Entering the 2015 NBA draft, the Orlando Magic needed scoring – and more specifically shooting. Evan Fournier, the team's only bona fide shooter, was yet to prove himself with a breakout year.
With the fifth pick, Orlando again found themselves just outside the realm of blue chip talent. The first three picks had been set even before the NCAA Tournament started. Karl-Anthony Towns, D'Angelo Russell, and Jahlil Okafor were long gone. Kristaps Porzingis, the raw but versatile Latvian big man who caught the Magic's eye the previous year, was fresh off the board. Magic general manager Rob Hennigan elected to stay in Europe with his pick, selecting Croatian swingman Mario Hezonja.
Hezonja was an intriguing player, the likes of which basketball fans had never seen before. Barely out of high school, and barely getting minutes on Barcelona, scouts were already projecting him as a lottery pick in the NBA draft. Despite his 6'8" height, his physique was far from imposing. A bit awkward, and still growing into his body, the Magic made the pick based on the player he could be, rather than the player he was.
All of this seemed par for the course until he spoke. Most European players come to America a bit timid, but Mario was so cocky that it made PR majors everywhere cringe. When asked about respecting his opponents, Hezonja offered this nugget:
"Respect? No, I never had respect to anybody on a basketball court. I heard about, ‘If they smell blood, you get eaten.' I'm not like that. I don't care. Whether it's a veteran or a young player standing in front of me I always have the same goal. I want to run over everybody."
For developing a player so young and so cocky, Scott Skiles was potentially the worst head coach in NBA history. He ran his teams with the intensity of a Tom Thibodeau or Gregg Popovich, but with none of the playoff success. He gave commands, not instructions. He taught plays, not concepts.
Since his time as a player, Skiles has been notoriously hard headed. When he became a coach, he picked up a few other pet peeves. He despised showmanship, and preached team-first basketball. He was particularly hard on rookies, as is evident by his treatment of Tobias Harris in Milwaukee. And finally, he shuffled lineups like a deck of cards. This was far from the consistency and support that a 20-year-old Croatian phenom would need to have success in his first year.
The former Magic head coach had no qualms about shaming Mario for his mistakes, once calling him a turnstile on defense. His minutes rose and fell like a roller coaster with seemingly no explanation. In his first year, his play time ranged from 42 minutes to 42 seconds. Long after the playoffs were out of the question, while fans were gawking at the acrobatics of Aaron Gordon, Mario looked on from the bench.
Meanwhile, on the similarly doomed Phoenix Suns, a rash of injuries to the backcourt thrust rookie Devin Booker into the spotlight. Booker was of similar build and skillset, but with much different results. While Hezonja was averaging a mere six points per game, Booker was netting nearly 14. Starting in January of this year, the coaching staff turned Booker loose to the tune of 35 minutes and 18 points a game.
Mario looked timid and scared to fail while he was on the floor. Booker played with a reckless abandon that can only come from being unbenchable. Because of this, it's nearly impossible to tell how Hezonja would've done in a similar situation.
It wasn't about role, it was about mentality. It was Mario's arrogance that made him so unique as a prospect. What the Magic got, however, was a completely different player. He was scared to shoot because he was scared to miss. He wasn't running over anyone last season, he was marooned outside the three-point line looking for an open shot, lest his coach rip him a new earhole.
It's easy to say that the Magic missed on the Hezonja pick given that Booker would fall to 13th in that same draft, but Mario's rookie report card is still incomplete.
Under Frank Vogel, the Croatian swingman stands to flourish. Not because the team will feed him unconditional minutes, but because his minutes should finally be in proportion to his play. The coaching staff will finally reward his successes rather than simply punishing his failures. He will be given a chance to succeed under a proven coach rather than fail under a failure of one.
Just like Aaron Gordon before him, Mario Hezonja deserves a clean slate after his rookie year.