Mario Hezonja Hopes to Keep Positive Momentum Going

By John Denton
Dec. 20, 2017

CHICAGO – On the heels of Mario Hezonja’s best night of his NBA career, Orlando Magic coach Frank Vogel joked that the third-year forward had set a new standard for himself and that he would be expected to hit eight 3-pointers a game.

In actuality, Vogel’s message to Hezonja was exactly the opposite of the joke between the two prior to Wednesday’s game in Chicago. After all, the goal is for Hezonja to become a complete player who can help the Magic in a variety of ways.

``He showed us what he can do so I told anything less than eight-of-eight threes is underachieving,’’ Vogel joked. ``Honestly, he’s got to make sure that he doesn’t change because most of his threes (Sunday against Detroit) were within the rhythm of the offense. The game before that (against Portland) he was zero-for-two – he had two shots – and that was just fine because if the rhythm of the offense dictates you only taking two shots and you are passing it, then so be it. If in the rhythm of the offense the ball swings to you and you are open, then let it fly. He’s got to continue to play within himself.’’

Hezonja, the No. 5 pick of the 2015 NBA Draft, played his best game in two-plus seasons on Sunday when he scored 28 points and buried eight of 12 3-point shots. He started well, scoring 11 of Orlando’s first 13 points, and he finished the night strongly with three more 3-pointers in the fourth quarter. In his 31 minutes on the floor, the Magic outscored the Pistons by nine points.

Now, the goal for Hezonja is to keep the positive momentum going while still operating in the Magic’s offense.

``I’ve talked with (Vogel) about still being me, but doing it within his system,’’ Hezonja said. ``I’m not trying to search for mine too much and obey his commands and stay within the system.’’

Hezonja’s performance easily bettered his previous high of 21 points, which came on March 2, 2016 against the Bulls. News of his stellar performance quickly reached his homeland back in Croatia and some of his friends reached out to him to congratulate him. But Hezonja said, for the most part, he ignores the opinions of others whether he plays well or poorly.

``When I have something bad that happens, we don’t talk too much about it,’’ Hezonja said of his conversations with family. ``I watch film on my own and I see all of the mistakes I make. And I work hard alone. So, I don’t really follow what’s being said on social media at all.’’

FRUSTRATED FOURNIER: When Magic guard/forward Evan Fournier was upgraded from ``out’’ to ``questionable’’ for Wednesday’s game in Chicago it briefly raised hopes that the Magic’s top offensive threat was close to returning from a sprained right ankle.

In actuality, Fournier is making steady progress, but he still missed his sixth straight game on Wednesday. As he was converting a floater early in overtime against Atlanta on Dec. 6, Fournier landed on the foot of teammate Nikola Vucevic, causing his right ankle to severely roll over.

Of the three ankle sprains he’s had in his NBA career, Fournier said this one was easily the worst that he’s had. The random nature of the injury only added to Fournier’s frustration.

``You know, it sucks, man, because, really, it was a dumb injury,’’ Fournier said. ``I’m driving to the basket and I’m landing on someone else’s foot. It’s just dumb and frustrating. But now I’ve got to do my part with all that I can control with the rehab to get back. It’s part of the game (stepping on someone else’s foot) and now I’ve got to do my part.’’

Fournier, who along with injured forward Aaron Gordon lead the Magic in scoring at 18.3 points per game, was able to do some non-contact drill work in practice on Tuesday and in Wednesday morning’s shoot-around session. He said he still has no clue of when he will be able to return because of the lingering pain and stiffness in his ankle.

``Obviously, if I’m doing this I’m going in the right direction and it’s getting better,’’ said Fournier, who go in some vigorous sprint work prior to tipoff on Wednesday. ``There’s not much to say, honestly. It’s just about staying at it and doing whatever I have to do now to get back on the court. One day I’ll be back, one day.’’

As for Gordon’s calf strain that kept him out of a second straight game on Wednesday, Vogel had this to said: ``It is feeling better (for Gordon), but he’s not ready to play yet. He’s frustrated after having a concussion and missing a few games and it’s eating him alive not being out there.’’

BIRTHDAY PRESENT: Magic rookie Wes Iwundu got a somewhat unexpected present for his 23rd birthday: He was inserted into the starting lineup on Wednesday night. It is his second start of his NBA career after opening the game against the Clippers last week.

Iwundu’s start came with a pointed message from Vogel: Shut down Chicago’s Justin Holiday, who had 19 points against the Magic back on Nov. 3.

``It feels pretty good that the coach has confidence in me to go out there and handle a task like that,’’ Iwundu said prior to tipoff. ``Holiday is a great player, but at the same time I pride my game on defense. It’s a challenge that I’m willing to accept and I want to go out there and do anything I can to help the team.’’

As for celebrating his birthday, Iwundu said that will have to wait. ``It’s a game day, so as far as birthdays you can’t do too much,’’ he said. ``Maybe (on Thursday) I’ll go out to dinner with a few guys from the team, but other than that it’s a game day and I just want to stay focused on the moment.’’

UP NEXT: The Magic were slated to return home in the early-morning hours of Thursday following the game in Chicago. They are now subject to a quick turnaround with a pair of games coming at them in rapid-fire succession.

Orlando will host superstar forward Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans on Friday at the Amway Center. Davis is averaging 25.7 points per game on a 27.3 percent usage rate which is the lowest usage rate for a 25-point scorer since Allen Iverson in 2007-08, according to BasketballReference.com. The Magic captured one of their best wins of the season in New Orleans on Oct. 30, rallying in the fourth quarter behind Marreese Speights’ six 3-point shots.

On Saturday, Orlando will be in Washington to face John Wall and the Wizards. The Magic split four games with the Wizards last season, but those are the only two victories in the last 16 games of the series.

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.