Juancho Hernangomez appeared in his first game since Jan. 13 when he entered the Minnesota Timberwolves' loss to Dallas in the fourth quarter Monday night, Feb. 8, in what appeared to be a garbage-time situation before Malik Beasley went nuclear to drag the Wolves back into contention.
Hernangomez missed a few weeks while in health and safety protocols. Then he was listed as available to play against Cleveland on Feb. 1, but considered unlikely to see action as the Wolves continued to ramp him up to game shape.
But the games kept coming and Hernangomez remained out of the lineup, something Wolves coach Ryan Saunders explained ahead of Monday’s game in Dallas. At the moment, Hernangomez simply isn’t in the rotation. His absence gave guys like Jarred Vanderbilt and Jaden McDaniels an opportunity, and they took advantage, providing the Wolves with a defensive effort and intensity that had been lacking throughout the lineup.
“Everybody gets opportunities this year. It’s just how the year goes, whether it be guys out to health and safety protocols, guys out to injuries,” Saunders said. “A guy like Jaden McDaniels has played well right here. Juancho will have another opportunity. He’s such a professional and has such a great spirit about him that he is staying ready and doing everything possible to get back to form.”
Hernangomez said he was “lucky” in his bout with COVID-19. He didn’t have much in the way of side effects, other than two days of fever. The primary symptom of his quarantine was boredom.
“The last 20 days at home, I tried to do something else,” Hernangomez said. “I was with my cousin and with my friend. At least I got some company. Be able to watch the games, be able to stay with the team.”
He said getting back into game shape “wasn’t that hard,” noting he was able to exercise at home, where he also has a basketball court. He has felt fine for the past week or so, and has merely been waiting for an opportunity to help the team.
That those opportunities aren’t available at the moment doesn’t make him bitter. As Saunders said, Hernangomez is a professional. He’s “proud” of the young guys who have stepped up of late.
“They’ve been doing a great job. They’ve been aggressive. The NBA is about chances, and when you got it, I tell the guys you gotta do your best. Maybe you don’t have a chance again. Be ready to do your thing,” Hernangomez said. “ I feel so proud when I see guys (like) Jaden. Every day he’s bringing something else to the table. He gotta keep learning. I remember when I was a rookie. Everything is surprise, everything is excitement. They learn a lot. They got a lot of talent. I’m happy I’m up here, and competing and getting better too. When you compete every single day, all of us are getting better. It’s a good competition. It’s not a man against me. It’s … together.”
Hernangomez is embracing the competition, while also finding himself in a position he knows well — on the outside of the rotation, looking in.
This was the lifestyle Hernangomez lived for much of his first three-plus NBA seasons in Denver. But once he was dealt to Minnesota last season and immediately inserted into the starting lineup, it felt like those days were behind him. Hernangomez shined in the starting lineup, and signed a three-year deal this offseason to remain with the Wolves.
But a rough start to this season followed by a bout with COVID-19 has left him in an all-too-familiar situation.
“I’m probably the MVP of waiting for my chance. That’s how the NBA works. One day you’re up, the next day you’re down,” the 25-year-old power forward said. “You gotta be ready every single day. You gotta work on your game, you gotta be in shape, just be a pro. It’s about being a pro. I’ve been through a lot in this my fifth year, so it is normal. Just be patient, be positive, be happy for the guys who are playing. I’m happy for the young guys to develop. If I got my chance, I’m going to try to do my best.”