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Can Mario Hezonja Find the Time to Thrive in Orlando?

The confident Croatian needs nurturing, but the Magic’s antsy offseason threatens his development

AP Images/Ringer illustration
AP Images/Ringer illustration

It’s been only a season, but the 2015 NBA draft class seems destined to be one of the best ever. Even beyond clear superstar talents like Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis, the class is teeming with players who, in one way or another, serve as a key to understanding their respective teams’ long-term identity. Over the next few weeks, Jonathan Tjarks will be looking at 2015 draftees entering Year 2, and how their teams can best serve their pillars of the future.

Mario Hezonja hasn’t had a chance to live up to the hype. He was dubbed the “European J.R. Smith” due to his ability to shoot 3s and play above the rim, as well as an aggressive style of play that bordered on arrogance. The Magic drafted him at no. 5 overall, but the minutes and shots just weren’t there for him in his rookie season. He was behind Elfrid Payton, Victor Oladipo, Evan Fournier, Tobias Harris, and Aaron Gordon in the pecking order, and it’s hard to play with much pizzazz running off screens and spotting up off the ball. The Magic have accumulated plenty of talent in the post–Dwight Howard era, but they have never figured out how to put it all together.

Patience in Orlando is running thin. Scott Skiles resigned after only one season as the head coach, and the front office went all in when it traded Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova, and the team’s first-round pick for Serge Ibaka, who is in the final year of his contract. The Magic handed out $116 million in contracts to Bismack Biyombo, Jeff Green, and D.J. Augustin, and gave new coach Frank Vogel a clear mandate to make the playoffs. Where that leaves Hezonja is unclear. There will be minutes for him as a shooter off the bench, but he will to have to force Vogel to give him a bigger role. To get a feel for what he could do with more responsibility, I broke down the film on three of the only games from last season when he played more than 32 minutes.

January 31 vs. Boston — 17 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 turnovers on 7-of-13 shooting in 33 minutes

Hezonja’s game against Boston was one of his best performances off the bench. He entered the game with about four minutes remaining in the first quarter, made his first 3-pointer less than a minute later, and never cooled off. The Magic were playing a supersized guard rotation, with either Oladipo (6-foot-4) or Fournier (6-foot-7) running point on the second unit, which forced the Celtics to put Isaiah Thomas (5-foot-9) on Hezonja. Despite being nearly a foot taller, Hezonja never tried to post him up, and Orlando didn’t adjust its offense to attack the mismatch. It’s a good example of how little the coaching staff trusted him to initiate offense as a rookie. He had a minuscule 16.9 usage rating and averaged fewer than one free throw attempt per game; at 6-foot-8, Hezonja has the size advantage over most wings in the NBA, let alone Thomas, but he attempted only 13 shots out of the post all season.

Hezonja’s inability to stay on the floor was compounded by his poor grasp of Orlando’s defensive schemes. Like most rookies, Hezonja was lost off the ball, not keeping track of his man or staying connected when chasing him through screens, and not making the proper rotations as a help-side defender. He is big and athletic enough to eventually become a plus defender, but he will have a hard time earning Vogel’s trust until he learns to correct some of the mental mistakes he made last season.

March 25 at Miami — 8 points, 3 rebounds, 1 assist, 2 steals, and 2 turnovers on 4-of-11 shooting in 37 minutes

Hezonja started in five of the final 11 games of the season, when it had become clear that the Magic weren’t likely to advance to the playoffs. Hezonja was the starting small forward against the Heat, doing a decent job of bodying up Joe Johnson and preventing him from bullying on the block. He logged minutes as a small-ball power forward, too. Playing in smaller lineups showcased his athleticism; he was burning slower players in transition and getting down the floor in an awful hurry. It’s easy to get excited about Hezonja when he’s playing in space: He’s a 6-foot-8 jet with great top-end speed and a quick release from anywhere on the court.

But he struggles to translate that athleticism when playing in the half court. Hezonja doesn’t get as many rebounds (6.9 percent rebound rate), steals (1.4 percent), or blocks (1 percent) as you would expect for a guy with his physical tools. He’s not particularly long for his height, so he has to put himself in the right positions to get his hands on balls. What might help is sliding him down the position spectrum, rather than up. Hezonja is bigger and faster than Klay Thompson, for example, who spends a lot of time chasing down smaller point guards for the Warriors. Putting Hezonja in a similar situation would give him a huge edge in size and length. The Magic could run the offense through Fournier and Gordon on the wings and switch everything with Biyombo and Ibaka upfront. Thompson is the blueprint for what Hezonja can become, but he’s a long way from that — and it’s hard to compare anyone to Klay, a player who has maxed out his talent so completely since getting drafted.

April 11 vs. Milwaukee — 19 points, 3 rebounds, 7 assists, and 5 steals on 7-of-11 shooting in 39 minutes

No Gordon, no Oladipo, and no Nikola Vucevic meant this game was as close to a liberated Hezonja performance as we saw all season. He was more involved in the offense, and he even spent part of the game as the primary ball handler when he was playing with C.J. Watson and Devyn Marble on the second unit. He’s a smart player with a good feel for the game, and he usually makes the right pass when it’s available. Most of his assists came within the flow of the offense, but he looked more comfortable handling the ball in the pick-and-roll, especially when he could take the ball up the floor himself and start the offense before the defense got set.

The increased role also highlighted some of his limitations, especially going against the Bucks’ long and athletic wings. Hezonja had trouble with Khris Middleton on defense, who repeatedly took advantage of him in isolations, getting where he wanted off the dribble and shooting over the top of him. Nor was there much he could do when Giannis Antetokounmpo unfurled his arms and started blanketing him all over the court. He’s a straight-line driver without a ton of shake off the dribble, and his inability to create space is why he settled for a lot of contested jumpers as a rookie. He can take and make tough shots, but the best scorers in the NBA tend to have more versatility in their games; it’s hard to be an efficient offensive player when you rarely go to the free throw line.

At this point, the math doesn’t add up to Hezonja having a starring role for Orlando in the upcoming season. The Magic have a logjam in the frontcourt, with Vucevic, Biyombo, and Ibaka expecting to play big minutes at the interior positions, causing a domino effect to the rest of their lineup. That pushes Jeff Green and Aaron Gordon down a position to the 3, even though both are most effective at the 4, which forces Fournier and Hezonja to play primarily as 2s, with Fournier likely getting most of the minutes, after signing an $85 million contract in the offseason. The presence of Elfrid Payton and Augustin means there’s not much room at the 1, leaving Hezonja with another 15–20 minute role off the bench.

The Magic could make him the sixth man and let him run the second unit, a role Fournier and Oladipo filled last season. The question becomes whether he would be playing with Biyombo or Vucevic at center. Vucevic would demand the ball in the post if he’s coming off the bench, while Biyombo is a better roll man more comfortable in the uptempo offense well-suited to Hezonja’s game. There are no easy answers for Vogel, since Biyombo would improve the starting unit’s defense at the expense of its floor spacing, which will be an issue playing next to two non-shooters in Gordon and Payton. One way to balance defense and shooting while also creating more playing time for Hezonja, would be sliding Ibaka to center and Gordon to power forward, but that would mean benching one of their high-priced big men in favor of an unproven second-year player.

Playing Ibaka, Gordon, Hezonja, and Fournier together would give the Magic a lineup that could switch screens, spread the floor, and play uptempo, where Hezonja is most effective. Vogel needs to figure out the best way to maximize his game, because he could be the last top-five pick the Magic have for a long time. Hezonja has the tools to be a high-level, two-way player, but his skill set isn’t one that can transcend any situation. So much of a young player’s success in the NBA depends on being in the right place at the right time, and that hasn’t happened yet for Hezonja. He’s only 21, so he still has plenty of time, but his team won’t be waiting around.