• With trade rumors surrounding Mario Hezonja and with his future up in the air after the Magic reportedly did not pick up his fourth year option, what better time to talk about Super Mario and his status in the NBA world?

    Magic fans were ecstatic after Hezonja hit a game winning shot in his first Summer League action but this might have been the best highlight of his career so far.

    “Respect? No, I never had respect to anybody on a basketball court” – Mario Hezonja

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    Hezonja began playing with the senior team of KK Dubrovnik when he was 11 years old in Zagreb, Croatia. After him transferring to KK Zagreb and earning the MVP trophy at the 2011 U-16 European Championship, where Croatia won the gold medal, he raised some eyebrows in basketball circles. Making the big jump he moved to Spain for the 2012-13 season, signing with powerhouse FC Barcelona where he briefly played with the second team, LEB-Gold. He was considered one of the best young players in Europe throughout his teens and he spent the last three years playing in Spain’s elite ACB League before making the jump to the NBA.

    Coming into the 2015 NBA Draft the scouting report on Hezonja pegged him as an aggressive scorer with elite athleticism and questionable shot selection and attitude.  At the time, he was considered to be the final piece to a young Magic squad that lacked outside shooting. Some scouts bought the hype and claimed Hezonja was a future All-Star, while others saw him as the next J.R. Smith.

    The story of an offensive game that hasn’t panned out yet

    What impressed the Magic and many other teams the most was his 6’8” frame as he has ideal size for the wing position and high level athleticism, even by NBA standards. It’s no wonder that Hezonja has avoided major injuries so far since he has a solid structure, adding more muscle to his frame over the last couple seasons while training with top level coaches all over the country. Surprisingly, he has struggled with his shot although it’s a quick, mechanically sound and smooth stroke that allows him to get his shot off in any situation. Hezonja has failed miserably to shoot over 35% from the three-point range in his first couple seasons with the Magic and actually regressed from year one to year two even after playing 65 games. It’s really surprising how many of his wide open shots are way off.

    He also lacks a solid mid-range game, which is actually the area where he struggles the most. His poor field goal percentages and lack of made threes have made him unbearable to fantasy owners. Unfortunately, regardless of a shot that just is not falling he doesn’t seem to understand how to take advantage of his physical skills and develop other parts of his game. He hasn’t really been a student of the game and after three years in the league he is still considered immature.

    A classic example of him not playing to his strengths is the fact that even though he is an exceptional free throw shooter he fails to get to the line consistently.

    Super Mario combines good size with solid body control, athleticism and leaping abilities, showing a quick first step and explosiveness but he has developed some really bad habits throughout his career. He usually jumps too early on his drives, resulting in charges or failing to get to the line, and these are the little things that drive coaches crazy as he should be able to absorb contact more effectively.

    The numbers can always be deceptive but in Hezonja’s case they reveal the hard truth. Last year he made just 32.7 percent of his catch-and-shoot opportunities and only 30.5 percent of his spot-up opportunities while scoring 0.9 points per possession.

    Even more baffling is the fact that he was a much better three-point shooter on the road (35.5 percent) than at home (23.6 percent) and he’s also been more accurate from the three-point line in losses (33.3 percent) than in wins (18.5 percent).

    He has a 17.6 percent career usage rate and has always had the green light to let it fly when he gets the opportunity. Problem is, he just has not been an efficient scorer.

    Frank Vogel experimented with him playing the power forward position since, as the shot chart above shows, he has only been efficient converting when close to the rim – but this didn’t last long. He often got switched on PnR action and ended up on the wrong side. Vogel saw his size and athleticism and wanted to force him into a “he can play every position” mold but he clearly is not that guy. Hezonja is pretty obviously a SG/SF tweener and not a SF/PF tweener.

    What makes things even worse is the fact that Hezonja is often a reluctant passer and not a good ball handler. On top of that, he also has the tendency to force shots instead of kicking it out to an open teammate.

    Take a look at this play where he opts for an off balance shot instead of dumping a pass off to Biyombo, who has the clear advantage on a mismatch after switching onto smaller Briante Weber.

    Additionally, he fails to protect the ball and he will opt for the flashy dish instead of making the simple play or he will stop the action and call an isolation set instead of continuing the play. The results are devastating and he hurts his team as he has the tendency to commit silly turnovers.

    Once he arrived to Orlando, Hezonja was asked if he went to go see soccer legend Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona while there. He responded: “Let Messi come to see me.” That quote pretty much sums him up.

    The defensive expectations were never high

    Moving on to the other side of the floor where Hezonja has never been held accountable for his defense, and contrary to the majority of European players, he lacks the basic basketball principles and fundamentals. Oftentimes he gets lost in rotations and fails to navigate his way through screens, exposing his lack of concentration that opponents will exploit. There are plenty of ways to defend PnR action, from hedging to switching, and here’s a clip of Hezonja failing miserably to do any of those (Vucevic’s D is also atrocious on this play).

    During his rookie season Scott Skiles, a no-nonsense coach who was hired by the Magic to make the team tougher and better defensively, refused to cut any slack for Hezonja because of his youth and lack of NBA experience. The veteran coach was never hesitant to yank him after committing a bad switch or after he’d lose his guy on the defensive end. He got a clean slate with Frank Vogel, who has never questioned Hezonja’s work ethic, but the mental lapses are still apparent in his game and he hasn’t moved the needle in order to be considered anything more than a mediocre defender. The thing is, many times he tries too hard, committing unnecessary fouls and bailing out opponents from tough situations.

    And some Jerry West wisdom

    One of my all time favorite quotes comes from Jerry West who has bluntly admitted that “There are no basketball experts. There are people who have a better educated guess.”

    The red flags were there since the beginning but at the same time it’s hard to blame Hezonja, as the Magic have been bad even though they didn’t lack the talent on the development side of things. Orlando has started strong this season while the emergence of Jonathon Simmons and the selection of Jonathan Issac in the draft means that there are no more minutes left for Hezonja in Disneyland. Either he needs a change in environment that will revitalize his career or he is simply not as good as we thought he was.

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