When I profiled Mario Hezonja in the summer, I mentioned that the biggest concern regarding his development was whether he was going to earn enough playing time to adequately evaluate his strengths and weaknesses heading into the draft. Because Hezonja is so young, everything that he does is considered potential, which is why both Chad Ford and Jonathan Givony had him projected as a top 10 pick at the start of the season regardless of the fact that he logged only 329 minutes in 2013-2014.
When Kostas Papanikolaou transferred to Houston this summer, there was hope Barcelona would turn to Hezonja to take over his vacated minutes but the team quickly signed Deshaun Thomas. Thomas went on to fill Papanikolaou’s exact role over the first month. Based on October, it seemed as if this season was going to be just as frustrating as last one for Hezonja. He averaged less than 10 minutes per game in six appearances that month.
Then Basketball Insiders’ David Pick reported Arn Tellem traveled to Barcelona to talk to the team about Hezonja’s future on November 14th. Six days later, Hezonja started over Thomas against Bayern Munich in the Euroleague.
It could have been a nice chance to see how Hezonja would fit alongside Barcelona’s ball dominant guards, Marcelinho Huertas and Juan Carlos Navarro. But Bayern’s coach, Svetislav Pesic, wasn’t in on the plan and called for Robin Benzing, a bigger wing, to post up Hezonja on three straight possessions early in the game. As a result, Barcelona’s head coach Xavi Pascual subbed Hezonja out and only brought him back in for garbage time.
Nevertheless, the ground had at least been established. Hezonja logged 15 minutes in the subsequent game against Fuenlabrada in the Spanish league, and turned in a forgettable three-point, three-turnover performance where he was a minus-6 in a game Barcelona won by 15.
And then last Thursday happened, a 22-minute outing against Olimpia Milano in the Euroleague that was an excellent opportunity to take a look at Hezonja. Not only did he get good minutes against good competition, he was also put into different situations and was asked to do quite a bit.
Hezonja subbed in two minutes into the second quarter and played all the way until halftime. Huertas was on the floor at first, so Hezonja was completely off the ball in those minutes. He appeared a bit uncertain where to stand but hit his two catch-and-shoot attempts, one from the corner with his foot on the line and one from the right wing on a kickout from Ante Tomic off an offensive rebound. His release remains methodical, slow enough that more athletic defenders can disrupt his shot when they close out on him. But as an open-shot shooter, his mechanics are good. He jumps straight up and down off the catch, no kick, and gets good elevation enough for a high release but not too much that it disrupts his rhythm.
Once Washington Wizards’ draftee Tomas Satoransky subbed in for Huertas later in the quarter, Hezonja assumed ball-handling duties. He ran three straight pick-and-rolls from the top. Not looking to pass in any of them, he drew a non-shooting foul attacking off the bounce, settled for a pull-up three-pointer and then had a great dunk attacking the rim against a good shot blocker (Shawn James) that showcased why his athleticism is projected to match well with NBA talent. Inside one minute left in the quarter, Hezonja brought the ball up the court and attacked the lane with great speed off an instant isolation, but ran into a crowd. He tried kicking it out to a spot-up shooter on the opposite wing without noticing there was a defender shutting down the passing lane. To no surprise, he turned the ball over.
On the other end, Hezonja was mostly off the ball and the man he was guarding didn’t force him to defend any sort of cuts. He did give up penetration on a straight isolation to an inferior athlete (Bruno Cerella), though, and erased himself out of a side pick-and-roll by crashing into a screen by Samardo Samuels.
Hezonja started the third quarter for Navarro, who left the game with an injury and didn’t return, and Pascual had him guarding Daniel Hackett, who is Milano’s top ball handler and shot creator off the dribble. Hezonja put in the effort but struggled navigating through on-ball screens, consistently going under the pick. Hackett is a very capable shooter — he went four-of-six from three-point range in the game and has hit 37 percent of his 27 three-point attempts in the Euroleague — so it’s assumed that was not the strategy. His athleticism made more of a difference guarding Hackett in isolation, as he moved laterally very well. He had a great possession where he completely shut down Hackett’s attempt of getting to the rim. Hezonja also had an incredible block at the rim defending a cut. Those that project Hezonja to be a plus-defender in the NBA have this sort of impact in mind.
That alone would have been more than what he has had a chance to do all season but after subbing out for some rest late in the third quarter, Hezonja returned in the fourth and closed the game. He was not asked to guard Hackett this time, instead he was assigned to Cerella again. On offense, Hezonja contributed with five key points, hitting an open three-pointer on a cross court pass from one wing to the opposite corner, and earning free throws going left on a straight pick-and-roll up top. His left hand doesn’t seem to be as developed as his right one and he didn’t attack with as much speed as did when he went right the couple of times he forced the issue in the first half.
This was arguably the most encouraging performance of Hezonja’s pro career to date, even if he finished with merely 13 points on four-of-six shooting in those 22 minutes. He had one 26-point scoring outburst against La Bruixa D’or last season but that’s a low level team in the Spanish league. This was the game where he got the most minutes against a high-caliber opponent and was asked to do the most.
If you’ve never seen Hezonja play, this is the perfect game for a first look because it provided a good chance to evaluate his potential.