Mario Hezonja Showing Significant Improvement in Third NBA Season

By John Denton
Feb. 1, 2018

ORLANDO – As the Orlando Magic have struggled most of this season, head coach Frank Vogel repeatedly pointed to the progress being made by the team’s young players as a sign that the squad is indeed on the right track.

Never has that individual growth been more apparent than with third-year forward Mario Hezonja, who has evolved into a primary weapon for the steadily improving Magic.

Hezonja’s strides have been on display of late for the Magic as he filled in at the power forward slot in place of the injured Aaron Gordon (strained left hip flexor). A night after scoring 17 points and drilling three 3-pointers in a heartbreaking loss to Houston, Hezonja carved up the Los Angeles Lakers for 14 points and four more 3-pointers to lead the Magic to an impressive 127-105 victory.

After averaging just 4.5 and 2.2 points in October and November, Hezonja has come on in a big way of late and has been a major reason why the Magic (15-35) have played some of their best basketball since a promising 6-2 start. Not only has the 22-year-old forward averaged 9.6 and 10.8 points in December and January, he’s shot better than 47 percent from the floor and 34 percent from 3-point range to exhibit some of the vast promise the Magic always felt he possessed.

``(Vogel) put me in the starting lineup and I’ve been working after practice to stay ready and keep that rhythm,’’ Hezonja said, referring to some of the reasons for his overflowing confidence. ``(Vogel) has helped me to be who I am on the court right now.’’

Who the Magic are now is a team capable of playing with any squad in the league. Over Orlando’s last eight games, they have risen up to be a top-eight team in the NBA statistical rankings offensively. In that same span of games, Orlando has whipped powerhouses Boston and Minnesota and topped the much-improved Lakers, while pushing playoff-bound foes Cleveland, Houston, Washington and Indiana to the brink in tough losses.

The Magic’s offensive firepower has been openly apparent of late as they recently won in Boston for the first time in seven years; led Indiana by as much as 21 points during one stretch; drilled 15 3-pointers against Houston; and set a new franchise record on Wednesday against the Lakers with nine 3-pointers in third quarter. Orlando ultimately connected on 18 threes against L.A. for its most lopsided victory in months.

``You can talk about being positive with how well we’re doing and things individually and habits that we’re building, but you need results to reinforce what we’re doing,’’ Vogel said following Wednesday’s win. ``Our guys are bringing it, they’re playing together and playing team basketball and I’m happy for them.’’

Hezonja, a native of Croatia and the No. 5 pick of the 2015 NBA Draft, mostly struggled in his first two NBA seasons while having to play in two different systems under former head coache Scott Skiles and presently under Vogel. He’s bounced around on the floor, spending time at everywhere from point guard (as a rookie) to small forward (last season) to power forward (this season).

The Magic have determined that he’s better against bigger players because of his willingness to be physical defensively and they have tried to put him in positions where he can better succeed. Hezonja has also helped in that process by running the floor hard in transition, being more aware defensively and staying within himself on offense. Gone are most of the risky passes and the quick, contested shots only to be replaced by under-control and high-percentage looks that Hezonja has connected on.

``I’m just so proud of him and we keep reinforcing the positives of his shot selection being far better than it was early in his career,’’ Vogel said. ``The game is slowing down for him. He’s making good basketball plays with his touches and we’re reinforcing that (message).

``We’re still trying to get him to work hard defensively, but offensively he just has to take the looks that are there,’’ Vogel added. ``When he doesn’t force, he’s going to shoot a high percentage and he’s shown that over some time now. He’s really in a groove now.’’

Hezonja found out on Tuesday morning that he would be the Magic’s starter that night with Gordon ailing with the hip injury. He has been much more effective as a starter (14.5 ppg., 5.1 rpg., 50 percent field goal shooting, 41.2 percent accuracy from 3-point range in 30.1 minutes per game) than as a reserve (5.2 ppg., 2.4 rpg., 44.3 percent field goal shooting, 29 percent accuracy from 3-point range in 14.1 minutes per game) largely because the extended minutes have allowed him to build up a rhythm. Never one to lack for confidence, Hezonja has seen his effectiveness grow as he’s earned more minutes and earned more trust from those around him.

Wisely, Hezonja has formed a close friendship with Magic veteran center Marreese Speights – a player with 10 years of NBA experience and the owner of a championship ring. Vogel has raved about Speights’ high basketball IQ and his constant readiness as a reserve, and now it is having a contagious effect and rubbing off on teammates.

Hezonja and Speights often talk along the Magic bench about things they see in games, and it’s paid off in a big way for the third-year NBA player still trying to find his niche in the NBA. Speights’ main message to Hezonja has been to eliminate excuses from his thinking and make the most of every opportunity.

Because of the steady growth from young players like Hezonja, the Magic’s season has taken a turn for the better of late. Finally, Hezonja is on the right track and the Magic could be as well over the final 2½ months of the season.

``I mean, who cares about (excuses)?’’ Hezonja asked pointedly. ``We’ve got to step up. Every night that we play that’s another opportunity before us to change our season that went south for many reasons. We’ve done that of late and as (Speights) has said, `No excuses.’’’

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