Blazers Continue To Reshape Roster By Signing Hezonja, Tolliver

by Casey Holdahl
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There's not much official business that NBA teams can finalize during the yearly July moratorium. Anyone who has paid attention to NBA free agency over the last decade knows that teams and players "unofficially" agree to terms on free agent signings during the moratorium, only to have those contracts finalized and signed as soon as the moratorium officially ends. And teams can come to agreements on trades as well, though those too cannot actually be agreed upon and approved by the league until the end of the six-day pause.

But a few bits of business can be conducted during the moratorium, such as signing rookies and agreeing to veteran minimum contracts. The Trail Blazers did the latter Wednesday morning, signing guard/forward Mario Hezonja and forward Anthony Tolliver as a next step in the process of retooling Portland's roster before the start of the 2019-20 season.

In Hezonja, who will be entering his fifth season after being selected by the Magic with the fifth overall pick of the 2015 Draft who played last season with the Knicks, the Trail Blazers get an athletic wing able to play multiple positions, but has yet found his place in the NBA.

"Too rough stations in NBA, unfortunate situations," said Hezonja Wednesday morning at the team's practice facility in Tualatin. "We had a developing, young team, not really in a place to win. But I think after every year I got better just because of my dedication and my hard work and my approach to basketball. It didn't matter to me what was the situation, I was just concentrated on myself and on the team and how much I can help and how much I can get better. So I think, even through a lot of bad situations, bad examples that I had, I just came out as a better person and better player. And it showed on the court."

Listed at 6-8, 225 pounds, Hezonja, who grew up idolizing fellow Croatian and former Trail Blazer Drazen Petrovic (he'll wear no. 44 this season, the number Petrovic wore in Portland) came into the league as a small forward, though he has the ability, at least in some capacity, to play anywhere from point guard to power forward. While he thinks he could serve as a secondary ball handler in Terry Stotts' offense -- he mentioned playing a similar to role with the Blazers as Evan Turner did the last three seasons -- he's likely to get the majority of his minutes at the forward positions.

"I know obviously I will be playing the three and four a lot, so definitely we have potentially an amazing small ball unit, stretch the floor, shoot," said Hezonja. "Just got to fit in. This team was in Western Conference Finals last year, so I'm here to help. My individual goal for my self this year is to push them even further this coming year."

Portland's 2019 postseason run, which ended with their first trip to the conference finals in nearly two decades, was one of the main reasons Hezonja decided to join the Blazers after spurning Portland for the Knicks during the 2018 free agent signing period.

"It's my first time experiencing. I'm definitely all about that right now," said Hezonja of joining a playoff team. "I wanted to be on a successful team, surround myself with better players than myself because that will help me. That will help me be even better and become that top tier player eventually. I'm really looking forward to it."

While he's in a different place in his career, Tolliver's reasons for signing on with the Trail Blazers were similar to Hezonja's. The 6-9 stretch forward, who has appeared in 664 games with nine different teams since entering the league in 2008, noted that he didn't want to miss the opportunity to play for a playoff team, even if it meant missing out on more money or a larger role with a lottery team.

"Going through this league, you're kind of programmed to take advantage of opportunities," said Tolliver, who appeared in two games for the Trail Blazers back in 2010. "Obviously financially it's great, all that different stuff. But as I've gotten older, winning has become more and more important. So there were opportunities possibly to go to other places, wait for things to happen, more dominoes to fall and have more money kind of free up.

"But for me it was a lot less about the money this time around than it was, hey, I want to go somewhere I can really go prove my worth and on a team that's going to be legit and has an opportunity to really make some noise and allow me to do what I can to help that team get to where they need to be."

A career 38 percent shooter from three, Tolliver gives the Trail Blazers a forward who can stretch the floor, something the Blazers have struggled with at times over the past four seasons, especially when team double team Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Tolliver noticed the issue as well watching the playoffs from home, which might have had something to do with his decision to sign on in Portland when waiting might have been financially prudent.

"Kind of watching the playoffs last year, how (Lillard and McCollum) got double teamed a lot and that's literally how guys like myself can really excel," said Tolliver. "I was watching the playoffs the last few months and this was one of the teams that I was like 'Wow, I really feel like I could help them out.' When the opportunity presented, I jumped on it."

With Tolliver and Hezonja signed, along with rookie Nassir Little and two-way rookie Jalen Hoard, the Trail Blazers are well on their way to reshaping a roster that won 53 games and finished as the three-seed in the West for the second straight season. The larger pieces of business won't be completed until after the moratorium ends on July 6, but with the acquisitions that they've already finalized, the Blazers have made headway significant strides in improving the roster.

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