By John Denton Dec. 18, 2017
CHICAGO – Maybe, just maybe, Mario Hezonja finally learned his lesson about staying ready so that when his opportunity inevitably came back around, he would be able to show off his talents to the Orlando Magic.
After all, Hezonja was well aware that his days in the NBA could potentially be numbered if he didn’t apply himself fully and make the most out of what might be a final chance.
Out of the rotation again as recently as two weeks ago and his career still stuck in neutral in Year 3, Hezonja heeded the advice of teammates Nikola Vucevic, Jonathon Simmons and Marreese Speights and kicked his work ethic into overdrive. Game days, practice days or even off days, it didn’t matter to Hezonja, who sought out anyone and everyone to work out with as often as twice a day to sharpen his skills.
``I’m working hard every day. On days off, I call video guys to play against them because we don’t have anybody because a lot of people, unfortunately, have had injuries,’’ Hezonja said of his individual work. ``I call people from the G League, whatever, just to get run at whatever time they can play. I go to the gym and play extra three-on-threes or work against bigger guys and watch a lot of film. All of this stuff is to be ready for the game.’’
How else to explain the jaw-dropping performance that the 6-foot-8, 218-pound Hezonja put on Sunday night in Detroit? Seemingly out of nowhere, Hezonja scored 11 of Orlando’s first 13 points, finished with a career-best 28 points and doubled his previous NBA-high in 3-pointers with eight. His dead-eye shooting keyed a 19-0 fourth-quarter outburst and nearly helped the Magic wipe out a 24-point deficit in Detroit before the Pistons steadied themselves in a 114-110 victory.
And then there was this: Hezonja became just the ninth player in Magic history with at least eight 3-pointers in a game and the first to do so since Arron Afflalo drilled eight on Nov. 13, 2013 against Milwaukee.
Hezonja’s 28 points were two short of the 30 he had scored in his previous five games combined, and the eight 3-pointers were one shy of the high in the NBA this season (nine by Damian Lillard on Dec. 9 against Houston). For Magic fans and teammates who have long waited for Hezonja to show off the talent that made him the No. 5 pick of the 2015 NBA Draft, the shooting showcase was a sight for sore eyes.
``He had a great game and he was really shooting the ball great and his decision-making was good as well,’’ said Vucevic, one of Hezonja’s biggest supporters for years. ``He wasn’t rushing and he was taking his time. It’s not easy when you don’t play for so many games and then you come back and you are thrown out there with guys injured. You have to step up big-time and he did that. I’m happy for him.’’
Hezonja’s production came at a time when the Magic (11-20) are desperate for production considering that Evan Founier (ankle sprain), Aaron Gordon (calf strain), Terrence Ross (knee sprain) and Afflalo (back spasms) are out injured. All, other than Afflalo, are expected to be out again on Wednesday when Orlando plays in Chicago against the Bulls, meaning Hezjona will have the chance string together a second solid game in a row. For the season, he’s averaging 4.7 points and 2.4 rebounds while shooting 44.2 percent from the floor and 39.6 percent from 3-point range in 13 minutes a game.
Finding any sort of consistency at all has been a mystery to Hezonja, who has had to undergo a host of upheaval during his two-plus seasons in the NBA. His playing time was spotty under former coach Scott Skiles during the 2015-16 season as he jockeyed back and forth between shooting guard and point guard.
Like most, Hezonja was shocked when Skiles resigned following just one season with the Magic and he was mostly forced to start anew with current Magic coach Frank Vogel. Last season proved to be mostly a wash for Hezonja as he got lost on the crowded roster, struggled mightily with defense and turnover woes and bounced between three positions.
Rather than returning to his native Croatia and playing once again for his National Team, Hezonja stayed in America this past summer – splitting his time between Orlando and Los Angeles. A sore knee precluded him from doing the offseason work he had hoped, setting him back when training camp opened back in September.
Hezonja admitted on Sunday night that his career has yet to take off for a variety of reasons, but he doesn’t want to seem as if he’s seeking a cop out for his struggles.
``Position (changes) benefit me, but I will not say coaching (changes benefit) me because it’s been a little bit weird,’’ Hezonja said, referring to his switch to power forward. ``But it is what it is and I can’t say, `Oh I like this guy,’ because I’ve had to make it work and I will make it work. It’s about how you approach things, and I can’t affect their (playing-time) decisions and I’m ready to learn.
``It was a little bit of a rough transition because (former Magic coach) Scott (Skiles) unexpectedly left as soon as I was about to go up with my minutes and the bigger role he was preparing me for,’’ he added. ``It’s been rough (with position and coaching changes), but it’s the NBA and changes happen quickly like that. But, no excuses, and it’s done already and I’m looking to the next day and the next basketball game.’’
So, too, are the Magic to see if Hezonja’s hot shooting was merely a blip or something he can truly build upon. Why, just last week, he scored 17 points, grabbed nine rebounds and blocked three shots against the Clippers only to follow that performance up with a four-point, two-rebound dud against Portland.
Hezonja said strong play is more the product of rhythm and consistent minutes more than it is a matter of confidence – something he’s certainly never lacked. He’s now started four straight games and a fifth straight start is sure to come on Wednesday.
``It’s not confidence at all. It’s the rhythm thing and it’s hard sometimes to be out and suddenly I’m playing or I’m a sub in the fourth quarter and it’s hard to get yourself going knowing you have to respect your coaching staff and teammates and still (play) in the system,’’ Hezonja said of his sometime rocky appearances off the bench. ``It’s been looking rough, but I’ve done a lot of training and preparation for my basketball.’’
Hezonja has kept himself ready for this moment – something that Vucevic had repeatedly told him to do while speaking to him in Serbian. Hezonja has taken to sitting next to Speights while on the bench so that he can pick the veteran’s brain during games. And Simmons – something of a self-made player who learned the NBA ropes with the San Antonio Spurs – has been quick to offer up advice.
If Hezonja wasn’t already aware that his chances with the Magic and in the NBA could be dwindling, he was reminded last month when Orlando declined its option to extend his rookie contract. He will be a free agent in June and he knows full well that all eyes are on him to prove that he can live up to the promise heaped upon him when he was a top-five pick three years ago.
``We’re on the biggest stage in the world and everybody is watching,’’ said Hezonja, who played professionally in Croatia and Spain prior to coming to the NBA. ``Whatever (happens), they see bad, good or whatever you do with your preparation and I’m aware of that. I knew that in Barcelona, that I had a lot of people coming to (scout him) and I knew, `There’s no messing around today.’ That’s a big part of how professional you are and I’m doing a good job with that. I’m super professional when it comes to my approach.’’
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