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Magic's Mario Hezonja coming into his own after strong performance against Bucks

The Magic's first year man played a big role against the Bucks on Monday night.

Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Every rookie faces different trials and tribulations throughout their rookie seasons. For some rookies, those are big, while they're equally as small for others.

For Magic rookie Mario Hezonja, his first season has been one of bigger proportions, with the Croatian seeing inconsistent play slow him for much of the season.

As the season has worn on, Hezonja has seen some improvements in many facets of his game, which all came together on Monday against the Milwaukee Bucks.

Hezonja, starting in place of the injured Victor Oladipo, put together his best all-around performance of the season, scoring 19 points -- two off of his career-high -- to go with career-highs in assists (7) and steals (5). The performance showcased everything Hezonja can do, from running an offense, to knocking down shots from all over the floor.

When the team needed a bucket most late, they turned to the rookie.

After seeing their 10-point lead trimmed to four after back-to-back three-pointers from the Bucks, Evan Fournier found Hezonja in the left quarter, where he quickly, and calmly knocked down a three to stabilize the Magic's offense. Hezonja followed that up with his fifth steal, helping end any momentum the Bucks were hoping to build.

Following the game, coach Scott Skiles said the rookie had an overall solid game. "We didn't think he would hesitate [to take the shot late]... Evan made the extra pass, and he [Mario] knocked down the one we really needed. Mario had an overall very good game... I thought he was very solid defensively and had a good offensive game as well."

Seeing Hezonja make the impact that he did should be no surprise considering the amount of confidence he has in him, and his teammates. While it's been an up-and-down year, he's managed to keep a level head, which is one of the biggest reasons why his performance isn't surprising.

The rookie was surprised when he found out he had a career-high in steals, but said that it's part of his improvement on the defensive end. "I kind of sneak a little bit," he said. "I know where they're going, so if I can reach with my hand there and just deflect it to where someone else can get the ball for an easy fastbreak layup, that's great."

Dewayne Dedmon, who started in place of the inured Nikola Vucevic, said he was happy with the progress Hezonja has made. "He's made a lot of progress, especially on the defensive end. Helping us on defense, that was a bit of a struggle for him at the beginning. He's starting to grow, starting to improve, and his shots falling, but we knew that was going to happen."

Coming into a new league, and what he called a new game, was a challenge for Hezonja. His offense was always his best tool, but the work he's put in on the defensive end is the biggest thing that's allowed him to see more minutes as the season has grown longer.

Elfrid Payton, one of Hezonja's best friends on the team, echoed the feelings of Dewayne Dedmon, saying the biggest improvement for Mario has been defensively.

"Even more attentiveness on defense," said Payton. "He's doing things that, it's hard to explain to you guys, but he's doing those things and it's a big help for us on the defensive end. Also, just his understanding of the game on the offensive end. Knowing when to cut, he's showing his passing, he can do that, and he's knocked down some big shots too."

While Hezonja still has a long way to go to reach his full potential, Monday night against the Bucks gave everyone a glimpse of just what he could be.

The 21-year-old was able to get out and push the pace, allowing for his passing abilities to be shown off. He knocked down shots and attacked the basket hard when he needed to and found open cutting lanes to receive passes from his teammates.

Most importantly, his improvements on the defensive end, understand positioning, and knowing when to be aggressive in playing passing lanes, was shown put on full display against the Bucks.

He faces a big offseason, one that he's expected to spend playing for the Croatian National team, rather than the Magic during Orlando's annual Summer League, but getting time and continuing to hone his craft will be important, no matter what the stage is.

Nevertheless, Hezonja's time with the Magic is going to be long and with performances like Monday night, he shows the Magic could have a star in the making.