When the Orlando Magic drafted Mario Hezonja fifth overall in 2015, he seemed more like a mythical beast than a tangible basketball player. Since then, however, his performance has removed any mystique and replaced it with all-too-familiar feelings of doubt and uncertainty.
The player that Magic fans were sold on draft night may exist somewhere, but he has yet to show his face inside the Amway Center – or anywhere west of the Atlantic Ocean.
So far, Hezonja has been a 101 class on the perils of drafting pure potential – on hoping for the best without a safety net.
The Croatian-born swingman was billed as the next European sensation from the time he turned pro at age 12. Though he played sparingly in the second tier of the Spanish league before declaring, his length, athleticism, and pure shooting stroke combined for a set of skills that could transcend to the highest competition in the world.
ESPN basketball expert Fran Fraschilla had this to say about Hezonja, who was seen as a sure lottery pick by the time the 2015 NBA Draft rolled around:
But all of that aside, the most interesting thing about Hezonja wasn’t his 6-foot-8 frame or his 6-foot-10 wingspan, it was his mouth.
In an article which called Mario “the cockiest NBA Draft prospect in years”, SB Nation’s Kevin O’Connor found this nugget on the teenaged phenom’s trash talking prowess:
"Respect? No, I never had respect to anybody on a basketball court," Hezonja told Sportando. "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."
But that Mario Hezonja never arrived in Orlando.
Instead of taking the league by storm and earning a share of Rookie of the Year Award votes, his meager average of 6.1 points per game put Hezonja in the realm of players like Mike Scott and Alexis Ajinca.
It was easy enough to attribute the young Croatian’s first-year struggles to growing pains, transatlantic jet lag, or a hard-nosed coach in Scott Skiles that had a history of being less-than-forgiving to rookies, but even those numbers look rosy compared to his sophomore season.
In 2016-17, Mario was a rudderless ship that struggled to find a rhythm for most of the year. His one benchmark skill, shooting, fell off a cliff to the tune of 35 percent from the field 29 percent from deep. The win-now Magic eventually relegated him to DNP-CD status as he continued to search for a role.
In my first article for OPP during his rookie season, I wrote that Mario would be wise to embrace his signature cockiness rather than trying to conform and become something he isn’t.
Two years in, he’s on his way to doing the exact opposite.
Instead of a loud-mouthed, sharpshooting, high-flying scorer that threatened to crush everything in his path, Mario has looked more like a wide-eyed foreign exchange student trying to find his first class of the semester.
Mario doesn’t display the quiet confidence of someone like Aaron Gordon, or the flamboyant flair of a Victor Oladipo. He seems to be still figuring out who he wants to be, and the NBA is a cruel place to discover one’s identity.
Year three will be a major crossroads for Hezonja, not just as a member of the Magic, but as an NBA player overall. Gone, for now, are the visions or grandeur – of a multidimensional three-level scorer that could dazzle fans with his athleticism and dribbling. Mentioning that Hezonja was once tabbed as “the next Tracy McGrady” feels more like rubbing salt into the wound of a star-searching Magic fanbase.
Right now, Mario Hezonja needs to focus on the basics. If he wants to have a successful career in Orlando or otherwise, he needs to find himself before trying to piecemeal together an NBA game out of other people’s expectations.
If he winds up as just a shooter, that’s perfectly fine. For a Magic team that converted the NBA’s most valuable shot at the league’s fifth-worst rate (8.4 made threes per game), and shot the worst percentage as a team from beyond the arc (32.7 percent), a sharpshooting role player would be a welcomed addition to this year’s new-look Magic.
What the team can’t have, however, is another positionless wing that is generally okay at everything but great at nothing. Playing that way, like Hezonja did last season, will see him relegated to benchwarmer status on a team that has only gotten deeper at his position – whatever that may be.
Though the “bust” label is one of the hardest to shake, Hezonja will enter the 2017 season with the hope of simply proving he belongs in the world’s most competitive league.
This new Magic front office led by Jeff Weltman has zero expectation that Mario Hezonja will be the franchise player he was drafted to be. So far, they seem to be hoping he can be depended on to do something, anything, consistently. With that weight lifted off his shoulders, this may be a perfect opportunity for the former prodigy to finally stand on his own two feet.
Orlando doesn’t need a Super Mario, they need a Stable Mario.