By John DentonJune 25, 2015
ORLANDO – In the days and weeks leading up to Thursday night’s NBA Draft, Croatian forward Mario Hezonja was touted by some analysts as the only prospect who could someday potentially win the dunk contest and the 3-point shootout.
After being selected fifth overall in Thursday’s draft by the Magic, Hezonja will get to display those wide-ranging talents in Orlando for seasons to come.
``We hope he helps us win games and not just the dunk contest or the 3-point shooting contest,’’ said Magic GM Rob Hennigan, who pumped his fists in the Orlando draft room when it became apparent that Hezonja would be available. ``He’s a super talented kid.
``Mario is a player who we’re very, very excited about and he brings a lot of good things to the table,’’ Hennigan added. ``He’s a very capable scorer and shooter and we think he has a lot of firepower offensively. Also, he has the ability defend based on his athleticism and ability to move around the floor. We see him as a dynamic player and another good young player to add to the group to grow together.’’
The 6-foot-8, 218-pound guard/small forward has spent the past two seasons playing in the Spanish ACB League with European powerhouse FC Barcelona. Last season in Spain, he shot 39.2 percent from 3-point range in 31 regular-season games. He further proved himself as a shooter in Euroleague action when he shot 38.2 percent from 3-point range in 22 games.
``I’m really, really happy about Orlando selecting me because they are a really good organization,’’ Hezonja said from Spain, where he monitored the draft with his parents. ``The coach and the GM and the players (are great), so I’m really happy.’’
In the second round of the draft, Orlando selected Eastern Washington shooting guard Tyler Harvey. The 6-foot-4, 185-pounder was the leading scorer in Division I this past season at 23.1 points per game. The lefty also led the nation in 3-pointers a game at 4.0.
``He’s a very proven shooter and a capable offensive player,’’ Hennigan said of Harvey. ``He has a really good feel for the game and he’s a sophisticated offensive player who we feel has a chance to make our team because of that.’’
Hezonja has been a professional player since he was 11 years old – first in his native Croatia and later in Spain. Magic scout Marti Artigas lives in Barcelona and has extensively scouted Hezonja for the past three years in Spanish League and EuroLeague play.
Despite his limited playing time in Spain and pedestrian stats from this past season (4.7 points, 1.9 rebounds and 1.3 assists a game), Hezonja is loaded with the confidence that he will someday be an elite player in the NBA.
``I’m trying to do my best on everything that I can do and do it at the highest level,’’ Hezonja said. ``For me, I hope to get all of the details of my game up to the highest level. Playing with that confidence, that’s just me. That pushes me every day to go even harder and it prepares me for the great things ahead. (The swagger) is basically just me and who I am.’’
Hezonja did not attend the draft in Brooklyn because he is still a member of his Spanish League team. FC Barcelona was recently eliminated from the playoffs and Hezonja is expected to make the trip to Orlando to tour the Amway Center and the Magic’s facilities at some point in the coming two weeks.
Hezonja, 20, becomes the highest drafted international player in the Magic’s 26-year history. Hennigan said the Magic have ``tremendous’’ confidence that Hezonja will play in the NBA next season and the GM added that there are no concerns about his contractual buyout with FC Barcelona.
``We were able to sit down with Mario in the beginning of June in Barcelona and spend about an hour and a half with him there,’’ Hennigan said. ``So we feel very, very comfortable with Mario and his profile.’’
The addition of the sharp-shooting Hezonja gives the Magic insurance at the small forward position in case they lose restricted free agent Tobias Harris in July. Hezonja adds to the Magic’s versatile and electrifying backcourt with the playmaking skills of Victor Oladipo and Elfrid Payton and the Croatian’s outside shooting. The Magic were tied for 20th in the NBA last season in 3-pointers made per game (6.8) and tied for 15th in 3-point percentage (34.7 percent).
``(Hezonja) is a (shooting guard/small forward), Evan (Fournier) is a (shooting guard/small forward), Aaron (Gordon) is a (small forward/power forward), Tobias (Harris) is a (small forward/power forward), so there are all kinds of combinations,’’ said new Magic coach Scott Skiles. ``Victor (Oladipo) is a (shooting guard/point guard). So there are all kinds of combinations that can be put out there. More versatility is always good.’’
Hezonja also appealed to the Magic because of the confidence and maturity that he possesses. Because Hezonja has been a professional since he was 17 years old, the Magic are confident that he will smoothly make the transition to the NBA and be able to contribute right away next season.
Out of the playoffs each of the past three seasons, the Magic are hoping that the addition of another dynamic, difference-making player will help them play many more meaningful games next season.
Orlando made the bold move of hiring Skiles as head coach on May 29. Skiles was a record-setting point guard for the Magic from 1989-94, but he was hired because of his track record of turning teams around and teaching young players the right way to play the game. Skiles has already been in contact with many of the Magic’s players and he was actively involved in the pre-draft process of evaluating players.
Thursday was the third straight NBA Draft that the Magic were picking in the top five. They wisely nabbed guard Victor Oladipo with the No. 2 pick in 2013 and forward Aaron Gordon with the No. 4 pick in 2013. Point guard Elfrid Payton, whom Orlando acquired in a trade with the Philadelphia 76ers last June, was also a part of the Magic’s draft haul from 2013.
Orlando was so confident in Hezonja’s abilities that they drafted him even thought they have somewhat of a logjam at the small forward position. Harris was the starter at small forward last season, but Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon, Maurice Harkless and Devyn Marble also played the wing position last season for the Magic.
The Magic are confident that things will work out with Henzonja because of his rare combination of size and shooting abilities. He can play either shooting guard or small forward. Also, he plays bigger than his size against taller players because of his outstanding leaping ability.
``He’s a guy who we were hoping would be there (at the No. 5 pick) and we feel like he’s a great fit,’’ Hennigan said. ``We love his skill set, we love his personality, love the charisma and swagger that he plays with. We think he’ll fit in quite well.’’
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