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Final Grades: Aaron Gordon and Mario Hezonja

Aaron hands out more grades, this time to a couple former Orlando lottery picks heading into Free Agency

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Three weeks into the 2017-18 season, the Magic were sitting atop the Eastern Conference after winning eight of their first twelve games.

November must feel like a lifetime ago for players in Orlando’s locker room that went through the disappointment and disaster that was this past season. The Magic went 17-53 after November 10th, finished the season with the second-worst record in the conference standings (fifth-worst in the league), and are once again headed towards the lottery for a sixth straight year.

Injuries wreaked havoc on Orlando’s season, causing nearly everyone on the roster to miss time at one point or another due to varying reasons. Now that the ‘17-’18 campaign is complete, it’s time to look back on each player’s individual season. Let’s revisit who pulled their weight this year, and who needs to put this nightmarish season behind them as quickly as possible.

As a teacher who is used to assessing on a regular basis, this is right up my alley! Included in this report are season statistics along with some comments from yours truly that hopefully explain why I graded the guys the way that I did.

Last week, I assessed the play of Jonathon Simmons and Evan Fournier. You can read that piece here.

In the comments section below, please feel free to agree or disagree with any of my assessments, or simply just let me know if this is something that interests you. Credit for statistics goes to Basketball Reference and as always. Enjoy!

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Aaron Gordon (58 Games Played, 57 Games Started)
Grade: B

32.9 17.6 7.9 2.3 1.8 43% 34% 53% 16.5 0.0

Gordon’s season was very symbolic of Orlando’s season overall. He was red hot to begin the year, then missed an extended period of time due to injury (this actually happened to Gordon twice), and finished the next three months of the season with maddeningly inconsistent play.

Through December 8th (one-third of the way through the schedule), Gordon was shooting over 50% from the field and over 40% from three-point range. His shooting numbers were hard to ignore; at that point it seemed as if Gordon had taken a leap in his career and had become a dependable shooter.

However, Gordon went on to miss a stretch of seven games in December (concussion/calf), nine games in late January/early February (hip), and another five games in March (2nd concussion).

It would be really easy to attribute Gordon’s shooting woes to the time he missed, and to the fact that he never really had a chance to get back into a rhythm because he was constantly in-and-out of the lineup.

Others claim that Gordon’s shot selection this season, which got extremely loose at times and contributed to his inefficient play to end the year, was due to so many other players being out of the lineup.

Theories aside, the fact is Gordon failed to shoot at least 50% from the field in 23 of his last 30 games this season (dating back to January 1st). He finished the year shooting 43% from the field, a career low for the fourth-year forward. His three-point percentage (34%) this year did establish a career-high, but his final true shooting percentage (53%) ended up right at his career average (53.2%).

For me, Gordon still has to discover what kind of player he is in the NBA. What I’m most concerned with regarding Aaron Gordon is that he seemed to settle for too many bad shots this year, rather than using his athleticism to beat guys defending him. His free-throw rate of .260 this past year was well below his marks in that area his first two seasons in the NBA. Gordon made 92 dunks this year, but those attempts only represented 11% of his overall attempts from the field (a career low). His FGA’s this season were shot on average from 14 feet away; he’s drifting further and further from the basket, but still hasn’t shown the ability (outside of one blistering month) to consistently knock down an outside shot.

Gordon is heading into restricted free agency this upcoming summer. Whether he should be brought back, for how much should he be brought back for, or whether the front office should look into sign-and-trade options for Gordon is a discussion for another article.

I will just say that regardless of the fact that Gordon ended his season in the way that he did, he should be signed long term. He’s still just 22, not many NBA twenty-two year-old pros have the experience in the league under their belts that Gordon has. I do think he will continue to get better.

But I would bring him back solely for cap reasons. The Magic are paralyzed by their cap situation as long as Bismack Biyombo is still on the team (and Fournier, although I don’t think his contract is as bad). Meaning, until the summer of 2020 (at the earliest), the Magic won’t be able to sign anyone worthwhile to better the roster anyway. The organization is in no position to let talent get away, and Gordon already has shown he’s talented.

Gordon scored over 20 points in a game sixteen time this season, including two games in which he scored over 30, and two unforgettable games in which he scored more than 40. His 17 double-doubles this year were a career high for the former lottery pick. Gordon finished the year second on the team in Player Efficiency Rating and VORP (value over replacement player), behind Nikola Vucevic in both categories.

The Magic were -2.7 per/100 possessions when Gordon was on the court this season, which was +5.1 per/100 possessions better than when he was off the floor.

Best game of the season: November 29th, vs. Oklahoma City (Orlando 121, OKC 108)
40 points (13-23 FG, 6-12 3PT, 8-11 FT), 15 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 steals

NBA: Orlando Magic at Milwaukee Bucks Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Mario Hezonja (75 Games Played, 30 Games Started)
Grade: C+

22.1 9.6 3.7 1.4 1.1 44% 34% 54% 13.7 -0.8

There was arguably no player on Orlando’s roster that benefited more this year from so many guys missing time due to injuries than Mario Hezonja. Jonathan Isaac, Gordon, Fournier, Simmons, and Terrence Ross combined to miss well over 100 games this season, and Hezonja took advantage of the opportunity to receive consistent minutes in the nightly rotation.

His year certianly din’t start out rosy. Hezonja, who the Magic selected fifth overall in the 2015 NBA Draft, will be heading into free agency this summer for the first time in his career. How is that possible for a lottery pick who just completed only his third season in the NBA? Well, Orlando’s new management (who didn’t originally draft Hezonja) decided not to pick-up Hezonja’s fourth year option on his contract (valued at roughly $5.2 million in ‘18-19) for next year.

Not having his fourth-year option picked up, which happens extremely rarely for former lottery picks, may have been a wake-up call for Hezonja. Now faced with playing for his next NBA contract, Hezonja looked like a man on fire at times this season. Coach Vogel mentioned on numerous occasions that Hezonja played with more energy and fire this year than anyone on the roster. The challenge was just harnessing in that effort and passion.

Hezonja set career-high marks this season nearly across the board (FGM, FGA, REB per/36, STL per/36, PTS per/36, ORtg, PER, OWS, DWS). For the first time in his career, Hezonja’s production placed him above a replacement-level NBA player (‘15-16 VORP: -0.3, ‘16-17 VORP: -0.9, ‘17-18 VORP: 0.5).

One of the key statistics for me that signals a player is adjusting to the NBA is their ability to finish at the rim. Hezonja shot just under 70% inside of three-feet, a mark that is much improved from his first two seasons in the NBA. Playing primarily the power forward position seemed to make a big difference for Hezonja as well. At the big forward position, Hezonja found himself in match-ups where he could take his defender off the dribble, or even beat his man down the court to create easy opportunities for himself to score on the break.

Hezonja scored over 20 points in a game six different times this season; three of those games were consecutive contests leading into the All-Star break.

The Magic were -7.1 per/100 possessions when Hezonja was on the court this season, which was -3.1 per/100 possessions worse than when he was off the floor.

Best game of the season: December 17th @ Detroit (Detroit 114, Orlando 110)
28 points (10-18 FG, 8-12 3PT), 6 rebounds, 3 steals

Lets hear from you Magic fans. Where did I go wrong? Lookout for two more player evaluation articles in this series coming over the next couple of weeks!