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NBA Rookie Week: Mario Hezonja tapping into potential as season wears on

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Mario Hezonja has played up-and-down all season, but he's getting better when it matters.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Continuing to look for their "go-to" guy, someone they could groom and hopefully turn into a superstar, the Orlando Magic turned to Croatian wing Mario Hezonja in last June's NBA Draft. Hezonja, who had been playing professionally in Spain since he was 11, was touted as a highly talented offensive player, with a brash personalty.

Through three quarters of his rookie season, Hezonja has been somewhat of a disappointment for the Magic, struggling to get on the court consistently, and not always giving the team the minutes they needed on a night-to-night basis.

However, like many rookies, Hezonja is slowly but surely beginning to tap into his near-limitless potential, giving the team, fans, and the league alike a small taste of just how good he could be.

Making the jump from the Spanish league to the NBA wasn't an easy one for Hezonja, who said multiple times that "everything" was different between the two leagues. Struggling to grasp that transition showed early on for Hezonja, who averaged a mere 12.5 minutes per game across the first two months of the season.

Some of the lack of playing time for Hezonja was due to his struggles on the defensive end--Magic coach Scott Skiles called Hezonja a "turnstile" on the defensive end at one point--because he would get lost or beat backdoor many times while on the floor. Yet the question arose as to why the rookie couldn't get on the floor more consistently for a team desperate for offensive production.

Hezonja has improved on defense, however, which is one of the big reasons he's seen an uptick in playing time since the turn of the new year. Since January began, the 6-foot-8 swingman has seen his minutes jump up to nearly 20 per game, with his production following suit.

For a player with as pure a jump shot as Hezonja, the rookie's shooting percentages are somewhat worrisome. He doesn't lack confidence, and sometimes that attitude works against him when he takes a contested jumper early in the shot clock, or forces one over an opponent because he's feeling it.

Following the Magic's loss to the Dallas Mavericks last week, Skiles said Hezonja was pulled for being a little too shot-happy: "[H]e came out in the third quarter and I thought he took a couple suspect shots."

The next night, Hezonja rebounded in a big way, putting up a career-high 21 points on 9-of-17 shooting in a win against the Chicago Bulls. Skiles was much happier with how his young prodigy performed, calling the game Hezonja's "overall best" on the defensive end. "He did a nice job chasing people. He was pretty aware, except for like one or two times of the movement and what was going on out there.

"[H]e came out and had a lot of pop in his step and when we ran plays for him, he was sprinting off of them, instead of trotting off of them and as a result he had a nice game."

Seeing Hezonja bounce back after a challenging performance the night before was a welcome sign, especially in just his third career start.

Hezonja's teammates aren't surprised with his recent improvements. Aaron Gordon, who has quickly ascended to the top of the pecking order for the Magic, knew his fellow young core member had talent. "Mario's a baller," said Gordon following Orlando's win over the Philadelphia 76ers a week and a half ago, the game in which Hezonja got his first start. "He's a straight up hooper... He's a very solid basketball player, guys. He's only going to get better."

"You know me. I'm never happy with whatever I do individually." Mario Hezonja

Nik Vucevic said that Hezonja has "been improving a lot" since he got to Orlando.

While all the superlatives from his teammates and coach are nice, Hezonja holds himself to a high standard, and has shown a high maturity level throughout the entire season. "You know me," he said after that victory against the Bulls. "I'm never happy with whatever I do individually. It was good, obviously, because we got the win, but there were still some mistakes... It was okay, but I'm still not happy."

Once a brash, young player who said soccer megastar Lionel Messi should come see him, Hezonja is maturing, and it's showing in his play. Super Mario has stayed ready despite his minutes fluctuating, a trait that will undoubtedly help immensely as he moves forward with his career.

His first year in the NBA has been an up-and-down ride, but it's trending upwards as we round the final corner for the stretch run of the season. With his current form, Hezonja is poised to finish his first season strong.

Hezonja still has a long way to go as he chases stardom at basketball's highest level, but he has a strong foundation on which to build. His offensive game as a whole is as good as advertised, and he's slowly but surely coming around on the defensive end, forcing coach Skiles to turn to his rookie more and more.