downs) that there was great anticipation to see how Hernangomez would perform in the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup. As Spain’s third-leading scorer with 10.5 points per game and second-leading rebounder with 5.4 boards, Juancho was one of the most important helping his national team earn the championship.

Perhaps the most welcome sight was Juancho’s outstanding shooting in the tournament, where he made 1.4 three-pointers a game at a clip of 44.0%, and had a ridiculous true shooting percentage (TS%) of 70.7%. The latter reflected how effective he was from two-point range inside the arc and around the rim, where he shot 70.5%. Even in his 25-game starting zenith last season, Hernangomez shot 55.4% on two-point attempts, which while well above the NBA average of 51.9% would not have suggested he would achieve the extraordinary efficiency he achieved in FIBA play.

Here it bears noting all of the necessary caveats about most of the teams in the FIBA World Cup having only a small handful of NBA players, let alone stars, and the overall level of defensive sophistication being generally not on the NBA level. So it remains to be seen whether Hernangomez can translate his success with Spain to a solid performance in Denver’s training camp and preseason as the “open competition” for playing time at the small forward position ensues.

That said, there are no two ways around it, Juancho just looked great in the FIBA tournament. He had a spring in his step, a lift in his bounce, he was running the floor in transition both on offense and defense, and his shot was as dialed in as it has ever been even through his best stretches with the Nuggets.

It wasn’t only Juancho’s perimeter shooting that showed encouraging signs in his FIBA play, and in turning to the tape, this film study begins with other aspects of his game which will be crucial for him to fortify if he is to earn a spot in the Nuggets’ rotation.

Film Study: Juancho Hernangomez’ Play In The 2019 FIBA World Cup

Defense And Rebounding

If there’s one area of his game Juancho most needs to strengthen to earn time in the regular rotation, it’s his defense, which has proven to be enough of a liability in the past that Malone has found it difficult to keep him on the court, especially given how strongly he trusts Craig for defensive purposes. When Hernangomez defends in space he tends to struggle, and on the perimeter – where his movement tends to look a bit frantic – he has a hard time preventing penetration, as seen in the first clip. With his length he has show the ability to recover, however, as he gets the block on the same play in this case. While Juancho isn’t known for rim protection, according to Cleaning the Glass his 1.0% block rate put him at a respectable 68th percentile among forwards last season, and improvement there could be one pathway to making a bigger defensive impact.

With Spain he also showed perhaps a stronger awareness of positioning, and the steal he gets shows another area of potential growth, again using his length, in disrupting passing lanes for deflections.

His greatest strength on defense, however, is his rebounding, where despite his wiry frame and relative lack of strength compared with other players at his position, he just has a great knack for boxing out and getting to the right spots to pull down boards. And with more teams putting out small ball lineups, there should be plenty of situations where Juancho’s height, combined with his great sense of positioning, helps alleviate his lack of bulk.

Hernangomez doesn’t really have the tools to be a lock down defender, and overall his greatest need will be to improve his general defensive awareness. But the effort has always been there, even if it’s lacked focus, and if he can figure out how to better use his length to shore up the areas described above, it should help to mitigate his status as a defensive liability.

Offensive Rebounding

There isn’t too much more to add to the theme of his rebounding prowess, but it’s worth highlighting that Hernangomez also does a solid job of crashing the offensive glass. Offensive rebounding is one of Juancho’s stronger skills, having ranked in the 77th, 92nd and 84th percentiles respectively through his first three NBA seasons, per Cleaning the Glass. One important aspect of this, and one which should help put him in Malone’s good graces, is that he generally shows good decision-making after the rebound, knowing when he’s well-positioned for a to put a shot attempt back up, and when it’s better to instead kick it out to reset the play. He also just has a strong sense of timing on following up on teammates’ shots by getting to the rim for tip-ins and put-backs.

Cuts And Drives To The Basket

Hernangomez is rightfully seen having three-point shooting as his strongest offensive skill, but cutting is a closer second than some might think. Juancho’s lankiness can tend to make his movement look a bit awkward, but this tends to betray just how good a feel for the game he really has, and that shines through perhaps most clearly on cuts.

Cutting is another aspect of Juancho’s game where his astute timing and positioning gets him to the right place to make the right play. Somewhat ironically, he seems to read the floor on offense to as high a degree as he seems to struggle with doing so on defense at times. He’s also adept at using screens to get an unencumbered path to the rim, as seen in the third clip of the give-and-go with Marc Gasol at the perimeter.

As for drives, Hernangomez doesn’t have the handles to be too much of a threat in traffic, but when he gets an open lane to the basket, as seen in the final clip here, he is capable of making straight-line drives. And while his dribble and first step will probably remain suspect, this does at least open the door to a potential area of improvement on offense, attacking close-outs.

Getting Behind The Defense And Slipping Screens

Juancho has a knack for lurking. It may seem odd to describe this as a skill, but it is actually true that he’s good at finding ways of getting behind the defense and hiding in plain sight. Now, this seems an appropriate place to repeat the caveat of FIBA versus the NBA, but even when playing against more vigilant defenses, if Hernangomez is in a lineup with, say, Jokic, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Michael Porter Jr., the chances are pretty good – especially if he’s not in three-point range – that he’ll be receiving the least defensive attention. And just like his Spanish teammates did a great job of finding him near the rim, Jokic won’t miss those high percentage scoring opportunities.

Another way Hernangomez sets himself up well is a little more cut-and-dried: simply running the floor in transition to get ahead of the defense, as seen in the third clip here. As with his defense, Hernangomez may not be particularly known for his transition game, but that’s not for lack of effort. He consistently gets out quickly on the fast break, and in his FIBA play it paid off with good results.

Juancho also displays great timing on slipping screens to get open looks at the rim. In the final clip he makes the read that the defense is not completely set up yet (again, a luxury he won’t always enjoy in the NBA, but a solid skill nonetheless), and after setting the screen on the high pick-and-roll dives in for the easy basket.

Three-Pointers

Here we finally come to Juancho’s bread and butter: the three-point shot. While his efficiency from the arc has already been discussed at length above, a few points from the film bear noting. Firstly, that his form looked great at FIBA – and importantly, like he’s genuinely fully healthy. He’s getting good lift on his jumpers with a high release point that with his height and length will be difficult even for close defenders to contest.

Also on display is Juancho’s keen talent for spacing the floor. Last year, Adam Mares, then of the Denver Stiffs, now with DNVR, did an excellent breakdown on how Hernangomez has a great feel for perfectly positioning himself to create ideal floor spacing. I highly recommend clicking the link to see the article in its entirety, but the gist is that Juancho has a great knack for either picking spots or sliding and shifting around the arc to optimally space the floor.

Finally, don’t expect to see Hernangomez attempt too many pull-up threes as shown in the final clip, as according to PBP Stats his career percentage of how many three-pointers were assisted is 98.4%. (Technically, Rudy Fernandez was awarded with the assist on the play, but Juancho held the ball for a good four to five seconds before getting his shot off.) It will nearly always be the case that when Juancho fires away from distance it will be on catch-and-shoots, but having that pull-up in his back pocket could come in handy.

Will Juancho Make The Regular Rotation?

According to the Denver Post’s Mike Singer, the starting forward competition has not been settled yet, but Will Barton, who had been limited in training camp with a hamstring injury, has been cleared to play.

Hernangomez will have his work cut out for him when Denver tips off their preseason at the Portland Trail Blazers tomorrow, and needs to bring out the full array of skills he displayed at the FIBA World Cup in order to keep himself in the running. If he can continue building on that momentum and play at or even above the level he displayed last month, he just might have a chance to earn regular minutes, although it does appear that would be more likely off the bench than as a starter.

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Eight three-pointers out of 47 attempts. Seventeen percent shooting. And 29 out of 36 games without a make from beyond the arc.

Last spring, Juancho Hernangomez finished his third season with the Denver Nuggets on a brutal shooting drought which included nine-game, seven-game and six-game stretches in which he didn’t hit a single three-pointer. His slump was especially disheartening given the knowledge of just how proficient a shooter he can be when he’s in top form and locked in, as he had shown just months earlier.

Although the Nuggets acknowledged he was playing through injuries, they were a bit cagey about the exact nature of his ailments at the time, and with the exception of some scattered “DNPs,” they continued playing him through the remainder of the season. The fact that Denver kept putting him on the court somewhat obscured the extent of what we now know was a core muscle injury which was serious enough to ultimately require surgical repair in May.

In a sense the news of the operation was almost a relief, as the drastic plummet of his shooting percentages could more assuredly be attributed to debilitating effects from his injury rather than issues with his actual game. Because at its best, his game had proven to be highly efficient, and valuable to the Nuggets when Juancho was on the court.

Even as a rookie Hernangomez wasted no time in demonstrating his range and accuracy. According to Cleaning the Glass, his 44% three-point percentage in his first year put him in the 98th percentile for his position. While the volume on that was not incredibly high (113 total attempts), it was still an impressive accomplishment for a relatively unknown rookie.

A bout of mononucleosis at the start of his sophomore season, however, undermined his opportunity to keep building on that success and effectively cost him his entire second year. This set off the bumpy trajectory that would unfold from there, and the fairly extreme highs and lows in Juancho’s shooting over his career can be seen in the chart below showing his three-point percentages by month (excluding months in which he played fewer than four games).

When fully healthy, Juancho has displayed a ceiling as a legitimately elite three-point shooter, as seen most recently when he started in 25 games from November 11 through January 5 last season. In order to jumpstart an offense which had been sputtering out of the gates, head coach Michael Malone replaced Torrey Craig (who himself was a replacement for the injured Will Barton) in the starting lineup with Hernangomez, who in turn was subsequently returned to the bench apparently after incurring his core muscle issue, and just before Barton returned from injury to resume his starting role..

In that two-month set of games as a starter, however, Hernangomez averaged 11.2 points and 6.3 rebounds in 30.7 minutes, including 1.8 made three-point shots at a clip of 42.5%, and his on-court net rating of +4.2 was fourth highest on the team after Paul Millsap, Monte Morris and Nikola Jokic, per NBA.com. While 25 games certainly isn’t a big enough sample size to ensure that he can sustain that level of production and over the course of an entire healthy season, it does point to his upside as a high-efficiency role player whose ability to knock down threes provides a legitimate enough threat to create the kind of floor spacing gravity that really opens things up for Denver’s offense.

It was in the context of all of these ups and downs (and recently, mostly downs) that there was great anticipation to see how Hernangomez would perform in the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup. As Spain’s third-leading scorer with 10.5 points per game and second-leading rebounder with 5.4 boards, Juancho was one of the most important helping his national team earn the championship.

Perhaps the most welcome sight was Juancho’s outstanding shooting in the tournament, where he made 1.4 three-pointers a game at a clip of 44.0%, and had a ridiculous true shooting percentage (TS%) of 70.7%. The latter reflected how effective he was from two-point range inside the arc and around the rim, where he shot 70.5%. Even in his 25-game starting zenith last season, Hernangomez shot 55.4% on two-point attempts, which while well above the NBA average of 51.9% would not have suggested he would achieve the extraordinary efficiency he achieved in FIBA play.

Here it bears noting all of the necessary caveats about most of the teams in the FIBA World Cup having only a small handful of NBA players, let alone stars, and the overall level of defensive sophistication being generally not on the NBA level. So it remains to be seen whether Hernangomez can translate his success with Spain to a solid performance in Denver’s training camp and preseason as the “open competition” for playing time at the small forward position ensues.

That said, there are no two ways around it, Juancho just looked great in the FIBA tournament. He had a spring in his step, a lift in his bounce, he was running the floor in transition both on offense and defense, and his shot was as dialed in as it has ever been even through his best stretches with the Nuggets.

It wasn’t only Juancho’s perimeter shooting that showed encouraging signs in his FIBA play, and in turning to the tape, this film study begins with other aspects of his game which will be crucial for him to fortify if he is to earn a spot in the Nuggets’ rotation.

Film Study: Juancho Hernangomez’ Play In The 2019 FIBA World Cup

Defense And Rebounding

If there’s one area of his game Juancho most needs to strengthen to earn time in the regular rotation, it’s his defense, which has proven to be enough of a liability in the past that Malone has found it difficult to keep him on the court, especially given how strongly he trusts Craig for defensive purposes. When Hernangomez defends in space he tends to struggle, and on the perimeter – where his movement tends to look a bit frantic – he has a hard time preventing penetration, as seen in the first clip. With his length he has show the ability to recover, however, as he gets the block on the same play in this case. While Juancho isn’t known for rim protection, according to Cleaning the Glass his 1.0% block rate put him at a respectable 68th percentile among forwards last season, and improvement there could be one pathway to making a bigger defensive impact.

With Spain he also showed perhaps a stronger awareness of positioning, and the steal he gets shows another area of potential growth, again using his length, in disrupting passing lanes for deflections.

His greatest strength on defense, however, is his rebounding, where despite his wiry frame and relative lack of strength compared with other players at his position, he just has a great knack for boxing out and getting to the right spots to pull down boards. And with more teams putting out small ball lineups, there should be plenty of situations where Juancho’s height, combined with his great sense of positioning, helps alleviate his lack of bulk.

Hernangomez doesn’t really have the tools to be a lock down defender, and overall his greatest need will be to improve his general defensive awareness. But the effort has always been there, even if it’s lacked focus, and if he can figure out how to better use his length to shore up the areas described above, it should help to mitigate his status as a defensive liability.

Offensive Rebounding

There isn’t too much more to add to the theme of his rebounding prowess, but it’s worth highlighting that Hernangomez also does a solid job of crashing the offensive glass. Offensive rebounding is one of Juancho’s stronger skills, having ranked in the 77th, 92nd and 84th percentiles respectively through his first three NBA seasons, per Cleaning the Glass. One important aspect of this, and one which should help put him in Malone’s good graces, is that he generally shows good decision-making after the rebound, knowing when he’s well-positioned for a to put a shot attempt back up, and when it’s better to instead kick it out to reset the play. He also just has a strong sense of timing on following up on teammates’ shots by getting to the rim for tip-ins and put-backs.

Cuts And Drives To The Basket

Hernangomez is rightfully seen having three-point shooting as his strongest offensive skill, but cutting is a closer second than some might think. Juancho’s lankiness can tend to make his movement look a bit awkward, but this tends to betray just how good a feel for the game he really has, and that shines through perhaps most clearly on cuts.

Cutting is another aspect of Juancho’s game where his astute timing and positioning gets him to the right place to make the right play. Somewhat ironically, he seems to read the floor on offense to as high a degree as he seems to struggle with doing so on defense at times. He’s also adept at using screens to get an unencumbered path to the rim, as seen in the third clip of the give-and-go with Marc Gasol at the perimeter.

As for drives, Hernangomez doesn’t have the handles to be too much of a threat in traffic, but when he gets an open lane to the basket, as seen in the final clip here, he is capable of making straight-line drives. And while his dribble and first step will probably remain suspect, this does at least open the door to a potential area of improvement on offense, attacking close-outs.

Getting Behind The Defense And Slipping Screens

Juancho has a knack for lurking. It may seem odd to describe this as a skill, but it is actually true that he’s good at finding ways of getting behind the defense and hiding in plain sight. Now, this seems an appropriate place to repeat the caveat of FIBA versus the NBA, but even when playing against more vigilant defenses, if Hernangomez is in a lineup with, say, Jokic, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Michael Porter Jr., the chances are pretty good – especially if he’s not in three-point range – that he’ll be receiving the least defensive attention. And just like his Spanish teammates did a great job of finding him near the rim, Jokic won’t miss those high percentage scoring opportunities.

Another way Hernangomez sets himself up well is a little more cut-and-dried: simply running the floor in transition to get ahead of the defense, as seen in the third clip here. As with his defense, Hernangomez may not be particularly known for his transition game, but that’s not for lack of effort. He consistently gets out quickly on the fast break, and in his FIBA play it paid off with good results.

Juancho also displays great timing on slipping screens to get open looks at the rim. In the final clip he makes the read that the defense is not completely set up yet (again, a luxury he won’t always enjoy in the NBA, but a solid skill nonetheless), and after setting the screen on the high pick-and-roll dives in for the easy basket.

Three-Pointers

Here we finally come to Juancho’s bread and butter: the three-point shot. While his efficiency from the arc has already been discussed at length above, a few points from the film bear noting. Firstly, that his form looked great at FIBA – and importantly, like he’s genuinely fully healthy. He’s getting good lift on his jumpers with a high release point that with his height and length will be difficult even for close defenders to contest.

Also on display is Juancho’s keen talent for spacing the floor. Last year, Adam Mares, then of the Denver Stiffs, now with DNVR, did an excellent breakdown on how Hernangomez has a great feel for perfectly positioning himself to create ideal floor spacing. I highly recommend clicking the link to see the article in its entirety, but the gist is that Juancho has a great knack for either picking spots or sliding and shifting around the arc to optimally space the floor.

Finally, don’t expect to see Hernangomez attempt too many pull-up threes as shown in the final clip, as according to PBP Stats his career percentage of how many three-pointers were assisted is 98.4%. (Technically, Rudy Fernandez was awarded with the assist on the play, but Juancho held the ball for a good four to five seconds before getting his shot off.) It will nearly always be the case that when Juancho fires away from distance it will be on catch-and-shoots, but having that pull-up in his back pocket could come in handy.

Will Juancho Make The Regular Rotation?

According to the Denver Post’s Mike Singer, the starting forward competition has not been settled yet, but Will Barton, who had been limited in training camp with a hamstring injury, has been cleared to play.

Hernangomez will have his work cut out for him when Denver tips off their preseason at the Portland Trail Blazers tomorrow, and needs to bring out the full array of skills he displayed at the FIBA World Cup in order to keep himself in the running. If he can continue building on that momentum and play at or even above the level he displayed last month, he just might have a chance to earn regular minutes, although it does appear that would be more likely off the bench than as a starter.

Follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

I've covered the Nuggets since 2005, writing for Forbes, BSN Denver, Roundball Mining Company, and more. Follow me on Twitter at @JoelRushNBA, where my views are my own

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