Hezonja Still Expected to Get Plenty of Minutes Off Bench

Josh Cohen
Digital News Manager

By John Denton Feb. 22, 2018

ORLANDO – Determined to extend his finest stretch of basketball in an Orlando Magic uniform, forward Mario Hezonja vowed that neither the break for the NBA All-Star Game nor a move back into a reserve role would slow his progress over the final 25 games of the season.

Forced into action because of injuries to four Magic players earlier in the month, Hezonja averaged 16.1 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.8 assists while shooting 50.4 percent from floor in the 10 games prior to the all-star break. Included in that stretch was three straight performances with at least 20 points and some much-improved defensive work that has earned him praise from Magic head coach Frank Vogel.

Most of Hezonja’s work came in a starting role – one that he lost on Thursday night when the Magic played the New York Knicks because of the returns of power forward Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic. Hezonja said it matters little to him whether he’s a starter or a reserve and is only concerned about doing what he can to help the Magic be successful.

``Kill it – that’s the mindset,’’ Hezonja said with a laugh. ``Play the same way. I’m not on this ego trip about having to go on the bench. When I get to play, I’ll do my stuff. Of course, I’m a starter, but if that’s how the lineup is and that’s coach’s decision or the front office’s decision, I don’t have any problems because I just want to play. More minutes, less minutes – I will still do my stuff. … It’s about who finishes the game, not who starts.’’

Hezonja, 22, said a big reason why he’s made such big strides of late is because he is finally beyond the knee injury that dogged him for parts of last season, the offseason and in training camp this season. It shows as his scoring average has jumped each of the past four months – from 2.2 points per game in November to 17.3 points per game in February – and that production has earned him a steady spot in the rotation going forward, Vogel vowed.

``Keep playing him a lot of minutes,’’ Vogel said of looking for ways to keep Hezonja in the groove that he’s had in recent weeks. ``I intend to keep him in there, coming off the bench. He’ll see some time at the (small forward) and, obviously, backing up Aaron at (power forward). Both of those guys, Aaron and Vooch, aren’t going to play heavy minutes and there will still be a lot of minutes to go around.’’

BRIGHT FUTURE: Vogel said having talented, young players such as Jonathan Isaac, Wes Iwundu, Khem Birch, Gordon and Hezonja gives him great hope that the Magic will soon be a power to be reckoned with in the Eastern Conference.

Isaac, the No. 6 pick in last June’s NBA Draft, practiced with the Lakeland Magic of the G League on Thursday and is scheduled to play in Lakeland on Friday night in his first game action since Dec. 20 because of lingering pain in his right ankle. Vogel has been extremely bullish on the potential of the 6-foot-10, 222-pound Isaac in recent days as he practiced with the Magic and the hope is that he will rejoin the NBA squad in Orlando in the coming days for game action.

Vogel said the growth of players such as Gordon, Hezonja, Iwundu and Birch this season give him confidence that the franchise is headed in the right direction. Combine their expected growth with the solid core already in place and the Magic are looking at a bright future, Vogel said.

``Youthful, but a great upside and that’s why I believe in what we’re doing here with our franchise and the direction that we’re going,’’ Vogel said. ``We all want it yesterday, and it’s not there yet. But there’s definitely a bright future for us.’’

ROSS UPDATE: Out since Nov. 29 with a significant knee injury, Magic guard Terrence Ross seemed to be making steady progress of late after recently starting to sprint, take part in individual drills and play in some light three-on-three games. All of that work, however, might have been a bit counterproductive for Ross, who continued to rehabilitate from a sprained MCL and a non-displaced fracture of the tibial plateau of his right knee.

Vogel said on Thursday that the Magic’s medical team made the decision to slow down Ross after he started experiencing pain in his knee. The guard, who was acquired last February in a trade with the Toronto Raptors, isn’t expected back until March at the earliest.

``He started ramping up his activities before the break and had some soreness, so he’s backed off of it a bit,’’ Vogel said. ``He’s not participating in practice this week and we’ll see how he feels next week.’’

In 22 games (20 starts) this season, Ross averaged 9.0 points and 3.2 rebounds while shooting 40.7 percent from the floor and 32.9 percent from 3-point range.

FRENCH CONNECTION: Magic guard Evan Fournier still remembers a time back in 2012 when he came to the United States to play in the NBA, spoke very little English and badly missed his homeland of France. With those memories still fresh in his mind, Fournier always makes a point of reaching out to other young French players new to the NBA to let them know that they can count on him for support.

Fournier, a native of suburban Paris, has recently gotten to know New York rookie point guard Frank Ntilikina, a native of Ixelles, Belgium who once played professionally in France. When he was a rookie, Fournier said that fellow Frenchmen Tony Parker and Boris Diaw reached out to him to welcome him to the NBA and he wants to always do it for others from France.

According to the NBA, there were 108 international players from 42 countries and territories on NBA rosters to start this season. Canada ranks first with 11 players in the NBA, while France is second with 10. That’s a fact that Fournier takes great pride in.

``That’s big time for a very small country, especially with soccer being the No. 1 sport (in France),’’ Fournier said. ``It shows that the French Federation is doing a good job with young guys and basketball is big in France. It’s big for us and I’m really proud.’’

UP NEXT: The Magic will be back on the practice floor on Friday before departing for Philadelphia to face the 76ers on Saturday. It will be the second meeting of the season between the two teams. The Sixers defeated the Magic 130-111 in Philadelphia on Nov. 25th behind 29 points and eight 3-pointers from former Orlando standout guard J.J. Redick.

The game in Philadelphia is the start of a two-game road trip for the Magic. They will play the Thunder in Oklahoma City on Monday. Orlando will be back at the Amway Center on Wednesday to host the Toronto Raptors.

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.