By John DentonOct. 1, 2015
ORLANDO – Because Mario Hezonja has spent almost half of his life chasing the dream of playing in the NBA and living in various cities all over the world, home has basically become the basketball court.
Hezonja, the Orlando Magic’s prized rookie from Croatia, incredibly started playing with professional basketball players at the impressionable age of 11 years old. By 14, he moved from the tourist town of Dubrovnik (population 43,000) along the Mediterranean Sea to Croatia’s capital city of Zagreb (population 800,000) for basketball and high school.
Following a stellar juniors career, he inked a contract with a powerhouse team in Spain that forced him to move away from family and friends and live on his own in Barcelona.
And when he was the surprise fifth overall pick in last June’s draft by the Magic, Hezonja happily headed half-a-world away to America to fulfill the boyhood dream of playing in the NBA. Already, he has become somewhat Americanized, calling ``The Family Guy’’ his favorite television show and he’s poured through all of the action movies in the ``Jason Bourne’’ series.
Still just 20 years old, Hezonja is at peace here in Orlando because his days are filled with basketball, naps, video games and more basketball. He said he has been pleasantly surprised by how funny, welcoming and helpful his new Magic teammates have been – something that wasn’t always the case when he was the youngster on his first Croatian pro teams and when he played with mostly grizzled vets in Spain. He was asked on Thursday following practice – which, coincidentally, was one of his best performances of the preseason – if he missed home, and Hezonja chuckled with laughter.
``No, not at all. I miss some of the people back there, but I don’t miss my home. You get used to it when you travel as much as I have,’’ said Hezonja, who is perfectly fluent in English, Spanish and Serbian.
``I’m trying to stay the same as when I was living in Barcelona. I don’t like change too much,’’ the rookie guard added. ``Of course, being here is a big difference. But when I’m home I’m asleep and then I’m here (at the Magic headquarters) all day. It’s all about basketball for me.’’
Hezonja’s basketball odyssey will hit another major landmark on Saturday night when he tugs on his No. 23 Magic jersey and plays inside the dazzling Amway Center for the first time. The 6-foot-8, 218-pounder has already spent countless hours during the July Summer League and in this training camp on the practice court that is tucked away on the outer portions of the Amway Center. Other than for a couple of photo shoots, he hasn’t had any meaningful time on Amway Center’s main court. But on Saturday, when the Magic open the preseason against the Charlotte Hornets, Hezonja will head left – and not right toward the practice court – out of the Magic locker to the bright lights for his first NBA game before fans.
``It will be special for me, and with everybody here who is following the Orlando Magic, it’s like show time,’’ Hezonja said. ``Finally, I will get to step on that court and get to play.’’
Though he will be officially classified as a NBA rookie all season, Hezonja will step on the Amway Center court full of confidence and belief that he belongs at the NBA level. Because of his years of experience playing at the professional level, he is hardly some wide-eyed rookie who will be overwhelmed by his surroundings or shy when called upon. Just the opposite, in fact, for a young player who Magic coach Scott Skiles has jokingly referred to already as ``Mr. Confidence.’’
While Hezonja’s moxie and showy tendencies have rubbed some foes and even teammates wrong in the past, Skiles has no problem with the young guard playing decisively and oozing confidence out of his every pore.
``He’s not going to shy away from anything. That’s the least of our concerns, his confidence,’’ said Skiles, who figures to give Hezonja extensive playing time with fellow wing players Evan Fournier (ankle sprain) and Aaron Gordon (fractured jaw) out injured. ``But we haven’t played him in any games yet. That is a big part of it for young players. This league is so humbling. A young player can feel like he’s playing pretty good and then he goes out and is 2-for-9 (shooting) and a couple of days of later he’s 3-for-9 and he wonders if he belongs. You have to watch that, help him and make sure that he keeps playing.’’
While attempting to pattern his game after family friend Peja Stojakovic – a Serbian legend and a former Sacramento Kings standout – Hezonja has played basketball with confidence and has had great success from an early age. By 2011, he was already the FIBA Europe Under-16 Championships Most Valuable Player and in 2012 he was nominated for the FIBA Europe Young Player of the Year award. He was such a hot commodity as a rising young player that FC Barcelona of the Spanish League was willing to pay Hezonja’s professional team in Zagreb some 150,000 Euros for his contractual release.
He helped Barcelona win a Spanish League title in 2014 and he once had a EuroLeague game where he drilled all eight of his 3-point shots.
Being elevated from Barcelona B to the organization’s main squad proved difficult for the teenaged Hezonja as he was surrounded mostly with players some 10 years older. That experience, however, taught him that he had to play with toughness and confidence – tools also needed in the NBA with the Magic.
``I have always been like this,’’ boasted Hezonja, who drilled a game-winning 3-pointer in his first summer league game with the Magic back in July. ``I wasn’t disrespectful or anything negative, but in Croatia everybody knew me and I didn’t have to show that I could drop 60 on (other teams). But when the hard times came in Barcelona while playing professionally and in the top EuroLeague with one of the best clubs, then I had to show myself there. I’m not some nobody who would let them do whatever they wanted with me. So I took a step forward to be able to carry the team and be a leader of the team.’’
A sliver of that confidence can be seen in the jersey number that he chose – No. 23, as in the number made universially famous by first, Michael Jordan and later LeBron James. Hezonja wore No. 8 and No. 11 during his early playing days in Croatia because of his affinity for Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant, who has since switched to No. 24. Hezonja switched to No. 23 in Spain and before joining the Magic he did research on Orlando players to wear the number, knowing full well that Jason Richardson was the last to do so in 2012. He stuck with No. 23 in Orlando simply because he said he doesn’t like change.
Magic standout guard Victor Oladipo has became fast friends with Hezonja back in the summer, and the two have bonded in training camp despite being forced to guard each other throughout almost every practice session. Oladipo loves what he sees with Hezonja’s rare blend of size, athleticism and shooting ability.
``I saw the confidence from him in the summer league and I’ve seen it in the practices here. At the end of the day, that molds him into the person that he is,’’ Oladipo said. ``He doesn’t shy away from having confidence and that’s the way you have to be to be a great player in this league.’’
As for feeling at home with the Magic and in the NBA, Hezonja said he already feels like he belongs because of the way his teammates have embraced him. Magic standout center Nikola Vucevic, a native of Montenegro, speaks Serbian/Croatian with Hezonja in the locker room. Fournier, a native of France, took a similar path to the NBA through Europe and he even playfully jabbed Hezonja already that his Croatian National Team was eliminated much earlier than the French National Team in the EuroBasket Championships this summer. Oladipo’s dressing stall is strategically right next to Hezonja’s in the Magic dressing room, and Gordon, point guard Elfrid Payton and forward Devyn Marble are friends and regular dinner mates from their time spent together in July.
All of it, Hezonja said, has helped helped ease the transition of being in a new country, in a new league and around an entirely different basketball culture.
``The guys here are outstanding people and I’ve really enjoyed being here with them already,’’ Hezonja said. ``In Europe, there are guys who (challenge) you and maybe you don’t like this guy or that guy, but here (with the Magic) I really enjoy all of these guys. We are all pretty much the same age and I’m surprised how the guys have (embraced) me and they’ve helped me on the court and off the court. That’s the biggest surprise.
``The mental stuff (of the NBA) is kind of the same as in Europe and if you prepare yourself for some struggles then it prepares you,’’ Hezonja said. ``I know nothing is going to be easy here, but I am ready. … If I thought (he couldn’t play in the NBA) I’d be back in Barcelona or at home.’’