Hezonja's Improvement Has Impressed Magic Coaches, Teammates

by John Denton

ORLANDO – Mario Hezonja has the kind of unflappable – and sometimes irrational – confidence that he can potentially miss 10 shots in a row and still let fly an 11th that he believes wholeheartedly will find the bottom of the net.

With no need to worry about ever shaking Hezonja’s confidence, Orlando Magic coach Frank Vogel has no problem whatsoever speaking candidly about the forward’s sometimes maddening, regularly promising growth this season.

After all, that’s how Vogel usually levels with Hezonja when the two of them watch back game footage and the coach boldly points out a blown defensive assignment here, a hustling dunk there or poor shot selection there. The fact that the 23-year-old Croatian has evolved to the point where he is now a trusted member of the Magic’s rotation is one of the season’s biggest plusses, if not one of its truest surprises, Vogel admitted.

``The way he played at the beginning of last year, he looked like he didn’t belong in the league. And now he’s got a far-better feel for all of this stuff,’’ Vogel said. ``We talk about how this (rebuilding) stuff takes time, with young players to grow, learn the game and develop, and (Hezonja) has made a lot of progress in a lot of areas.’’

Hezonja’s growth – one that has helped him average 9.0 points, 3.5 rebounds, 1.3 assists a game and stay in the Magic’s regular rotation – could play a big role in his future. The third-year pro is headed for free agency after the Magic declined to pick up the option on the fourth year of his contract back in October when he was struggling through a shaky preseason. The Magic will be limited in what they can offer Hezonja – both in salary and years – but the forward made it clear again that Orlando is still very much at the top of his wish list going forward.

``For me, it’s not about money; unfortunately, what is the thing is that the money plays, regardless who you are and how good you are,’’ Hezonja said, referring to team’s tendencies to play the players that they are most financially invested in. ``I’m telling you that I’m not in America for (money); I’m here to play. (Orlando) is my number one option and (Orlando) is what I like, especially with the vision of (President of Basketball Operations) Jeff (Weltman) and (GM) John (Hamoond), what they have going on and what they want to do here.’’

Plenty of questions remain about Hezonja, and that’s something that has been a near constant since the Magic drafted the native of Croatia in 2015 with the No. 5 pick. Loaded with obvious talent and oozing confidence out his every pore, the 6-foot-8, 218-pound Hezonja has always looked the part of a budding star. But for a variety of reasons he’s never been able to reach anything close to that level of production for a prolonged period of time.

Coaches and positions changed early in his NBA career and he quietly dealt with knee pain that bled from last season to the early stages of this one. The largest impediment, however, has always been Hezonja’s decision-making on the court. He proudly has a flare for the dramatic and occasionally he has just enough talent to pull it off whether it be executing a between-the-legs pass or drilling a 28-foot 3-pointer in the face of foe.

At other times, when Hezonja’s boom-or-bust decisions have fallen flat, it has led to coaches and teammates losing faith in him or the kind of tough-love, sit-down sessions Vogel has grown used to having with the fun-loving forward.

``It’s still a work in progress, but he’s making progress,’’ Vogel said. ``We highlighted a play where he dodged out of the way of Joel Embiid in the Philly game in the film session (last week). In the very next game, he runs into (Phoenix forward) Josh Jackson on the break (to stop a drive). The same exact situation in the same exact spot on the floor, he steps in front and had a collision. He’s done more and more of that as the season has gone along. His defense and his habits have been more consistent as the season has gone along.’’

Vogel then ventured to Hezonja’s shot selection – another area that is certainly still a work in progress where chunks of progress have been made. It’s taken every bit of three NBA seasons – and countless film sessions with Vogel and assistant coach Chad Forcier and barking from veteran teammate Shelvin Mack – to reiterate what’s considered a good shot and what’s not.

``He and I had conversations this year where he didn’t really understand the values of (shooting) percentages,’’ Vogel said somewhat incredulously. ``He felt like he could make any shot, which was a little mind-boggling. But, again, he’s a young player still learning the game and recognizing shot selection is something that he’s made tremendous growth in.’’

This season, Hezonja has shot a solid 44.7 percent from the floor and 32.9 percent from 3-point line. Those numbers are markedly better than last season (35.5 percent overall and 29.9 percent from 3-point range) and in line with what he shot as a rookie (43.3 percent overall and 34.9 percent from 3-point range) when he played small forward, shooting guard and even some point guard.

Now, he’s settled in primarily at power forward, a position he feels he’s best-suited to play because of his willingness to use his physicality and for his speed advantage against other bigger players.

When Orlando’s usual starter at power forward, Aaron Gordon, missed major chunks of time prior to the break for the NBA All-Star Game, Hezonja thrived at power forward while averaging 10.8 points in 13 January games and an eye-popping 15.5 points in 11 February games. That success came, he said, because his growth in making better decisions.

``Overall, in games, I’ve learned to read what is better for me and what is not so good,’’ Hezonja said. ``Over the few years of time that I have been here, I’ve learned a lot and I’ve found my rhythm. I’ve learned how to read a NBA game because it’s different than in Europe. Definitely, I have to choose and get to the point to choose. Thankfully, with all my work and video work with coaches, I’ve gotten to the point where I have multiple options of how to involve myself or my teammates.’’

Hezonja certainly could have multiple options of teams to play for in the future based off his highs of this season. In the nine-game stretch before the break for the NBA All-Star Game, he scored at least 20 points four times and averaged 16.9 points and 5.7 rebounds in 29.6 minutes on the floor. Even more impressively, Hezonja shot a solid 50 percent from the floor and drilled 21 of his 47 3-point shots (44.6 percent).

However, he was unable to maintain that run after moving back into a reserve role when Gordon and Nikola Vucevic returned to health. Over the next 15 games, Hezonja averaged 9.7 points and 3.4 rebounds while making only 38.6 percent of his field goal attempts and just 26.3 percent of his 3-point tries.

Included in that nosedive was the galling moment when Vogel called him out in the team film session for moving out of the way as Philadelphia’s Embiid dunked with authority. Two nights later, Hezonja looked like a different player against close friend Elfrid Payton and Phoenix, accepting contact from Jackson and playing one of his best all-around games of the season with 14 points, eight rebounds, four assists, four steals and two blocks.

While his growth still isn’t always linear, Hezonja clearly is evolving as a decision-maker and being a player that Vogel and the Magic can depend on going forward. Hezonja is hopeful that his future will continue to be in Orlando.

``If it was for the money, I don’t know, I’d probably work somewhere at home, doing some crazy stuff and not even playing sports,’’ Hezonja joked, referring to his roots in the coastal Dubrovnik, Croatia. ``But it’s not about that (money) at all. The only thing that it is is the money plays for many occasions. But we’ll see (what happens) because I like it here (in Orlando) and I love being here (with the Magic). We’ll see.’’

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.