Being a top-10 pick in the NBA Draft is no guarantee of success. Many players struggle, and do not live up to the expectations once placed upon them. Perhaps their production is a bit low. Maybe they look out of place during the games. And while it’s not always fair, these high draft picks are given most of the blame if and when their teams fail to improve. But that is life in the pros.
Mario Hezonja has experienced quite a few of those struggles, despite being only 24 years old. The former top-five pick from the 2015 Draft even saw his former team, the Orlando Magic, refuse to pick up his fourth-year option, which led to him being a free agent and signing with the New York Knicks last summer. And with another opportunity to prove himself, Hezonja caught some people’s attention late last season.
2018-19 Stats: 58 G, 8.8 PPG (41.2 FG% / 27.6 3PT% / 76.8 FT%), 4.1 RPG, 10.8 PER
In many ways, Hezonja’s campaign was a step back from what looked to be a breakout 2017-18 season in Orlando, with his shooting numbers dropping across the board and his PER plummeting from 13.7 to 10.8. While some could look at Hezonja’s first few months on the Knicks as a mixed bag of performances, his negatives usually far outweighed his positives. Even in those rare games when Hezonja would give the Knicks 20 points and 5 boards, his presence on the court wasn’t necessarily felt as strongly as the numbers would indicate. And it’s not like Hezonja was given inconsistent minutes, by the way — he averaged over 20 minutes per game, the second-highest mark of his career.
But to his credit, Hezonja picked up his play toward the end of the season. Given more responsibilities as a play-maker because of injuries in the backcourt, Hezonja would average 14.4 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 3.9 assists during his final 10 games of the season. And while we know of his signature moment of blocking LeBron James at the buzzer, the Croatia native was much more than that. Hezonja managed to have the team’s highest offensive rating (104.5) in March along with the fifth-highest true shooting percentage (55.8%). He also notched the team’s only triple-double of the season, a 16=point, 16-rebound, 11-assist tour de force against the Houston Rockets. And who could forget his 30-point masterpiece against the Wizards, when he hit the game-winning three and then pointed at Washington’s bench?
Ah, what the heck...let’s watch Hezonja block LeBron one more time.
The biggest thing to remember about Hezonja is that he’s a unrestricted free agent despite being a top-five pick only four years ago because the Magic didn’t want to pick up the final year of his deal. The Knicks’ handling of Hezonja would be different if he had been traded here — they would have the chance to match any offer. Alas.
I assume Hezonja should and would generate legitimate interest on the open market because everybody has cap space. How many teams would look into signing a 24-year-old, 6’8”player who has shown the ability to play multiple positions and handle the ball if needed?
For what it’s worth, Hezonja seems willing to come back and play with new Knick RJ Barrett.
Will Crobe team up with the Maple Mamba in 2019-20? We’ll just have to wait and see?