Christ Koumadje stands 7-foot-4, and he stands almost permanently near the rim. At Las Vegas Summer League with the Philadelphia 76ers, the Florida State product lacks in dynamism but makes up for it in deterrence. He drops back in coverage, slides around the restricted area and waits to change or prevent shots.
Dewan Hernandez is some 5 inches shorter, a little more dynamic and, it turns out, either unaware of or undeterred by Koumadje. Early in the Toronto Raptors’ consolation game against the 76ers on Friday, Hernandez showed little fear. He’d just driven right and seen his dribble impeded for a jump ball. He then drove somewhat awkwardly at Koumadje, trying to finish across his own body to avoid a long, outstretched arm. Now, Hernandez took a hard gather dribble into Koumadje down the left side, rose for a shot and was blocked.
No matter. The next chance he got, Hernandez once again took it left, this time eschewing an awkward, self-protective release for a straightforward one, left hand to the glass and in.
This was new for Hernandez, and at least a little unexpected. All week long, he flashed more pure skill than was perhaps anticipated, the byproduct of a year spent out of sight and, during that year, a lot of development. This is part of what the Raptors saw in a mid-May pre-draft workout, one of 18 Hernandez participated in around the G League Elite Camp and the NBA Scouting Combine. To the eyes of the Toronto front office, Hernandez had grown enough that if he’d played during his junior year at Miami, the Raptors wouldn’t have had the opportunity to draft him with their lone pick. Internally, he ranked in the low 30s on the Toronto board, and when he was still available at No. 59, the Raptors jumped.
The pick was not without uncertainty. Hernandez wasn’t perfect in the workout, with some of his tools grading better by aesthetics than by results. (The Raptors also had interest in Terence Davis, Hernandez’s roommate at the G League camp, who wound up with them as an undrafted free agent.) Hernandez did not possess elite rebounding or shot-blocking for a modern centre despite standing 6-foot-11 and measuring as one of the best athletes at the position at the combine. Whether he winds up more of a power forward in the long term is a legitimate question.
Mostly, though, the Raptors just hadn’t seen him in real action in 16 months. Nobody had.
“We’ll see. You know, he’s been off the court for a full year, and I think any time a player steps away from five-on-five, there’s definitely an adjustment to get back, get the rust off and get used to the speed of the game,” assistant general manager Dan Tolzman said. “Going from college a year ago to pro basketball and a lot of NBA-level players, it’s gonna be a pretty steep adjustment for him early. But I think once he gets his wind, he’s a guy that plays with a lot of energy, he has a nice toughness about him, he really attacks the boards hard, and he can step out and hit shots, too. For a player his size, he’s got a lot of mobility and he’s a very opportune, impact sort of guy. He never really stops on either side of the floor and just quietly does his job. It should be fun to see what he can do.”
Hernandez stumbled out of the gates a bit, scoring five points in the team’s opener and occasionally struggling to find his place in dual-big lineups alongside Chris Boucher or Richard Solomon. Some rust was understandable, but Hernandez built quickly off of that game. Day by day, earlier mistakes were corrected and his comfort level improved. The veterans on the team worked to help bring him up to speed, and coaches say they saw almost uniform improvement in practices.
“He’s a big body, strong defender, willing to learn, and he’s making the right plays,” Malcolm Miller said. “He’s getting the hang of the offence, but he’s gonna be a strong player for us. Find him in the pocket, and his decisions in the pocket, more reps with that, he’ll be able to make reads better going forward, but he’s very solid. He’s gonna be a good player.”
Once his awareness caught up with his motor on the glass and his mobility in the open floor, production followed. Hernandez had a 16-and-11 double-double in the team’s third game, scored 18 points in their fourth and scored 15 with three assists in the finale. All told, he averaged 12.8 points, seven rebounds and 1.8 assists to one turnover.
“He’s a real intriguing player,” Summer League head coach Jon Goodwillie said early in the tournament. “High-energy guy. Effort player. Runs the floor hard, sets good, physical screens. He’s a good communicator, which I think is always a big, important piece for a big is seeing the floor, communicating with his teammates what’s happening out there. He’s working on his jump shot. It’s already made some strides since he’s come in with us.”
A lot of work is still to be done. Hernandez shot just 41.4 percent, with his attacking instincts ranking ahead of his finishing ability. At times, it seems as if he’s thought only as far as a very good first dribble facing up or off of a handoff, and once he gets toward the paint, his approach is rushed or reactive. That’s to be expected with a big only now being given the opportunity to try these moves in a larger sample, and he showed a willingness to finish with either hand or over either shoulder, something that was rare at Miami. Some of the mistakes of commission — namely his shot selection and willingness to use a quarter of the team’s possessions — might not go over as well alongside more of the NBA regulars.
As a play finisher, he got better at presenting himself to ballhandlers, limiting his college penchant for telegraphing his roll by slipping screens early and better sticking defenders with screens and on dribble handoffs. He made himself open around the paint in the half court and showed real potential in transition, trailing plays and hunting out offensive rebounding position. (His rebounding instincts are much further ahead on offence than defence right now.) He also showed comfort in the pick and pop or spotting up, and while he hit only 1-of-9 on 3-point attempts, the Raptors are encouraged by his mechanics.
“It looks good, but it’s gotta go in,” Hernandez quipped.
Getting those jumpers and finishes to drop will be a big focus of the remainder of his offseason. In the interim, the Raptors came away very impressed by how quickly Hernandez had improved his skill base and been able to apply it in games, particularly with the ball in his hands. When a rookie big who totalled 20 assists over 64 college games tallies nine in five Summer League games, it’s good early progress. That type of offensive versatility could be really important, as the depth chart is fairly well stocked in the frontcourt, and the modern game more or less demands multifaceted bigs if those players aren’t elite rim-runners or true floor-spacers. Hernandez said he’s been studying Pascal Siakam, which is hardly the worst idea even if Siakam is a tough-to-translate, 100th-percentile development case.
Hernandez was also mostly solid defensively despite blocking only four shots. He often guarded the rangier of the opposing frontcourt players and switched freely to guards. (One of the highlights of Summer League was Hernandez telling NBA TV Canada’s Akil Augustine that he would lock him up.) He might block more shots in a drop-back scheme, but he has the mobility to be a switcher, contesting well on pick and pops or pull-ups over screens and closing out well to the corners. His defence probably trails his offence overall and wasn’t quite as eye-catching, but he was solid by Summer League standards.
That these were his first reps in more than a year and his first against older players with pro experience only adds to the positivity within the organization.
“No doubt, I think he’s left a very favourable impression at this point,” Goodwillie said. “He came in and he grew as a player, and that’s a goal for us at this tournament, for our guys to grow. This is for all of our guys and him in particular, this is like a springboard to the rest of our summer. He’s got a lot of positive lessons that he can take from this week and he can apply them when we go into voluntary workouts and stuff like that later in the summer. He really made a real good impression with the coaches and I think with his teammates as well.”
“Quick study” was a term thrown around a bit, and the summer from here should be instructive in that regard. There is not much downtime built into the Raptors’ player development incubator. Hernandez will be in Los Angeles later this month for workouts, then Vancouver and, sometime before camp, Toronto. Beyond that, he figures to spend ample time with Raptors 905, even with the Raptors signing him to a standard NBA contract. The deal is for three years and is partially guaranteed, per our Shams Charania, a display of long-term investment on the part of the Raptors. Hernandez and the Raptors knew he’d require time and patience, and while his Vegas stint was encouraging for its incremental improvements, nobody is confusing his development as linear from here.
“It felt great after the fourth game. Fifth game, that’s when it started, ‘Ah, do I got it?’” he joked. “I feel like I got better each game, I learned a lot from each game. It was a great experience coming out here competing against these guys and playing with my team, playing within the system. … I talked to a lot of NBA guys, the young guys in the league and some veterans, and they said the Toronto Raptors have the best player development in the league. I’m very excited to be in the hands of the Toronto Raptors.”
The feeling is mutual — and a little more so after a strong Summer League debut.