When the Orlando Magic were given the fifth pick of the 2015 NBA draft, they again found themselves in the role of amateur talent scouts. With most of the elite talent off the board, the answer seemed to lie overseas – Kristaps Porzingis, Mario Hezonja, or possibly Emmanuel Mudiay would be a key piece of the future in Orlando.
Armed with YouTube, Magic fans pored over grainy video after grainy video – attempting to decipher if these lanky teenagers would one day translate into top-level NBA talent.
When they first saw Hezonja, he seemed to pop off the tape. The Croatian was confident and boisterous – crossing over helpless defenders on his way to the hoop, pulling up in their faces and draining contested threes. He was seen posterizing half of Europe with one-handed dunks. He didn’t play much, but when he did it was electrifying.
The legend of Mario only grew with time, leading him to be called the "cockiest NBA Draft prospect in years" by SB Nation. He talked trash, once telling Sportornado "I don't care. Whether it's a veteran or a young player standing in front of me I always have the same goal. On the court I just want to run over everybody"
When the pick was Hezonja, Magic fans celebrated. Surely he would elevate an offense that had struggled following the departure of Stan Van Gundy -- the Magic's offense hasn't been ranked above 27th in offense in the previous three seasons.
Most NBA fans have never seen anything like Hezonja, but in Orlando, you only need to turn the clock back a decade to catch a glimpse what he could be.
Once dubbed "the most hated man in college basketball" by Sports Illustrated, J.J. Redick was the perfect poster boy for the new generation of Duke scorn. Unlike many of his teammates, when the crowd taunted him, Redick taunted right back. He admittedly embraced the villainous role while in college, sinking every jumper with a grain of "take that".
Just like Hezonja, his game was as cocky as his mouth. Widely regarded as one of the best shooters in NCAA history, J.J. Redick enjoyed embarrassing defenders when they dared leave him open. Though he lacked the length of his Croatian counterpart, his deadly accuracy made him equally as tough to cover.
Coming off of a 2005-06 season where they ranked 23rd in scoring and 29th in three-point shooting, Orlando looked to add some shooting to the roster in the ’06 draft. Even those that screamed "-bleep- you, J.J.!" when he came to Tallahassee would admit that Redick could score, and the worst projections had him pegged as a role player off the bench at the next level.
But when the season started, Redick rarely saw the floor. Sidelined by an injury in training camp, he fell behind early and never caught up.
Defensively, he looked lost – he missed reads and got left in the dust by the faster, more athletic guards in the NBA. Offensively, his signature swagger and confidence were gone. Fearing the hook from coach Brian Hill, he was scared to take risks. He became wallpaper.
When I started covering the Magic as a reporter this season, one of the first things that struck me was just how critical Scott Skiles was of Mario Hezonja.
Acting as the new sheriff in town, it was his charge to quiet the buzz around the prized rookie – to make him conform to the selfless brand of basketball more fitting of a team with no go-to scorer. Skiles went so far as to call him a "turnstile" on defense, and made it clear that the leash would be short if he tired to play hero ball.
Just like Redick, the 20-year-old went from arrogant to silent in less than a season.
Despite a few highlight plays, Hezonja has only attempted 10 dunks this year. 168 of his 223 shots have been jumpers. Be it because of the system, or because of his own reluctance, Mario has shied away from attacking the basket. If Hezonja played 36 minutes per game, he would attempt 1.7 free throws and 5 threes per contest.
Like a chameleon Hezonja has adapted to survive. He has taken on the safe, timid style of the players that surround him – another settle-for-jumpers player on the team that attempts the fewest free throws in the league.
Now, obviously, there are a few key differences between Mario and J.J., the most obvious being size. Mario is bigger, quicker, and the tape (especially overseas) would tell you that he’s more athletic than the 6’4" guard was in his first year out of Duke. He’s also younger, and much less experienced. Redick was given four years to develop under one of the greatest coaches in basketball history; Mario has been thrown into the fire after averaging just 5.8 points per game in Spain’s Liga ACB.
There is plenty of time for growth for the young Croatian, but how long will it take for him to fully develop into the aggressive scorer that Magic envisioned when they took him fifth overall?
One thing is for sure, Redick is at that final destination – after leaving Orlando, and making a brief stop in Milwaukee, he has truly found his home with the Los Angeles. Clippers. Redick is averaging 16.4 points per game this season, and hitting a scorching 47.6% of his threes. He routinely makes top-level players look like the wide-eyed ACC freshmen he used to embarrass at Cameron Indoor.
During the Clips’ visit to Orlando, I asked him how he got over the hump and brought his aggressive scoring to the NBA level.
"First of all, just working on my body, but also just adjusting to the NBA game and working on my skill level. I spent a lot of time during the summer and during the season just kind of honing my skills and I’m not an athlete per se,I’m an athletic person but in relative terms to the average NBA player, I’m a little less quick, I can jump a little less, and you know I have alligator arms so I have to make it up in other places and that’s just with my skills and IQ."
Redick also offered some advice as Hezonja continues down a similar path he did.
"I think for him, you have to learn how to move without the ball, and you have to learn how to put it on the floor a little bit. I’ve seen him get more comfortable doing that especially out of the pick and roll as the season has progressed. For guys like him and myself – if you look at a guy like [Kyle] Korver, you have to be in phenomenal physical condition to be able to move and put pressure on the defense."
As Hezonja's body improves, so too should his game. With a few summers of NBA weight programs under his belt, Hezonja could combine Redick’s sharpshooting with a slashing style of his own. To find his place in the NBA, he must embrace the style that got him there.
The real challenge facing Hezonja is avoiding the years of purgatory that plagued his predecessor. Will we ever see the villainous scorer that the Magic thought they drafted, and if so – will he be playing for another team?