2017-18 Player Review: Mario Hezonja

by John Denton

ORLANDO - Following a rocky first two years with the Orlando Magic, forward Mario Hezonja cleared up the questions about his worthiness as an NBA player with a solid 2017-18 season.

The only question now is about where Hezonja’s future lies in the NBA.

When Hezonja struggled in the preseason – both on the court and with the health of his troublesome left knee – the Magic declined to pick up the option for the forward’s fourth NBA season. Ultimately, as Hezonja got healthier and got more comfortable in his role with the Magic, his play finally flourished. He still has yet to reach his full potential and the expectation of a player selected fifth overall in the 2015 NBA Draft, but things are suddenly looking up for the 6-foot-8, 220-pound forward who is only 22 years old.

Hezonja will become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, meaning he will have to decide if he wants to continue his progress in Orlando or head to another team where more playing time might be certain. He said, without question, he favors the Magic because he considers Orlando home, but his decision will ultimately be one that is based on finances and his role.

``Playing time,’’ Hezonja said when asked what he would be looking for in free agency. ``I (said publicly) in December and after the all-star break that (Orlando) is my number one option and then after that, I will see what is going on. … I just want to speak about facts and in July we will see everything more clearly.’’

By most statistical measures, Hezonja had a career year after nearly doubling his scoring average from the previous season and averaging personal best marks in scoring (9.6), rebounding (3.7), assists (1.4), steals (1.1), minutes (22.1) and games played (75). Still, Hezonja struggled defensively before settling in at power forward and his shooting (44.2 percent overall and 33.7 percent from 3-point range) and decision-making often left lots to be desired.

Hezonja was somewhat irked that head coach Frank Vogel was fired a day after the Magic completed a disappointing 25-57 season. However, Hezonja seemed to lend some insight into his future plans by offering up some ideas of what kind of coach he’d prefer to play for with the Magic if his future lies in Orlando.

``Tough, very tough, especially because we have a younger group than most teams,’’ he said. ``I think that we need a guy that is going to really ask us to be tough and will be tough on us on the court and off it. We need a coach that won’t care about our players’ feelings and be really strict with us. Whoever that is, I don’t know that yet. But I’m sure that Jeff and John are going to pick something in that circle because that’s what we need.’’

Here’s a more in-depth breakdown of Hezonja’s 2017-18 season with the Magic:

PLAYER: Mario Hezonja
POSITION: Power forward/small forward
NBA SEASONS: 3
AGE: 23

2017-18 SEASON STATS: 75 games (30 starts), 9.6 ppg., 3.7 rpg., 1.4 apg., 1.1 spg., 22.1 mpg., 44.2 percent FG, 33.7 percent 3FG, 81.9 percent FT.

2017-18 SEASON HIGHS: 28 points, Dec. 17 at Detroit; 10 rebounds, three times, most recently Feb. 14 vs. Charlotte; six assists, two times, most recently April 11 vs. Washington; four steals, two times, most recently March 24 vs. Phoenix; three blocks, five times, most recently April 4 vs. Dallas; 39 minutes, twice, most recently March 24 vs. Phoenix.

WHAT WENT RIGHT: With the Magic beset by injuries and left with no place else to turn, Hezonja got his chance to shine in January, February, March and April and he showed flashes of being the multi-talented player that Orlando was hoping for when it drafted him three years earlier.

After averaging 10.8 points in January, Hezonja played the best basketball of his career in February while averaging 15.5 points, 5.0 rebounds, 2.2 steals and 1.5 assists in 11 games. However, the mid-February returns of Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic meant Hezonja was back in a reserve role and that seemed to sap much of the momentum he built up prior to the NBA All-Star break.

He had a career night on Dec. 17, battering the Detroit Pistons for 28 points, eight 3-pointers, six rebounds and three steals in a loss. Surprisingly, he wouldn’t score 20 points in a game again until February when he did it four times – three of them coming in a row (23, 24 and 21 points) from Feb. 10-14.

Hezonja finished the season with a flourish, scoring double digits in his final seven games.

WHAT WENT WRONG: For years, Hezonja has been miscast as a spot-up shooter, but he’s often failed to show much consistency at all as a 3-point shooter at the NBA level. For the season, he shot just 33.7 percent from beyond the arc – a drastically substandard number for someone of his supposed shooting talent. He shot better than 40 percent just twice during the season (40.4 percent in February and 42.1 in April) and failed to connect on at least 30 percent of his threes in two other months (23.1 percent in November and 22.6 percent in March).

Also, because of his struggles defensively on the perimeter, he basically can only play the power forward position now. That’s a problem on a Magic roster that is already loaded with young talent at that position.

FUTURE ROLE WITH MAGIC: NBA scouts from various teams continued to be intrigued with Hezonja all season despite his mostly up-and-down play. Clearly, he has talent, size and confidence, but questions persist as to whether he can ever put a full season together and what size of a role he can handle. In all likelihood, another team will offer Hezonja a multi-year contract worth more than the Magic can offer, and he will head elsewhere to play next season. But do not discount his love for Central Florida, his comfort level with the Magic and his willingness to become an integral part of the turnaround in Orlando. Hezonja desperately wants a bigger role on a team and, because he has had his biggest success at the power forward position in today’s small-ball NBA era, his path to more playing time in Orlando could be blocked by Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac. Finally comfortable and confident in his abilities at this level, Hezonja figures to be a solid NBA contributor for years to come. The only question now is where that will happen.

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.

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