Hezonja makes most of first start
Every young NBA player has a different set of circumstances that lead to their first start. For some, it's injuries that force them into action. Others are thrown into the fire directly as their team works towards the future, while others earn their way into the lineup with strong play.
For Orlando Magic rookie Mario Hezonja, he benefitted from a teammates injury, allowing him to get his first start at the highest level.
With Evan Fournier out with a sore wrist, and limited wing depth following the trade of Tobias Harris, the Magic turned to their highly touted rookie for a boost. And he gave them that boost right off the tip.
After stealing the opening tip, Hezonja went and threw down a two handed jam a mere four seconds into the game, helping set the tone that would come for the reeling Magic. Following that bucket, the Magic led by Hezonja and Aaron Gordon, jumped out to an early 18-7 lead, with Hezonja and Gordon combining for 14 of those points.
"Mario's a baller," said Gordon. "He's a straight up hooper. No doubt that he would come in and do what he needed to do. He's a very solid basketball player, guys. He's only going to get better."
Hezonja, who scored eight first quarter points, seemed destined to have a career- night, but was derailed by foul trouble, ultimately finishing the night with 13 points.
Nikola Vucevic, who had his way with the Sixers big men most of the night, was proud of how his rookie teammate did when pressed into action. " He did really well," said Vucevic when asked about Hezonja's performance. "Unfortunately he got two fouls and had to get subbed out, but he started the game really aggressive, made some plays, got to the rim and got a couple of and-1's. It was really good.
"It's hard when you start at such a young age, especially if you weren't starting for the whole season to get put in there and to have to substitute for Evan... He did a good job. I'm proud of him. He's been improving a lot since he got here."
While most of the reviews were positive on the rookie swingman's performance, coach Scott Skiles wasn't as pleased. "I thought he was good offensively, and struggled on the other end."
As has been the case with Hezonja for much of the season, his shortcomings on the defensive end held him back some on Sunday night. Despite showing improvement in some areas as the season has worn on -- most notably sticking with players and knowing the right times to rotate and get back to cover -- Hezonja still has a long way to go on the defensive end if he wants to continue to get more consistent minutes.
Sunday night his inability to defend without fouling cost him. After picking up two fouls in just over four minutes, Hezonja was relegated to the bench for the remainder of the opening quarter, killing any rhythm he may have been building up.
The rookie, who holds himself to such a high standard, knows he can't get in foul trouble, especially with the team having limited wing depth. Hezonja said it wasn't frustrating getting into the early foul trouble, citing the fact it is what it is, but he knew he couldn't with his team needing him with Fournier out. "Gotta think more in those situations. I can't leave my team out there... It can't happen again."
Hezonja admitted that it was "way different" getting the start rather than coming off the bench, but knows you have to have the same mentality. "You're a starter, everything depends on you. It's your duty to go there and play good and win for your team.
"When you start from the bench, you never know what situation [you might come in to] bad or good. So, you've got to react and be tough mentally, especially when you're coming from the bench."
Getting his first start was a big step forward in Hezonja's development. While he has a long way to go as he adjusts to a completely new game, he's showing some of the signs of why he was selected with the fifth pick in last years draft.
Gordon's strong play continues
For the third straight game, Aaron Gordon hung around his career-high in points. After tying his then high mark of 19 against the Warriors, Gordon scored 17 in Friday night's loss to the Knicks, before topping it off with his 22-point night against the Sixers.
Gordon's strong play has vaulted him to the front of the Magic's young core, with the second-year forward playing like the teams best player over the last few weeks. In 17 games as a starters, Gordon has averaged 11.3 points, 9.7 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game, while shooting an efficient 45.2 percent from the field.
Coach Skiles isn't surprised by Gordon's recent strong play, saying Gordon has been putting a lot of work in all season. "He puts in a lot of time working on his shot... He's been able to knock down his perimeter shot on occasion and then he's also getting some opportunities right around the basket. He's been able to finish those.
"You can see he's getting better. He's not a mistake player anymore. He stays real solid out there now."
The quick rise of Gordon is a welcoming sign for a Magic bunch still searching for their "star." Gordon has said the biggest thing for him is the fact the game is slowing down and he knows where he can pick his spots more now. That, along with having confidence in his jump shot and playing the best defense on a team of guys who aren't defending, shows why the Magic used the fourth pick in last years draft on the freak athlete.
For a player that came into the league with a limited offensive game, Gordon's recent stretch is a welcoming sign. He still has a long way to go, but if he continues on the path he's on, he could be the start the Magic are desperately looking for.