Mario Hezonja Gaining More Confidence and Earning More Playing Time

Josh Cohen
Digital News Manager

By John Denton
Feb. 24, 2017

ORLANDO – When second-year shooting guard Mario Hezonja emerged from Thursday night as one of the Orlando Magic’s true bright spots because of his confident, dead-eye shooting, head coach Frank Vogel sought to make one thing perfectly clear.

Hezonja saw 25 minutes of playing time in the Magic’s 112-103 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers, not because the of some sort of gift or a rebuilding move, but instead because the second-year small forward has earned it with his hard work in practice and film sessions and with his steady, incremental improvement.

After Hezonja drilled all four of his first-half shots – two of them being 3-pointers – for 10 points, Vogel vowed to try and find more ways to get the promising player on the floor more and more. Starting with Saturday’s game against the Atlanta Hawks at the Amway Center, Hezonja could see his playing time jump dramatically from the 11.4 minutes a game he’s averaged over the first 59 games of this season.

``I’m really happy with what Mario’s been doing,’’ Vogel said. ``His shot-making has been good. He’s not always in the right spot on the defensive end, but he plays so hard and he plays a physical brand of basketball, he’s active with his hands and he changes ends with speed.

``He’s a young player and he’s still going to make mistakes while he’s figuring this out, but his minutes going up are a result of his play improving,’’ Vogel said. ``So I’m happy about what he’s been doing.���’

Hearing that must be music to the ears of Hezonja, who will turn 22 years old on Saturday. The native of Croatia has had to wait his turn for playing time because of the Magic’s logjam at the wing positions this season. However, the trading of Sere Ibaka led to Aaron Gordon moving back to power forward and opening up more small forward minutes for the 6-foot-8, 218-pounder.

Hezonja is aware that Orlando’s final 23 games of the regular season could serve as an audition to see how he performs in a larger role. If Thursday’s stellar shooting and improved defense are any signs, Hezonja is ready for the enhanced role with the team.

``It’s always (time) to show your improvement, but it’s not like I can go out of the system because then I’m wild and it looks bad and that’s not what we want to do here,’’ Hezonja said of staying within himself when given additional minutes. ``Everything has to stay within the system while trying to stick out with the great stuff. … I’ve got to play smart and take it step by step from here.’’

Hezonja took some baby steps toward securing a solid spot in the rotation on Thursday by resembling the confident shooter the Magic thought he could be when they drafted him No. 5 overall in 2015. His first field goal came on an under-control, pull-up shot in the lane late in the first quarter and minutes later he didn’t hesitate on a corner 3-pointer. Late in the first half, Hezonja repeated the sequence by burying a pull-up shot from the wing – one in which he awkwardly kicked his legs out as if he was trying to draw a foul – and he ended the quarter with a buzzer-heating 3-pointer from the corner.

Slowly, surely, Hezonja feels his confidence and rhythm coming back to him as his minutes have become more consistent of late. Aiding that process has been the tireless hours that Hezonja has put in before and after practice and on off days.

``Pretty much the whole game is based on rhythm,’’ said Hezonja, who has averaged 4.1 points and 1.7 rebounds a game in limited minutes. ``When things slow down for you, it’s easier to play. It’s an easy game, but it’s hard to make it easy. We’re still learning how to win and learning the system, but within that I think I can get my individual rhythm can click. I think it’s working, but I don’t want to stop and be satisfied with anything.’’

Support for Hezonja has from teammates Elfrid Payton and Damjan Rudez. Payton and Hezonja became fast friends last season and, at times, have been inseparable. Rudez, a fellow Croatian, has known Hezonja since the later was a rising teenaged player back in their homeland and he’s tried imparting some of his veteran wisdom on the player nine years his junior.

``It’s been super hard on him,’’ Payton said. ``What can you expect when you are a second-year guy and you work on your game all summer and then to have to put it on pause, that’d frustrate anybody.

``I was super happy for him because he looked really comfortable out there shooting the ball (on Thursday),’’ Payton added. ``I’m excited to see what he’s got coming up.’’

So, too, is Hezonja, who is eager to make the most of his enhanced role. It makes it much more satisfying, he said, that he has earned a bigger role with his work in practice and individual sessions and his improved knowledge of the game. Having the trust of Vogel and his teammates also gives him the added confidence that he is ready to shine going forward.

``It’s great that (Vogel) believes in my abilities and he trusts me more and more,’’ Hezonja said. ``It’s better to be on the court than, trust me. It’s great stuff to hear that they believe in me.’’

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