The lowlight in the career of Spanish forward Juan Hernangomez could be followed pretty quickly by the happiest moment in his basketball life. The 6-foot-9 Hernangomez, who was named best young player in the Spanish League this season, has a chance to be selected in the first round of the draft just four weeks after experiencing relegation with struggling club Estudiantes of Madrid.
He spoke with HoopsHype about his complicated season there and his desire to move Stateside as soon as possible.
Were the workouts in the U.S. what you expected them to be?
Juan Hernangomez: I didn’t really know what to expect because it was my first time doing this. It’s been an incredible experience. It was like living a dream because it felt like the closest thing to the real NBA experience. It’s been a unique experience and I’ve enjoyed it like a little kid.
What do you think you have proved to the NBA people?
JH: I showed that I can be a good all-around player. I think I can play a role for any NBA team.
How many workouts did you have?
JH: I had an open workout at IMG that 22 teams attended, then I went to Phoenix, Denver and Boston. In the workouts with teams, it was six players going at each other one-on-one or three-on-three. We did individual drills too. I felt pretty good. It’s totally different to Europe. I think I performed at a high level and we’re happy about the whole thing.
Is the tension prior to a workout comparable to how you feel before an actual game?
JH: I would even say it’s more tense at a workout. In these workouts, they are focusing on you. In a game, you can do well and you can do bad. But if you do badly, your teammates can save face for you. If you do badly at a workout, everybody is looking at you and everybody is going to criticize you. At the same time, if you do well your stock is going to rise. It’s a nerve-wracking situation. It was also pretty exhausting because we’ve been in four states in four days. You had the workout in the morning and the flying in the evening, then you woke up at 7 am to go through the medical and physical tests.
Are you paying attention to what’s said and written about you?
JH: I don’t care much about what’s said about me. It’s just opinions. People can say whatever and it’s impossible to be liked by everybody. If everybody liked you, it would be a little boring. At the end of the day, there’s no chance you can completely avoid the talk, though. You end up hearing from family and friends. You kind of know something, but till June 23 there’s nothing certain.
Do you plan on attending the draft?
JH: I have the chance to go there and I want to take advantage of it.
No invitation to the Green Room yet?
JH: No, I don’t think so. Don’t know for sure, but I don’t think I will be there.
How’s the English going? [Interview was conducted in Spanish]
JH: Well… Good. It’s not my strength yet [laughs]. I try to speak the language and I understand everything, but when interviews come it’s tougher because you know the English over there is different to the English that’s taught in Spain. But of course speaking fluently is one of my goals.
Your brother Willy entered the draft last year… Was there anything that he learned about the draft process that you have used this month?
JH: Me and my brother have two totally different careers. He went to a place where everybody could see him. Me, I had to do the individual workouts with teams. He advised me to give my all because it would all go very fast and you have to enjoy it because it’s the NBA experience. That was his only advice.
Given your family background [both his parents played pro basketball], did you think about doing any other thing outside of basketball?
JH: My parents didn’t really steered us in any specific direction. Both my brother and myself played soccer first. We started taking basketball seriously at 14-15 and we saw we were good at it. I don’t know if I could do any other thing outside of basketball, but I do know I would have liked to study more, have more of a normal life too. I would have loved to attend medical school, perhaps become an engineer. I’m envious of my friends who go to college. I just like to learn. If not for basketball, I would have devoted a lot more time to that.
When was it clear you were going to make a living off basketball?
JH: Well, I’m still not sure if I’m going to make a living with this! It’s going to take patience. I don’t know exactly when I realized this was going to be my job, but I do know I was always 100 percent invested in whatever goals I might have. I focus very much on that. It’s what I’m doing now.
You’ve had a very good season individually, but your team did not do well [Estudiantes finished 17th out of 18 teams]. What do you take away from a season in which you have shined but your team has done poorly?
JH: It’s been a tough season not just physically, but also mentally. You lose a lot of games. There are bright spots here and there like beating Valencia or Barcelona, but then you go back to business as usual… We have not been consistent, there’s been a lot of changes… Of course I’m happy from an individual standpoint, but I would trade that for 5-6 additional wins. When losing becomes the normal thing, everything looks bleak.
How many days between the relegation of your team and the trip to work out for NBA teams?
JH: A week, more less.
It’s kind of a strange situation when you have to endure the pain of relegation, but at the same time you have this exciting challenge of the NBA workouts right away, I guess.
JH: The day after [the relegation] was very, very hard. The trip back from Guipuzcoa was horrible. You see the faces of people… It’s a situation we kind of saw coming. But after beating Barça, we were dreaming about finishing at a better position. We just had no words to explain the loss. It was kind of an odd situation for two days. You hear people talking, you don’t know what to do or what to say to people… It was super difficult. But I just kept practicing and after one week I switched to thinking about the future.
In spite of all this, would you say playing for Estudiantes was a good career choice for you?
JH: Yes, of course. Estudiantes is my home, it’s the club where I grew up. I’m very grateful to the people that helped me grow. I wouldn’t change anything except the way it ended.
Do you see yourself as kind of a stretch four in the NBA?
JH: Yes. I’ve watched a lot of the NBA, especially the last 2-3 years, and I’ve seen how the game has evolved and how you have these small forwards playing at the four position with the ability to dribble, pass and open the floor with outside shooting. I find myself very comfortable playing that kind of role. Not sure yet what a team would ask me to do, I’m just going to do whatever is needed to help them win.
Why do you declare for the draft this year?
JH: This year I had the chance to prove in the Spanish League the kind of player I am. I had a very strong start and final stretch of the season. Obviously, I’m still young and there’s a lot to improve, but I had the gut feeling that this is the right year because I feel really confident right now.
You’re going to be a free agent now. I guess no decisions made yet on your future… But what would be the ideal situation for you?
JH: My contract comes to an end now and I don’t know what’s going to happen on June 23. Based on what happens, I’ll make a decision on the future with my family and my agents.
Say you’re a high pick and the NBA team that selects you wants you to head to the States right away… What do you do?
JH: You wake up and practice every day in the pursuit of your dreams… and all kids dream about the NBA because we can see the best players in the world are there. You want to compete to be around the best. Of course I would like to go to the NBA next year. If I have the slightest chance of making it happen, I’m going to take that opportunity. Teams know I want to go. Some teams want me for right away, others would rather have me stay in Europe for a year. I’m not sure yet what’s going to happen.
Which NBA players fascinate you the most?
JH: As far as historical players, my favorite has always been Magic Johnson. I’ve watched millions of Magic clips and always loved him. He changed the game, he was so unselfish. Obviously, Michael Jordan is the best ever, but the one I like the most is Magic. As for current players… What Stephen Curry is doing is crazy and you can see his confidence is sky high. But I’m more of a LeBron or Durant guy, mostly because of how versatile they are. They can do a little bit of everything and help their teams win.
Pictures by photographer Emilio Cobos.