By John Schmeelk
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Phil Jackson’s Knicks roster is beset with too many big men. Between Joakim Noah, Kyle O’Quinn and Willy Hernangomez, the Knicks have three players who should be playing all their minutes at center. Then you have Kristaps Porzingis, who should be getting anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes per game at center, which would put the Knicks’ best offensive lineup on the floor.

There simply aren’t enough minutes for all of them. With Porzingis’ missing Tuesday night’s game with an illness, Hornacek split the center and power forward minutes between Noah, O’Quinn, Hernangomez, and then Maurice Ndour and Marshall Plumlee in garbage time.

It should surprise no one that Hernangomez outperformed all of them in the 117-101 loss to the Wizards. He finished with 15 points on 5-of-12 shooting, 14 rebounds, four assists and only one turnover. O’Quinn was solid off the bench again with 13 points on 6-of-10 shooting, 10 rebounds and two blocked shots.

It should also surprise no one that Noah was the most underwhelming of the three primary big men. He didn’t score, grabbed only four rebounds and turned it over twice in just over 15 minutes. It is a continuation of a trend that has held for most of the season.

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Hernangomez should be starting. With the Knicks’ season falling apart at the seams, there is no reason for him not to get valuable experience and improve for the final three months. It’s the perfect time to figure out his strengths and weaknesses.

Willy Hernangomez

Knicks center Willy Hernangomez dribbles in front of the Wizards’ Markieff Morris on Jan. 31, 2017, at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

He’s already shown great improvement. In the last seven games in which he’s played 10 or more minutes, Hernangomez is averaging just over 10 points and 11 rebounds per game while shooting 50 percent from the field and 14-of-15 from the free throw line. Inexplicably, during that stretch Hornacek has benched him for two games and played him only three minutes in another.

If you look at the numbers of the Knicks’ primary centers per 36 minutes over the course of the entire season, the only two things Noah does better than both O’Quinn and Hernangomez is dish out assists and grab offensive rebounds. Noah averages nearly a full assist per 36 minutes more than O’Quinn and 1½ more than Hernagomez. Noah is at 5.7 offensive rebounds per 36 minutes, while O’Quinn and Hernangomez are at 5.0 and 4.4, respectively. Both O’Quinn and Hernangomez are slightly better than Noah on the defensive glass.

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It’s no contest offensively, with both O’Quinn and Hernangomez scoring more points and shooting better from both the field and free throw line. O’Quinn is the best shot blocker of the three, with Noah and Hernangomez virtually even.

Yet, for some reason, Noah is still averaging seven minutes more per game than O’Quinn and eight more than Hernangomez. The Knicks certainly aren’t playing Noah more because of his defense, since the team is far worse in points allowed per 100 possessions when Noah is on the floor than when Hernangomez is playing. Teams score 10 points fewer per 100 possessions when Hernangomez plays, and 2½ fewer points when O’Quinn is in the lineup. Some of that can be contributed to the fact that Noah plays more against the opposing team’s starters (and with poor defenders Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose), but not all of it. Defense is supposed to be Hernangomez’s weakness — and he does in fact have a lot to learn — but so far this year he does not appear to be any downgrade from Noah and O’Quinn.

Hernangomez is far better than both on high screen-and-rolls, has a better post-up game and is craftier around the basket. O’Quinn’s jumper is better right now, but Hernangomez is improving there. He has also shown flashes of being a very effective passer and has good hands to catch passes from guards driving to the hoop.

Hernangomez is one of only two Knicks (Ron Baker being the other) who have a positive net rating, which means the team actually outscores their opponent when they are on the floor. Noah has the second-worst rating on the team behind Lance Thomas. O’Quinn is on the negative side, but right in the middle of the pack.

Perhaps the most important number of all should be the player’s ages. Noah will turn 32 later this month. O’Quinn will be 27 in March. Hernangomez will turn just 23 in May and is under a low-cost rookie contract. He has a great relationship with Porzingis, whom he played with in Spain. They can grow together as the future frontline of the Knicks.

Despite Noah’s bloated contract and name recognition, he is the worst player of the group. He is also the oldest. The Knicks accomplish very little by playing him, other than hoping another team is foolish enough to take him in a trade as a rebounder and defender.

O’Quinn is a good backup big man and should stay in that role at 20 minutes or so a game. Hernangomez should be the starter. It’s the right move for now and the future.

For all things Knicks, Giants and the world of sports, please follow John on Twitter at @Schmeelk


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