2018-2019 Off the Glass Breakout Players Series: Mario Hezonja
New York Post
With the 2018-2019 NBA season fast approaching, Off the Glass is making predictions on who the breakout players of each team will be. Today we look at Mario Hezonja from the New York Knicks.
Mario Hezonja was the fifth overall pick in a solid 2015 draft class. The Croatian looked like an elite shooter and playmaker while he playing for FC Barcelona in Spain, and had the accompanying swagger that seemed destined to make him a big piece for an Orlando Magic team that was, and in many ways still is, trying to recover from trading Dwight Howard.
Instead Hezonja was a disappointment through his three-year tenure with the Magic. Orlando eventually rescinded its qualifying offer and allowed Hezonja to sign this offseason with the New York Knicks on a one-year deal.
In his rookie year for the Magic, Hezonja was buried on Scott Skiles’ bench, a coach known for his disdain for rookies, garnering just 18 minutes per contest. Still, when he did get time, Hezonja showed some of the offensive skills that earned him such a lofty draft status.
He scored efficiently for a rookie from inside and out, including nearly 35 percent from three and 43 percent from the field. He wasn’t a member of either of the 2015 all-rookie teams, but after his first season, Hezonja nonetheless looked like a keeper for Orlando, simply needing to improve on the usual rookie issues like defense and efficiency.
In his second year, Mario was actually buried even deeper in the Magic rotation under new coach Frank Vogel. He played under 15 minutes a game. Hezonja's entire offensive game cratered with limited playing time. Hezonja posted career lows in nearly every offensive category while still providing a negative presence defensively.
Hezonja ended his second year in the NBA shooting under 36 percent from the field and 30 percent from deep, truly unplayable numbers for any perimeter player not named Marcus Smart. After such an intrepid season, it was not surprising to see the Magic targeting forwards on their infamous leaked whiteboard, picking up wings like Jonathan Isaac and Jonathan Simmons and ostensibly burying Hezonja even further.
This past season, Mario Hezonja saw the most consistent minutes of his career, partially due to missed time by Isaac. Hezonja took steps forward that could indicate a possible breakout this coming year. His three-point shooting recovered to a respectable 33.7 percent, enough to at least threaten opposing defenses, while his two-point shooting jumped to a career high 44 percent. Hezonja averaged just under double digits a night (9.6 PPG).
In a career night against the Pistons last season, Hezonja put up 28 points and showed the shooting stroke he had in Europe still exists. He buried eight threes for Orlando in that contest. He further showed glimpses of fulfilling his offensive potential by posting double digit scoring totals in nine of his last ten contests of the season and posting over 20 points six times in the second half of the season.
Hezonja also rounded out his game by significantly improving his defense and rebounding as the Magic began to play him more as a small-ball big. He was able to post a positive defensive box plus minus for the first time career and brought down career highs in rebounding percentage and boards per game.
The combination of more consistent outings and occasional outbursts made it a career year for Hezonja amidst yet another directionless campaign for Orlando.
Despite the evident strides he made in 2017-2018, the rebuilding Magic decided to move on from “Super Mario.” Finally free from what had become an untenable situation in Orlando, Hezonja can finally try to live up to his draft billing with the New York Knicks, a team he chose among several other suitors in need of a versatile forward, according to Woj.
Hezonja can form a solid, interchangeable wing duo with Kevin Knox until Kristaps Porzingis returns from injury. During the time without their Latvian unicorn, the Knicks will be searching for guys who can play inside-out while also establishing a role for the Knicks as they look to add superstar talent next offseason.
Hezonja may not be as flashy a name or as vital for the development of New York as Knox or Frank Ntilikina, but he will be an important piece in the positionless basketball that new head Knicks coach David Fizdale has talked about playing. His much improved defense will be vital to a Knicks frontcourt featuring a rookie in Knox and a known turnstile in Enes Kanter, and there’s a decent chance playing under the bright lights at MSG brings out more of the offensive showman in Hezonja than we got to see in Orlando.
If he can maintain his improved production defensively and on the glass while also taking another step forward offensively, the one year deal Hezonja signed this summer could easily translate into a multi-year deal worth over $10 million a year. The market for explosive combo forwards is booming and the NBA, and this season is Hezonja best chance to prove himself yet. The Knicks have had Hezonja lined up as the starting power forward thus far in the preseason, and it looks like he’ll get every opportunity to prove himself this season.
The guy billed as the “Croatian Kobe” going into the 2015 draft probably isn’t going to meet that expectation, but Hezonja major improvements in nearly every aspect of his game last year, and as crazy as it may sound he actually moves to a more stable situation in New York than the one he was facing in Orlando. With Kristaps Porzingis due out until to start the year Hezonja will provide a pleasant surprise as another versatile European excelling in the Knick frontcourt.