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Know the Prospect: Mario Hezonja

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There are plenty of foreign prospects who could potentially fit with the Knicks, and this wing from Croatia would look fantastic in orange and blue.

Hey there Posters and Toasters. Ross Bernhardt, aka viva_morrison back for the excitement of draft season. As Seth pointed out, the Knicks like a lot of players. But another they should like is Mario Hezonja, the rangy, athletic Croatian wing currently playing for FC Barcelona.

Hezonja, 20, has been on the rise for years as an international prospect. He made his professional debut in Croatia at 14 years old and has shown out in several international showcases (like the U-16 World Championships and the 2011 Jordan Brand International Game). This season, Hezonja saw his minutes jump up from under 10 minutes a game to over 15, and while he displayed just why he's a highly-regarded prospect, he was also highly inconsistent. In 32 league games, Hezonja went scoreless 11 times (and scored in double figures only thrice) and only posted four games with at least five rebounds. There are definitely reasons to be concerned with Hezonja (and Knickerblogger already laid out a doomsday scenario that sees Hezonja selected even with Jahlil Okafor on the board), but there are also reasons to think he could be producing highlights consistently in the NBA for years to come.

The Rundown

Measurements - Height: 6'8"; Weight: 200-215 pounds (no combine stats out there) 
Projected Draft Position - 7 (Draft Express), 7 (NBADraft.net), 5 (SI.com), 7 on Chad Ford's Big Board at ESPN (don't have Insider), 6 (Sheridan Hoops), 7 (Basketball Insiders)
Actual Draft Profiles/Stats - Draft ExpressNBADraft.netBasketball-Reference
Most-Seen Player Comp - Rex Chapman (not the current version)

Amateur Take: Offense - Offensively, it looks like Hezonja has the ability to do it all. He has great size for a wing, especially one more accustomed to playing shooting guard, and he retained terrific quickness to go with the height. His first step is quite explosive, and when he gets a full head of steam going towards the basket, he's shown he can finish with devastating results above the rim. His leaping ability is legit. He's a very good shooter (45.7%) and has a terrific shooting stroke either in the pull-up or catch-and-shoot variety all the way out to three, where he connected on just under 38% of his attempts last season. His height and high release make his shot difficult to defend, especially when he can hit with accuracy. He attempted 153 shots from deep last season, so he made quite a few of them, but he tended to stay out past the arc a lot. Hezonja attempted 256 field goals last season, which means 59.7% of his shots were threes. That's not entirely ideal, especially for a player with his size an athleticism.

That leads to a different area where Hezonja struggles: getting to the free throw line. In 93 total games with Barcelona from the 2012-2013 season (where he appeared just 5 times) to last year (54), Hezonja has only taken 54 free throws. That's 0.6 per game over the course of three seasons. If you're taking and making a lot of jump shots, you won't be going to the line very often. But if you're a player that likes the ball in his hands, has a decent handle and can get to the rim, you should be getting to the free throw line more than that, especially when you can make around 80% of the freebies.

Hezonja only averaged 1.2 assists a game with Barcelona, but he did register a game during league play where he dropped six dimes. Working in pick-and-rolls, Hezonja can find rolling big men or create glaring mismatches on switches, and has shown strong basketball IQ in his ability to make decent decisions with the ball. While his skill is decent there, passing isn't a huge part of his game, and that's something scouts have noted. Hezonja can become a bit ball-dominant at times. When you watch his highlights, he often waves away guards and help to go one-on-one with the defender. This plays into concerns about how well Hezonja will fit into a team system. It just so happens the Knicks run a system that works best with great ball movement and teamwork, and they already have a ball-dominant scorer in Carmelo Anthony. To counter that, Phil Jackson won 11 titles coaching two great scoring wings in Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. (I'm not comparing Hezonja to either of them in any way, but it's not the worst thing to have a scoring guard in the Triangle offense.)

Amateur Take: Defense - Hezonja has all of the tools to be a solid defender at the next level. His quickness and length give him the ability to defend multiple positions, and he's got soft hands when defending passing lanes. Since he's grown, Hezonja has also battled bigger players down low and held his own well enough. He is a better individual defender than a team defender at this stage, and improvement is expected with more training and experience. It would be nice if he showed more of those instincts, though.

One area where I would have expected more from Hezonja is rebounding, where he only averaged two a game last year. His per-36 rebounding dropped from 5.9 in '13-'14 to 4.6 last year. A player with his size and athletic abilities should be more active getting rebounds, even if he is playing at the guard position, and to see a decrease after increased playing time is slightly concerning. If he adds more strength to his frame, maybe he becomes more capable in that area. Bottom line is he could easily be an excellent two-way player down the line with the potential to provide defensive help at a couple different positions.

From the Scouts - From Matt Kamalsky's scouting report from Draft Express linked above:

As we've noted in previous reports one of the more significant ongoing concerns about Hezonja is his demeanor. His body language is poor at times and he seems to get down on his teammates. Though he's become far less demonstrative than he appeared at the junior level, it will be fascinating to watch how his swagger, ego and unlimited self-confidence fit in on whichever team opts to draft him. His mentality could pay huge dividends if he reaches his lofty potential down the road, but what kind of growing pains will he experience early in his NBA career?

Random Red Flag - That quote about his demeanor leads directly to the red flag. Swagger is a double-edged sword. It's great when a player has confidence, but that can become detrimental. Just look at this quote Hezonja gave to a Spanish reporter last year:

Respect? No, I never had respect to anybody on a basketball court. 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.

That fearlessness is great, but if it leaks over into battling with teammates, it isn't so great. Personally, I think that quote by Hezonja is pretty awesome.

The Clyde Factor - Clyde would have no trouble with "Mario", but "Hezonja" would be a different story. Expect tons of "Super Mario" references and shortening his last name to "Hez" in order to not say things like Hegemony, Pneumonia or the like.

Knick Knacks

  • Mario's birthday is February 25, which is also my birthday (so you guys know to buy us things next year).
  • From that same news brief by the Spanish reporter, Hezonja said that he wasn't a normal kid and instead of going to the beach would get his ball and work on his shot. This insatiable dedication and motivation earned him the nickname The Beast in Zagreb, which according to him "is saying a lot."
  • Mario is on Twitter, but has only tweeted three times. He's also on Instagram, where he's been much more active recently.
  • Some of Mario's teammates on FC Barcelona are former Knicks guard Rudy Fernandez and former Knicks draft pick Maciej Lampe.
Let's Get Reel

You can see the kid has game.

Comprehensive look (albeit solely positive) at areas of Hezonja's game.

What We Learned:

  • That shooting form is pretty beautiful. He's got great balance and a super quick release.
  • He's tall, quick, and can dunk very well.
  • Basically, he can do all of the things you'd want a basketball player to do.
Conclusion:

It's easy to talk yourself into a player like Hezonja. The first time I saw one of his highlight videos, I did so quickly. The thing that jumped out to me was how much swagger he had, which weirdly reminded me of a smaller, more athletic Danilo Gallinari. There's a lot more to his game than Gallo's though, which is what immediately drew me to him.

But I've been waffling on him for a while now. He looks like the kind of talent that could blossom into something truly great, something along the lines of a bigger Klay Thompson. But he could just easily be a slightly taller version of Tim Hardaway Jr. or J.R. Smith. Even if he turns out to be Rex Chapman (who was drafted 8th overall out of Kentucky), that is a nice career. But do you want Rex Chapman or THJ with the 4th overall pick? Not really. You want Klay Thompson.

I'm not entirely sure. It really depends how the top of the draft plays out. If Okafor or Russell is still available, I say no. If It's between him and Mudiay, it could go either way for me. Either way, you don't find players that possess the combination of size, skill and athleticism that Hezonja do very often, and it would be hard for me to pass up on a player like this even with a point guard like Mudiay available.