Mario Hezonja Continues to Show Tremendous Growth

By John Denton
Feb. 11, 2018

CHICAGO – As much as it was a game-plan ploy to try and capture another victory for the Orlando Magic, Mario Hezonja’s assignment on superstar forward Giannis Antetokounmpo on Saturday was another test to measure the third-year forward’s development.

For nearly three years, signs growth from Hezonja have come only in drips and drabs and, at times, his progression featured nearly as much deviation as linear movement.

Against Milwaukee’s Antetokounmpo – a leading candidate for the NBA’s MVP award – Hezonja couldn’t afford to saunter into Saturday’s game at the Amway Center least he might get embarrassed. Magic head coach Frank Vogel said as much prior to tipoff, saying knowingly, ``This is going to be a big test for ‘Rio.’’

Vogel and the Magic got an answer to how the 22-year-old Hezonja would react to facing one of the NBA’s most lethal players early on. Not only did he score nine of Orlando’s first 11 points, but he cast any fear of getting dunked on aside and went on to repeatedly meet the lengthy Antetokounmpo at the rim for impressive challenges.

``Mario had one of his best nights and defensively he got scored on some, but he had some of his best collisions at the rim that I’ve been begging him to do for two years now,’’ Vogel said afterward. ``So, he had a big growth night.’’

Orlando (13-37) saw its modest three-game winning streak come to an end when Antetokounmpo shook free for 32 points and Milwaukee won 111-104. However, there was plenty to emerge from the game for the Magic that was promising. Rookies Khem Birch (six points and nine rebounds) and Wes Iwundu (four points and two rebounds) were solid off the bench, and veteran Shelvin Mack (19 points, 10 assists and four rebounds) took advantage of his growing role following the trading of point guard Elfrid Payton.

But it was the play of Hezonja that continued to open the eyes of his coaches, teammates and the opposition. The 6-foot-8, 218-pound forward made eight of 16 shots, drilled a 3-pointer and sank six of his seven free throw attempts. He supplemented his team-high 23 points with three rebounds and three steals and he turned the ball over just twice in 35 minutes against the long-armed Antetokounmpo.

Never lacking for confidence but someone who can be particularly hard on himself at times, Hezonja took little satisfaction out of playing well in a loss. He said as much recently, pointing out he’s interested in team accomplishments more than his own growth.

``I’m not paying attention too much to my game because I know who I am and what I can do,’’ Hezonja said recently with conviction. ``As long as we’re winning, I’m happy that I can help my teammates.’’

Hezonja, who will be back in action on Monday when the Magic face the Bulls in snowy Chicago, has certainly helped his teammates of late with his play on both ends of the floor. In his last 10 games, he’s given the Magic 12.5 points, 4.2 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.2 steals a game. In five February games, his numbers have been even more impressive: 15.2 points, 5.6 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.8 steals a night.

``He’s being coached hard on the defensive end and offensively the game is just coming to him,’’ Vogel said. ``It’s clear that it’s slowing down for him. He’s not out of control or frenetic. He’s a heck of a driver – that’s what we forget about Mario. Not only is he shooting the ball well from the 3-point line, but when you close out hot to him he really makes plays off the bounce and his finishing on drives is at a really high level. He’s definitely grown on both ends of the floor.’’

Slowly, Hezonja has earned more and more trust from Vogel – as evidenced by Saturday’s matchup against Antetokounmpo and being put up against LeBron James earlier in the week – and he’s now averaging a little more than 19 minutes a game. Production-wise, Hezonja is giving Orlando 8.2 points, 3.3 rebounds and 1.1 assists a game on the season.

Hezonja was playing on Thursday and Saturday with a somewhat heavy heart after seeing Payton, his first friend in Orlando, get traded to Phoenix. Hezonja and Payton were an unlikely duo considering that one is from Croatia and the other hails from Louisiana, but they often rode to practices and games together and their families bonded in times away from basketball. Hezonja said what comforted him most was knowing that Payton landed in a good spot with the Suns where he should see some of the playing time that started to disappear in Orlando.

``I mean, it (stinks) to lose a brother like that, but nothing changes (with the relationship) because he’s just on a different team,’’ Hezonja said. ``It will be a great spot for him and I’m extremely happy for him.’’

Magic point guard D.J. Augustin, a veteran of 10 NBA seasons, said it’s been neat to watch from afar at how Hezonja continues to take coaching and blossom on the floor.

These days, Hezonja’s growth is more continuous and the highlight plays – such as when he cups the ball under his arm on drives to the rim and when he willingly challenges others at the rim – come more frequently. Getting Hezonja to do those things hasn’t always been easy, Augustin said, but he likes the direction that the blossoming wing is headed.

``He played great (on Saturday) and made great plays at the rim. Coach has been preaching to him about making straight-up plays when he’s been trying to block shots and he did that,’’ Augustin said of his teammate. ``(Vogel) has called him out before in front of the team to show him plays where he could have taken a collision and we’re all pretty happy about that (growth). And he’s played better on offense, so he’s really coming along.’’

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