Mario Hezonja's Confidence Never Wavers

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By John Denton
April 12, 2016

CHARLOTTE – If anyone dares to think that Orlando Magic rookie Mario Hezonja has been beaten down by the NBA’s stronger veteran players, that he’s been humbled by the star power around the league or muted by the tough-love approach of head coach Scott Skiles, consider the 20-year-old’s answer to a query earlier this week.

Asked if anyone in particular has been there to pick him up when he’s been down, helped him with the tricky transition to the NBA and USA or simply given him life advice, Hezonja’s omnipresent confidence bubbled back to the surface.

``Honestly,’’ Hezonja said, pausing somewhat for dramatic effect, ``myself as always.’’

Never one to lack for confidence or swagger in anything that he does, Hezonja has shown the Magic and the rest of the NBA that he not only belongs on basketball’s biggest stage, but he very well could be a star in the making. His rookie season in Orlando hasn’t always gone smoothly, but it’s done little to dampen Hezonja’s feeling that he will ultimately be a standout swingman with the Magic.

Hezonja has dedicated his life to basketball, leaving his home in Dubrovnik, Croatia to play in Zagreb and later sign his first professional contract at the age of 12. Three years as a pro in Spain prepared him for the NBA, and he said it didn’t take him long to develop a deep belief that he could thrive here against the greatest players in the world.

``I had it that in the first game of the season against Washington because I adjust quickly no matter where I am or what team I play for,’’ said Hezonja, who will start at shooting guard on Wednesday when the Magic (35-46) wrap up the regular season in Charlotte against the Hornets (47-34).

``There were some things that came in Europe that I had never seen before and you have to take them quickly,’’ continued Hezonja, who will play for the Croatian National Team this summer as it tries to qualify for the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. ``It’s the same way here and I’m not changing myself for those things. All of the arenas, I approach them the same way. I’ve played (around) the whole world and I’m 20. Saying I don’t care isn’t good, but I don’t pay attention to it. (This past Monday) I’m playing in the Amway Center, next day in (Charlotte), then maybe Rio and Italy – so I’m used to it all.’’

Hezonja feels he’s spent his whole life preparing for this moment and he wasn’t about to let this rookie season break him no matter what was thrown his way. For the most part, he’s handled it all well – everything from checking 260-pound forward LeBron James to weathering Skiles’ fiery rants when he’s blown defensive assignments to holding his own with the slang being thrown around the locker room by his teammates.

Hezonja’s growth and rising confidence levels were very much apparent in the Magic’s 107-98 defeat of the Milwaukee Bucks on Monday. Starting in place of Victor Oladipo (concussion), Hezonja set career highs in assists (seven) and steals (five) and twice drilled 3-pointers late in the fourth quarter after Milwaukee pulled within four points two different times. Overall, he made seven of 11 shots and three of six 3-pointers en route to a highly efficient 19 points.

``Just his understanding of the game has grown – knowing when to cut and he’s showing (fans) a little bit of his passing and he’s knocked down some big shots too,’’ said Elfrid Payton’s Hezonja’s closest friend on the team. ``I’m proud of him. He’s playing well right now. There have been some times he’s done some things that I’ve wanted to do some (bad) things to him. He’s little little brother, I tell him about and we keep working and we trust each other out there.’’

Skiles made it apparent early on to Hezonja that his playing time this season would be based, not on him being the No. 5 pick in last June’s NBA Draft, but his merit. Accordingly, his playing time has risen each of the past six months, going from 11.3 minutes a game in November to 12.8 minutes in December, 17.9 minutes in January, 19.8 minutes in February, 21.6 minutes in March and 25.5 minutes in April. For the season, he’s averaged 6.0 points, 2.2 rebounds and 1.3 assists a game while playing 17.3 minutes a night and shooting 43.7 percent from the floor and 35.7 percent from the 3-point line.

Quite often, a player’s biggest jump comes between the first and second seasons because they have an understanding for the NBA and a blueprint of what it takes to be successful.

A next step now for Hezonja, Skiles said, is working on his 218-pound body and working on his game over the summer so that he comes back to the Magic next October ready to take on an even bigger role with the team.

``he is at that position where he’s at that position where he has to do a bunch of things to be a better-than-average defender,’’ Skiles said. ``You have to be able to chase guys off staggers, you have to be able to defend pick-and-rolls and you have defend bigger players backing you down and post-up players. A lot of the good wing players are able to all of those things. It’s a good challenge for Mario to see how he does with it.’’

All in all, Hezonja has done well with all that has been thrown his way this season. Assuredly, other rookies such Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell, Jahlil Okafor and Kristaps Porzingis – the four players drafted ahead of Hezonja last spring – have had bigger statistical impacts this season. Still, Hezonja’s immense promise can be seen in the flashes he’s had this season with 20 double-digit scoring performances and the 28 games with at least two assists.

``I adjusted quickly. I was going step by step. Mistakes happen always, but they happened more because of (the transition to the NBA). But I feel like I adjusted quickly,’’ Hezonja said. ``When you learn the difference (between pro basketball in Spain and the NBA) you’re adjusting your whole game to the NBA.

``I feel the same way (defensively) as I did since the beginning because I was facing the best guards in Europe because that was my job there too,’’ he continued. ``Here, I feel more confident. I’m confident always. I was adjusting more to Europe than to here. I have coach’s vision of defense now and I know what he wants.’’

He knows what to expect from his Magic teammates now as well. Because of the vast age difference between him and the veteran players in Spain, he often felt isolated on his own team while playing professionally in Europe. Hezonja has said repeatedly that things couldn’t be more different in Orlando where his teammates have helped make life in the NBA and life in the USA easy for him.

After confidently stressing that he has helped himself a lot in making the transition to the NBA, he went around the locker room in pointing out how his Magic teammates have helped to make his rookie season as success.

``Thank God to have great, great teammates,’’ Hezonja said in solid, but somewhat broken English. ``E.P. (Payton) is really like my brother here. A.G. (Aaron Gordon), his brother played in Serbia, and I talk to him and Victor (Oladipo) as much as E.P. And then there’s (Nikola Vucevic) because we speak the same language. I follow those things out of basketball and on the court. Jason (Smith), C.J. (Watson), Brandon (Jennings) and Devyn (Marble) – all of my teammates have helped me so much.’’