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Long Live Mario Hezonja

The young, brash Croatian hasn’t lived up to even the lowest expectations of him as the no. 5 pick of the 2015 draft. But it’s far too soon for our dream to die.

AP Images/Ringer Illustration

Leading a four-on-one fast break, a scenario with hundreds of positive possible outcomes, Mario Hezonja, in seconds, managed to scramble an arithmetic certitude into a geometric impossibility. With only 6-foot guard Ish Smith between four Magic players and the basket, Hezonja, flanked by Wesley Iwundu and Evan Fournier on the left and D.J. Augustin on the right, drove the ball straight down the middle of the lane. What came next went beyond a mistake. It was an unconscionable misreading of the situation. It was like watching a Decepticon transform into a roasted sunflower seed in wartime.

A between-the-legs pass is not an inherent evil. It has been successfully accomplished in countless permutations. It’s a pet move of both Chris Paul and James Harden. Here is Gary Payton doing it in 1994:

Here is Derrick Rose doing it in 2011:

What both examples above demonstrate is a general sense of how the body needs to be positioned to facilitate the trajectory in mind. Conversely, Hezonja’s pass showcases a momentary lapse in proprioceptive awareness—he was consumed by the play he was about to make, and completely lost track of what it took to make it happen. Hezonja tried to make a rightward pass with his right hand, but the terrible angle of his attempt resulted in the ball either getting caught in the billow of his shorts or hitting his right thigh, halting its momentum. In other words, he Elfrided himself.

The disastrous play happened in December against the Pistons, whom Hezonja had torched for 28 points only 11 days earlier in his finest game as an NBA pro. It also happened just after a five-game stretch in which Mario had finally acquitted himself as the player everyone had expected the former fifth overall pick to be: 16.2 points per game on 49.2 percent shooting and 44.4 percent from 3, soaring for dunks and stroking jumpers from improbable distances. The between-the-legs turnover was a lost possession, sure, but it was also a reminder. It was Hezonja as he has presented himself over the past three seasons: a sure shot turned literal no-brainer.

And you should want him on your team.

My favorite Hezonja stories paint the young Croatian as a studious but misguided competitor. In 2015, a day after Zach LaVine shut down Brooklyn in a dunk contest obliteration on Valentine’s Day, a 19-year-old Hezonja spent an FC Barcelona team practice re-creating each of LaVine’s dunks—the procession of between-the-legs slams from every angle and manner, the behind-the-back dunk that was first done in the contest by their common spiritual predecessor, J.R. Smith—hours before an ACB League game. (They’d win by 38 points; Hezonja scored 16 points.)

This season, motivated by the Magic declining his fourth-year option, worth roughly $5.2 million next season, Hezonja has been playing extracurricular three-on-threes with whoever will say yes; with so many fellow teammates injured, he’s resorted to challenging video coordinators who have supplied and helped him break down film.

I’ve taken to labeling these kinds of players postaspirational wings. They’re players like Smith, Nick Young, and Evan Turner, who maintain a charisma and mentality that belies the fact they did not achieve NBA stardom in a traditional sense. The stories of Hezonja’s almost cartoonish swagger are beautiful. Dude scoffed at the idea of seeing Lionel Messi in action while playing in the ACB, firing back at a reporter, “Let Messi come to see me.” That, paired with his microwave role on a strong, veteran Barcelona squad, made Smith the go-to comparison for Hezonja’s talents. But what does it mean to cast the notion of being postaspiration upon a teenager still in the process of realizing his dreams?

Hezonja’s first field goal in the NBA was a no-hesitation 27-foot 3-pointer from the right wing, 24 seconds after entering a regular-season game for the first time. He’d score eight points in less than two minutes. What followed: a bad pass, two quick fouls in succession, another bad pass, all in roughly 30 seconds.

In a sense, nothing has changed since then—fits of brilliance entwine with flights of fancy, and soon enough he’s Icarus, crashing down to earth like a ball of space junk. In another, everything has changed. One bald, neurotic defensive specialist of a head coach (Scott Skiles) became another (Frank Vogel), but any coaching change is a major adjustment. Under Skiles, Hezonja was allowed brief instances to relive his childhood days of playing point guard, which Mario once said was his natural position. Now, in his second season under Vogel, he spends roughly two-thirds of his time on the court as a power forward, which might be the last position you’d want a player with significant defensive issues assuming. In both cases, it was about finding spot minutes at any position to give the young player lest he lose his confidence entirely. Hezonja’s tenuous grasp of defensive fundamentals was the thorn in the side of both coaches, evidenced by his lack of consistent playing time. But getting jerked around the positional spectrum over his first three seasons has been a separate punishment unto itself.

It really shouldn’t be that hard to pinpoint Hezonja’s role on the floor. At 6-foot-8 and 218 pounds, with a firm, upright posture and a void where his conscience should be from 30 feet out, he cuts a low-res image of Klay Thompson. An ideal version of Hezonja might look similar, stylistically, too: a big, strong guard who can handle mismatches in the post and create opportunities for himself and others both through curling around screens and cutting. Hezonja has the most success putting points on the board by darting to the basket; it’s in part a product of what little reputation he has left in the league. Teams routinely treat him as though he were invisible, or hide their worst defender on him. When attention is centralized elsewhere, Hezonja’s impressive top-end speed means he usually ends up with the ball at the apex of his momentum.

This is what it looks like when no one cares about who you are:

Perimeter shooting, which had long been considered an elite skill that Hezonja possessed, hasn’t translated in the NBA. Despite his numbers overseas, he’s yet to log a single season with an even average 3-point shooting percentage. But you don’t go 8-for-12 from behind the arc in a game, like he did in December against the Pistons, without having that ability in you. Hezonja has chalked up his struggles to all the speed bumps over the years. It’s a convenient excuse, but considering the circumstances, he’s probably owed the benefit of the doubt. “Pretty much the whole game is based on rhythm,” he said in February 2017. “When things slow down for you, it’s easier to play. It’s an easy game, but it’s hard to make it easy.” Spoken like a player who knows he hasn’t made it easy for anyone his entire career.

Young point guards are given artistic license to make mistakes. Young bigs are given years to acclimate themselves to the physicality of the league and to their own nascent skills. The way the league has trended for the past decade, most wings are expected to be good soldiers: 3-and-D-and-shut-up. The dynamic supernovas of the position are now often being shifted down to point guard (James Harden), or shifted up to a big-man slot (Kevin Durant), or both (Giannis Antetokounmpo). The swingman role has become utilitarian, without a lot of the nuance that allows point guards like Ricky Rubio or bigs like Kyle O’Quinn to embrace their quirks. It’s a reality that stifles players like Hezonja, whose ambition ought to be honed, not outright discarded. It’s been a three-year Magic lobotomy for Mario, who, as a result, may have already entered the postaspirational zone. But he’ll turn 23 in a month—still years away from his prime, and young enough for a team to put in a real investment on the fount of natural talent he so clearly still possesses.

Over the past five years, Orlando has been in a funhouse mirror of expectation versus reality, with a former front office that had convinced itself time and time again that the team was a playoff contender when it actually had the structure—and record—of a perennial bottom-feeder. That warped mind-set from upstairs trickled into the product below. Orlando declined Hezonja’s fourth-year option on Halloween, which will make the third-year player an unrestricted free agent this summer. He will almost certainly not return to Orlando. Because he is on a modest expiring contract, the possible deadline deals that immediately come to mind are lateral, one-to-one moves—I’ve dreamed of a Nerlens Noel swap for Hezonja for months now.

Reports indicate that the Magic have tossed out deadline feelers for much of their team, including Hezonja, but trading for his second-half services isn’t quite logically sound. Why give up assets to acquire a complete question mark who might not even be a part of the team’s future? Any team that trades for Hezonja will have his Bird rights, which will allow it to sign him to a contract that, at most, can offer him $5.2 million (the worth of his fourth-year option) annually, even if the team is over the cap. Is that how much he’s worth? It might be; Ben McLemore, a similarly disappointing wing drafted no. 7 overall, landed a two-year, $10.7 million deal last summer with the Grizzlies.

Perhaps Hezonja is a true draft bust, but it’s hard to be certain until we see him under a new light. It’s not like Orlando is lacking in recent examples of players who have thrived after leaving their sphere of influence. Free Hezonja.