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Mario Hezonja: A new dawn or a false hope?

After years of disappointment, Hezonja is making the most of his recent opportunities

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

On June 25, 2015, the Orlando Magic made Croatian sharpshooter Mario Hezonja the fifth overall pick in the annual NBA Draft. Dubbed ‘Super Mario’ by the European press, the expectation was that his elite level shooting would allow him to come in and contribute immediately in a limited capacity while learning the NBA ropes, in time developing into a potent scorer and potential star.

But now with almost two and half season’s worth of experience under his belt, and even with Hezonja getting extended minutes of late and coming off a career-high 28 point performance against the Pistons on Sunday, that envisioned future seems a long way from reality. Hezonja has usually found himself with a short leash at the very end of the team’s rotation, scoring the ball miserably and failing to make much of an impact in any facet of the game. He’s racked up DNP-CDs at a furious and unexpected pace, and even despite commitments by coach Frank Vogel to find him more playing time his minutes have been pretty spotty.

The Magic are a long way from receiving the expected return from their investment, and the question must be asked: what has happened to Mario Hezonja?

The resume

NBA: Orlando Magic-Media Day Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Hezonja came into the draft carrying a weight of expectation, much of it of his own making. His confidence and self-assuredness (and, some would say, cockiness) was always apparent on the court, and it’s impossible to forget the infamous quote he offered up when asked if he was going to see soccer legend Lionel Messi play: “Let Messi come to see me”. He was young and brash, but backing it up regularly despite somewhat limited opportunities on the veteran-loaded Spanish league powerhouse, FC Barcelona. He may have talked the talk but was also well on his way to walking the walk.

Hezonja rose through the European ranks swiftly, being promoted to the club level in his native Croatia at the age of 12, eventually signing a three-year deal in Spain not long after turning 17. Within a couple of years he had played himself into the regular rotation, and it wasn’t long before he unleashed a handful of attention-grabbing performances. The pick of the bunch was undoubtedly the shooting master class he turned in during a 101-53 beat down, which featured him finishing 8 for 8 from behind the arc on his way to claiming the weekly Spanish League Most Valuable Player award. His scoring ability held up across two seasons against strong competition, as he cashed in at 37% from deep and showed enough with the ball in hand to suggest he could develop into much more than just a spot-up shooter.

A litany of awards and recognition had followed Hezonja across his years in European basketball. In 2011 his team took out the Nike International Junior Tournament, after which he was named to the All-Tournament team. 2012 saw him nominated for the FIBA Europe Young Player of the Year Award, and he only missed out on playing as a member of the world team at the 2013 Nike Hoop Summit thanks to injury. Scouting reports were universally favorable, with many citing his textbook shooting stroke, his superb athleticism, and his developing playmaking skills, particularly in the pick and roll. No draft pick is ever a sure thing, but projections agreed that Hezonja had the right combination of skills and swagger to carve out a long career as a valued contributor, if not an outright star scorer.

Growing pains

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Despite a promising start in his first regular season game – 11 points off the bench with three triples and a positive plus/minus in a team loss – Hezonja staggered through much of his rookie campaign. He only reached double figures in scoring a single time in his next 20 games (an 11 points in 13 minutes effort against the 76ers), racking up single-digit playing time on eight separate occasions. Through it all his shooting remained solid if not spectacular, but it was clear that he was struggling with some of the particulars of the NBA game – specifically, the possession to possession attention to detail required on defense. He could also be easily flustered with the ball in hand, showing a tendency to over dribble and attempting to squeeze passes through the tightest of passing lanes.

As the season ground on, there remained enough glimpses to suggest that Hezonja’s natural talent was beginning to coalesce into a more polished product. His playing time settled comfortably into the 20 minutes per game range, with his production becoming more consistent as a result. Hezonja hit double figures in scoring 15 times across the second half of the season (compared to six such occurrences in the first 41 games), including a 21-point eruption in a then career-high 37 minutes as a starter. More importantly, ‘Super Mario’ contributed across the board, totalling five rebounds, two assists, a steal and a block, while also not registering a single turnover and almost pacing the team with a plus/minus of +23 in his time on the court.

Although Hezonja’s rookie season wasn’t a breakout campaign, there were enough signs for those watching closely to be cautiously optimistic. Flashes of the skills that made him such a tantalizing prospect out of Europe were visible, and it seemed a safe assumption that he would continue to work it out as he got used to playing against stronger, faster and more athletic competition. He made noticeable and tangible improvements on the court, seeing both his time and role with the team increase. It was also apparent that then head coach Scott Skiles was still figuring out the best way to deploy his new rookie, including a few creative stretches in games that featured Hezonja ostensibly playing point guard and initiating the offense. It seemed to be a vote of confidence and an indication of further growth to come.

A second year slump

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Orlando Magic Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

To say that Hezonja’s sophomore season was a disappointment would be a gross understatement. With offseason acquisitions that were intended to see the Magic compete for the playoffs there was also the expectation that the second year wing would establish himself as key part of the rotation, providing valuable shooting and spacing off the bench. For a number of reasons, it didn’t happen.

Hezonja’s troubles during this campaign were twofold. Firstly, his defensive lapses remained frequent and noticeable, and new coach Frank Vogel showed limited patience for a player with a propensity for misreads and a seeming lack of attention to detail. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, he just didn’t shoot the ball with any consistency. Hezonja scored at a putrid clip of just 35% across the 65 games he played in, including a frigid 29.9% from deep. From inside the arc he converted at a shade under 40%, a number that was largely the result of his inability to find the bottom of the net on mid-range jumpers and floaters on the drive. Combining these numbers with a poor ball protection and a paltry assist rate for a player asked to generate opportunities for the bench unit adds up to a season in which Hezonja was simply an extreme negative on the offensive end. In fact, of anyone on the team with more than 110 minutes played he ranked dead last in both offensive box plus/minus and offensive win shares. No doubt about it, the team’s offensive output was at its worst with Hezonja on the court.

Disconcertingly, Hezonja also looked lost and overwhelmed in a lot of his playing time. His decision making with the ball in hand was tentative, and he still regularly tried to squeeze passes through gaps that weren’t there. When mired in the depths of an extended shooting slump -- which happened regularly! -- you could see the split second of indecision that takes a shooter out of their rhythm, with any frustrations almost immediately evident on his face and in his posture. Like many players he thrives when confident, and it was obvious that his meagre output and quick hook after mistakes was making it very difficult for him to find the type of performance needed to right the ship. Hezonja went the entire month of January without cracking double figures, and in the lead up to the trade deadline it became known that the team had made the former lottery pick available in trade discussions. His value was at an all-time low, and it was reasonable to question whether or not he would ever develop into a real contributor for the Magic.

As damning as this analysis is, there was a glimmer of hope visible towards the end of last season. Cutting bait on Serge Ibaka forced the team to recommit to youth, smaller line-ups and a more up-tempo style of play, all of which were factors in Hezonja’s favor. Although his shooting stroke remained absent he was able to find easier opportunities running the floor in transition. Defensively he appeared more attentive and engaged, looking a little more comfortable at that end of the floor and registering increased deflection numbers. They were undoubtedly small steps, only evident if you were really looking for them. But they were there.

There was also some evidence of the confident and brash player that Hezonja originally promised to be. After a game against Portland, Vogel was effusive in his praise for the young wing, explaining that his increased playing time was a result of his “confidence” and the fact that he had been “playing with toughness.” Hezonja himself talked about taking on the challenge presented by the season’s final third, telling reporters that he had asked Vogel to “take their best guy … the guy that is making the most damage to us.” This sort of statement was an indication that he understood how important it was that he improve defensively, and also that he wouldn’t shy away from this responsibility. It’s the type of self-belief that when properly harnessed can fuel improvement.

Worshipping at the Church of Hezonja

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Hezonja’s third season in the league definitely seemed to be following a familiar script through the team’s first 27 games. Court time was hard to come by, the rope extended to him by the coaching staff short, and meaningful improvement not apparent. He suffered the indignity of not having his fourth-year rookie option picked up, and it emerged that the team had been exploring trade options for him but ultimately couldn’t secure a deal. For all intents and purposes it appeared that his days in Orlando were numbered.

While that still may be the case, his most recent four-game stretch has been tantalising enough to re-engage those initially faithful followers. With the Magic reeling on the wing due to injury Hezonja has been thrust into a much more prominent on-court role, and he’s largely delivered. Since being inserted into the starting lineup he is shooting the ball at a clip of almost 50% from the field, including 11 makes from downtown. His rebounding has been solid, he’s shown a willingness to pass the ball and make plays for others, and his defense has been surprisingly competent on most possessions. He has registered five steals and five blocks across these games, including some very athletic plays when challenging shots at the rim. In short, he has looked good!

A line of 17 points, nine rebounds and four assists against the Clippers was the first indication that there might be another level to his play, but it was the performance against the Pistons that has momentarily set hearts aflutter. Hezonja finished this one with a career-high 28 points, six rebounds and two assists, as well as three steals and an absurd eight makes from deep in 12 attempts. His shot was confident and clean, and although he still occasionally tried to do too much with the ball in hand he played decisively and with confidence. He also had a few nice moments on defense, hitting rotations, closing out, and working hard when in one-on-one coverage. Perhaps true to the Orlando Magic experience, it was a career outing that made it easy to doubt the front office’s earlier decision to make him an unrestricted free agent at season’s end. What if this is a sign of things to come?

It’s hard to know what will happen when the Magic start getting healthy, but if Hezonja continues to play as he has it will basically force Vogel to find meaningful minutes in the rotation for him. It’s apparent that the coaching staff have been looking for ways to leverage his shooting and athleticism, which at the very least indicates a desire to find ways to integrate his talents as long he remains in Orlando. However, it’s worth noting that he basically disappeared during the one game that Aaron Gordon played, an indication that his success is very much situation-dependent. So is this recent play a new dawn or false hope? At the moment, we just don’t know.

It’s an incredibly small sample, but Hezonja has displayed a greater level of comfort and effectiveness during the team’s last four games. He has averaged almost 30 minutes across these contests, generally looking more engaged and active in a better-defined role. The coaching staff appear committed to finding him more advantageous situations on the court, catering to his strengths and allowing him to play through some of the mistakes that previously may have resulted in him being yanked.

Mario Hezonja almost certainly isn’t the superstar that the Magic are desperately seeking, but we’re starting to see evidence that he may yet develop into a real NBA talent.