Just six years ago and despite his impressive background, Willy Hernangomez didn't play organized basketball. Today Hernangomez has represented Spain at three different age levels, made his Turkish Airlines Euroleague debut, earned weekly MVP honors in both the Eurocup and the Spanish League and of course, is viewed as one of the best young centers in the game. Hernangomez is in his second season with Baloncesto Seville and averaging 8.2 points and 4.3 rebounds in Eurocup 13 games, even though he has played less than 17 minutes per game on average. Hernangomez is under contract with Euroleague powerhouse Real Madrid, where he got the chance to know Felipe Reyes, who has become his mentor, and follow his valuable advice on and off the court. With his physique, work ethic, age and the right mentorship, the future looks bright for Hernangomez, who is fully aware he still has a plenty of room for improvement.
Some people are determined to play basketball and Hernangomez is definitely one of them. His father, Guillermo Hernangomez, was a professional player who spent one season with Real Madrid (1982-83), played for six other teams and was a member of the Spanish Under-18 national team. His mother, Wonny Geuer, is one of the best centers in Spanish basketball history. She helped Spain win the EuroBasket 1993 title and was chosen as the best Andalusian sportswoman in 1986. Willy is the eldest of three brother - Juancho plays for Movistar Estudiantes and Andrea is with their hometown team, CB Las Rozas. Still, Willy (pronounced as "Billy" in English) didn't play basketball as a child, opting for other sports.
"Basketball is in my genes. My parents played professional basketball and little by little, they took me into basketball when I was younger. In the end, they persuaded me and my brothers to play basketball and it is a lot of fun nowadays," he said. Amazingly enough, Hernangomez has only played basketball for a few years and had found instant success. "I started pretty late, because I used to play football with my brothers. I started to play basketball at age 15. I was in Las Rozas, my town's basketball club, for a season and I had the luck that a Real Madrid scout, Pablo Moreno, was there, watching a game I played well," he said. "They called me to practice with the team and play some tournaments with them. I joined Real Madrid's cadet team the following year."
Things progressed pretty quickly for Hernangomez once he joined Madrid. Barely a year after picking up basketball, he was a member of the Spanish U16 national team for the 2010 European championship, where he averaged 9.9 points and 8.7 rebounds. He had a monster 20-20 game - 20 points, 23 rebounds - against Turkey. A year later, Hernangomez was the youngest player, as a first-year junior, on the Spanish U18 national team that conquered the gold medal at the 2011 European championships. Hernangomez was a key player; he started the title game against Serbia and averaged 7.3 points and 4.4 rebounds over nine games. Of course, Hernangomez picked that as one of the best experiences of his short, very promising career. "It was an unbelievable experience. Not only did we win the gold medal, which was really hard, but it was the kind of tournament in which you learn a lot. I was the youngest player in the team, a year younger than most of the rest, and had teammates who had played in professional teams like Javier Fernandez and Alex Abrines. Getting the gold medal is a very unique experience. I remember it as if it was yesterday."
Some of the players who competed at that tournament, including Lukas Lekavicius, Arturas Gudaitis, Kenan Sipahi, Vasilije Micic, Gerard Vives and Alex Abrines, have already appeared in the Euroleague. Spain defeated Serbia 65-71 in championship game in Wroclaw, Poland. "I was lucky because our coach trust me a lot. I started and played a lot of minutes. I remember that Jorge Sanz, Dani Diez, Aleix Suarez... a lot of our players had a great final. When we won the game and lifted the trophy, all we did was jump up and down, sing and celebrate. It was hard to win that tournament, but we did!" he remembered. Sanz has 22 points and Abrines added 16. Hernangomez battled foul trouble, but finished the game with 5 point and 3 rebounds.
Aware of his potential, Madrid kept Hernangomez under the radar and worked on his fundamentals without any rush. Hernangomez showed hints of his potential at the 2012 Torneig de Basquet Junior "Ciutat de L’Hospitalet." In his second appearance at the tournament, Hernangomez shined with 19.5 points and 9.7 rebounds. Madrid also gave him a little playing time in the 2012-13 Turkish Airlines Euroleague; Hernangomez took part in three games. He made his Euroleague debut against Cantu, had the chance to play against Panathinaikos in Athens and scored his first points against Union Olimpija Ljubljana. "The Euroleague is the strongest competition in Europe and being able to play a few minutes was great. I was very nervous in the beginning, because those were also my first minutes with Real Madrid, too," Hernangomez said. "My teammates looked for me and helped me a lot, giving me a lot of advice. I was very happy; I even scored a couple of baskets!"
From the time he joined Madrid's first team, Hernangomez had the best mentor available, soon-to-be Euroleague rebounding king Felipe Reyes. With a world champion and European basketball legend following his every move, Hernangomez felt honored and has made the most out of this opportunity. Reyes also took him under his guidance when Willy was invited to practice with the Spanish national team last summer. "Felipe is my mentor. From the first day I joined Madrid's first team, he taught me a lot of things and helped me a lot. He tried to help me on and off the court. I went to his house a lot and sometimes, I have to drive him to practice or games. Without any question, Felipe not only is a good player, but a great person who helps the others," Hernangomez admits. When asked about the biggest lesson Reyes gave him, Hernangomez didn't hesitate. "The most important thing he wanted me to understand is that you have to enjoy playing basketball. I was young and he told me not to feel the pressure, that all I had to do is learn a lot and keep our ears open, because everything I was told was for my own good. And of course, leave everything I have on the court, just like he does."
Madrid decided to send Hernangomez on loan so he could benefit from extended playing time. One of the teams that offered the best conditions was the then-called Cajasol Seville - a coaching legend who brought the best out of young players, an environment full of people his own age, playing time and the chance to play in his Mom's hometown, Seville. "It was a long summer and we wanted to find the best choice: a team in which I would feel comfortable and get playing time. It was my first full-time professional season and I had a lot of options. Real Madrid, my parents and my agents decided that Seville was the best choice. Aito Garcia Reneses, Diego Ocampo and Javi Carrasco are great coaches, and it was an exciting project, with a lot of young players like Kristaps Porzingis, Nikola Radicevic, Tomas Satoransky and many more. It was a chance to get better."
As expected, Hernangomez played a lot and all his hard work paid off in a road game in Manresa. Hernangomez dunked six times and finished the game with 19 points and 7 rebounds. Soon after that, Seville made it to the Spanish League playoffs, was one shot away from eliminating reigning Eurocup champion Valencia Basket and punched a ticket to the 2014-15 Eurocup. "Young players are up and down in general because of our lack of experience. It is hard to play well regularly. I had a good game in Manresa, with extra playing time; Aito let me play and things went well for me. We won and I was able to help the team," Hernangomez recalled. As for the final games of last season, Hernangomez can only thank Seville fans for their support. "Those days are going to be hard to forget. Seeing San Pablo packed, chanting my name sometimes, cheering for the team... those were happy days, getting to the playoffs, beating Valencia Basket... it was unforgettable, a great experience."
Another highlight came last summer, when Hernangomez led the Spanish U20 national team to a silver medal at the European championships in Crete. He averaged 12.3 points and 8.4 rebounds in 10 games and was chosen to the All-Tournament team. He also had the first chance to share playing time with his brother Juancho, which made things even better. "We managed to get a medal despite our slow start. We were close to be eliminated in the first round. For me, the most important thing other than getting that hard-fought medal was getting the chance to play with my brother. It was an unbelievable opportunity; we had played against each other many times, but never on the same team," Hernangomez said." He played at the '4' position, I played at the '5' and we looked for each other a lot. I was proud to play with him and I hope we can do that in the future. We talk a lot, even more after last summer. My brother has a lot of potential and playing with him was great for me and my family."
Hernangomez has shined this season in his Eurocup debut and even earned weekly MVP honors in Regular Season Round 8 MVP against Virtus Rome. Later on that week, Hernangomez had a 29-point, 13-rebound effort in in Seville's win against Euroleague giant FC Barcelona. In general, Hernangomez has adjusted to the Eurocup really well and appreciates the chance to play against very good teams all around the continent. "Without any doubt, one of the positive things about returning to Baloncesto Seville this season was the chance to play the Eurocup. Being able to play twice a week makes you be completely in the competition, with a lot of game rhythm," he said. "It was important for me to adjust to playing two games a week; it is one of the things that I wanted to do this season. The Eurocup gives you the opportunity to learn and play against very strong teams and very good big men in Europe. Every game is a challenge."
The future could not look better for Hernangomez, as Madrid still has him under contract for several seasons and he seems to just get better and better every year. As a Madrid fan himself, Hernangomez shares the dream than everyone has in Los Blancos' headquarters - winning the Euroleague title one day. Still, he knows that the most important thing is working hard to let success come to him naturally. "I wish to become the best player I can be. I have a lot of things to learn and am looking forward to working really hard. I am ambitious and I know there are a lot of things I have to improve - on defense, shooting, physical skills. My dream is to return to Real Madrid, my club and help that team. Winning the Euroleague would be a dream come true!"