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The Tragic Case of Mario Hezonja and the Orlando Magic

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The former fifth overall pick didn’t perform in Orlando until it was too late

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Orlando Magic Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Imagine getting a puppy, spending years trying to train it, and then just after it has finally started to learn, someone leaves the gate open in the backyard and the dog runs away, never to return.

That’s kind of like what happened in Orlando with Mario Hezonja. Hezonja being the puppy, the organization being the one that left the gate open.

Just when Hezonja began to show sporadic flashes of the potential that led Orlando to select him with the fifth pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, he is on his way to a new team. Left behind are Magic fans wondering if Hezonja’s flashes will become a steady bright light as he gets more opportunity in another city and uniform.

Hezonja, who agreed to a one-year, $6.5 million deal with the Knicks on Sunday, is not without blame for his disappointing three-year tenure with the Magic. With the talent and swagger that the Croatian sharpshooter brought to Orlando, he had the tools needed to thrive and then, well, things like this would happen....

But then he would show that tantalizing potential and do something like this….

.…and Magic fans would hope it was the beginning of Hezonja putting it together and shedding the “bust” label that was bestowed upon him. If he ever does so for good, it won’t be in Orlando. Not after Hezonja signed with the Knicks for just $1.3 million more than the Magic could have offered him because New York is expected to give him more minutes than the Magic could afford him.

Hezonja said he would have loved to spend his entire career in Orlando. Still, he left. Not for money, but for opportunity.

And that’s where the organization can be blamed.

And by “organization,” it’s not only in reference to the current front office regime of Jeff Weltman and John Hammond. Sure, they deserve part of the blame in their mishandling of Hezonja’s fourth-year option, which they declined in October. They inherited a 22-year old that looked lost at times on both ends, showed none of the confidence or cockiness he displayed overseas, and who regressed in his second season, scoring 4.9 points per game on 35.5 percent shooting in 14.8 minutes per game. Those circumstances and numbers don’t exactly send front office execs rushing to their computers to finalize the paperwork on a fourth-year option.

NBA: Orlando Magic-Press Conference Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Still, Hezonja was only 22 at the time and the Magic had a lengthy rebuild ahead of them. Couldn’t Weltman and Hammond have simply exercised the option and bought themselves an extra year to monitor Hezonja’s development and/or traded him if he showed no improvement or simply proved he wasn’t a fit with the Magic?

But long before Weltman and Hammond came to Orlando, the misuse of Hezonja began and the path that would lead him out of Orlando began to get paved.

Hezonja played under two different coaching staffs in his first two seasons, making his transition all the more difficult (and Scott Skiles isn’t exactly the type of coach that handles rookies with kid gloves). On the wing he was behind players such as Victor Oladipo, Evan Fournier, Terrence Ross and Jonathon Simmons. When Frank Vogel went to a smaller lineup and shifted Hezonja to power forward, he was buried behind the likes of Aaron Gordon, Serge Ibaka, Jeff Green, and Jonathan Isaac.

It wasn’t until injury struck that Hezonja received consistent minutes with Orlando, averaging 16.4 points and 5.2 rebounds during an 11 game stretch from January 30 to February 24. This is when it started to appear that, if the Magic could have a do-over, that fourth-year option probably would have been picked up.

Had it not been for injuries, the outrage over Hezonja’s departure by some fans may not be as loud as it is today. But the true outrage should have come when some of the players who suffered injuries were given the chance to play in front of Hezonja in the first place.

NBA: Washington Wizards at Orlando Magic Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Hezonja’s opportunity in Orlando came just in time to be too late, which is the fault of the old Magic regime. Then when the Magic had options, when they had control, they gave all of it to Hezonja, which in hindsight is the fault of the new regime.

Hezonja may never prove that he was worthy of being the fifth pick in the draft, the next international superstar, or the player who was once asked if he went to go see soccer legend Lionel Messi play and responded, “Let Messi come see me.”

He was worthy of one more season with the Magic. But the gate was left open.