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Knicks 2018-19 Preview: Mario Hezonja

Yet another former lottery pick looking to jumpstart his career

NBA: New York Knicks at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Mario Hezonja was drafted fifth in the 2015 NBA Draft by the Orlando Magic one pick after our very own New York Knicks selected Kristaps Porzingis. At the time I very much was very down with the Knicks potentially picking Hezonja. In my heart of hearts I secretly wished Phil Jackson would have the stones to select the young Croatian.

The Zenmaster certainly demonstrated he was willing to roll the dice on a young European prospect, but it was Kristaps Porzingis rather than Hezonja who caught his eye, fortunately as it has turned out. Hezonja failed to flourish during his first two seasons with the Magic, so much so that prior to the 2017-18 season — his third season with the team — their front office declined the fourth-year option on his rookie contract.

With the value of draft picks and the ability of an organization to develop their talent internally at a premium in today’s league, the decision by Orlando’s front office to cut their losses on Hezonja was quite stunning. For a team to essentially give up on a top-five pick before his rookie contract has expired is exceedingly rare.

A funny thing happened last season, though: Hezonja’s play improved as he was handed steady playing time.

The former Barcelona man appeared in a career-high 75 games last season for a Magic team whose wing rotation was demolished by injury. He averaged career-highs across the board with 9.6 points on 44/34/82 splits, 3.7 rebounds, 1.4 assists and 1.1 steals in 22.1 minutes per game.

When you look just at his performance in the games he started that improvement is even more stark:

Hezonja would go to start a total of 30 games for Orlando last season. Over those 30 contests, he averaged 14.0 points, 5.6 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.8 3-pointers and 1.5 steals, while shooting 46.0% from the floor, 37.1% from downtown and 83.3% from the free-throw stripe. That equates to a True Shooting Percentage of 57.1%. To put that in perspective, no Knick non-center posted a TS% higher than 56.4% last season.

That improvement stood out when watching Hezonja on film.

When Hezonja entered the league he was limited mostly to basic straight line drives when attacking off the bounce. Pick-and-rolls were a dish far too complex for his limited palette, although that didn’t stop him from trying. However, this was an area he showed significant growth in last year, averaging 0.87 PPP (67th percentile) when shooting out of pick-and-roll,

Hezonja demonstrated that he could get to the cup — where he converted on an excellent 69.1% of his attempts — when he forced a switch and was able to attack a big in space. If opponents tried to cut off the drive by having the big drop he was able to punish them by pulling up to shoot over the top.

He also showed good feel in dishing out of pick-and-roll. Although he wasn’t able to make advanced reads, he demonstrated an ablility to hit the roll man with the pocket pass.

It’s particularly valuable for a combo forward like Hezonja to demonstrate his ability to make this play consistently out of pick-and-roll situations.

One of the more impressive aspects of Hezonja’s offensive repertoire on film was his vision and passing. In particular, Hezonja was comfortable distributing in the open floor. Rather than always looking to finish the opportunity himself — he averaged 1.06 PPP in transition, ranking in just the 45th percentile — Hezonja was able to find the open man.

Don’t get it twisted though — he’s not a point forward. The passing is a nice bonus and an increasingly necessary skill, even for combo forwards, but his primary value offensively will always be tied to his production and efficiency as a scorer and shooter.

Despite his gains last season he still has plenty of work to do to in those areas. He’s prone to bouts of poor shot selection, particularly after he’s hit a few in a row. Hezonja is extremely efficient when he cuts, but he doesn’t do it often enough, content to stand and watch. He struggles to draw contact and get to the line at all. He’s a good spot-up shooter, but that efficiency drops when he has to put the ball on the floor or shoot off the move.

Still, Hezonja showed enough last season that buying into his offensive upside isn’t very hard. Unfortunately for Hezonja, the game is played on both ends.

For all the improvement he showed offensively last year, similar growth defensively was absent. The Magic had a defensive rating of 113.0 with Hezonja on the floor, which dropped to 111.4 when he was off the floor.

As much as I’d love to say this is all noise and just the result of the lineups he was forced to play with, I can’t. Hezonja’s a minus defender with poor fundamentals and isn’t always engaged.

Here, he gets switched onto Kemba Walker, a tough matchup for anybody in the league. There’s no shame in being bested by anybody that quick, but from the start he gives himself no chance with a stance that’s far too upright. Then, after he predictably gets blown by, he fails to make any effort to recover. It wasn’t the first or only time it happened in the game either.

He often fails to diagnose a play in timely fashion which leads his rotations to being a step too slow. Below, his slow reaction time allows Dragic to get to the rim with ease.

Off the ball it doesn’t get much better. When he’s forced to help he routinely fails to effectively recover back to his man.

That’s the case here which is also compounded by a complete lack of effort in getting back into the play even after Marvin Williams misses his first attempt and the rebound is up for grabs. That’s not good enough, and if David Fizdale is a man of his word, it will cost Hezonja playing time this season.

The situation in Orlando (roster in flux, a front office change, two different head coaches, etc.) didn’t make his transition to the NBA easy, but Hezonja must bear much of the responsibility for his failures himself. His lack of defensive acumen and effort was never going to particularly endear him to coaches like Scott Skiles or Frank Vogel.

In New York, he, like seemingly everybody else on the roster, has the chance to reboot his career. In the island of misfit toys that is the 2018-19 Knicks, Hezonja must prove his offensive surge was no fluke and that he can dedicate himself to improving defensively.

Three years into his career things haven’t unfolded for “Super Mario” in the way many expected. That doesn’t mean he’s hopeless. Perhaps the star trajectory many projected for him is no longer a likely outcome, but, at just 23 years old, he still has every opportunity to turn himself into a useful NBA player capable of contributing to winning basketball.