Mario Hezonja entered the league with a reputation to uphold.
He already had subscribers to the Church of Hezonja. Analysts compared his shotmaking bravado to J.R. Smith. The nickname “Crobe” followed him around. He was a player of irrational confidence.
But those moments of irrational confidence have been few and far between in his three years in the league. His production never really warranted his hoisting of contested shots or his wild forays into the lane. Flair did him a disservice rather than accentuating his skills. They had no base to stand on as he struggled to make shots.
The Magic decided to decline his fourth-year team option, an odd move for a player so young and a draft pick taken so high. But things had gotten that bad for Hezonja.
Hezonja’s rookie year was fine enough — 6.1 points per game on a 51.3 percent effective field goal percentage in 17.9 minutes per game. Coach Scott Skiles was tough on Hezonja, keeping a tight leash on him as he tried to teach the prized prospect some discipline and defense. But the overall outlook was still optimistic.
Skiles’ sudden resignation and the Magic’s lack of direction trying desperately to make the playoffs with a mish-mashed roster hurt everyone’s development on the team. Nothing was maximized. Most of all Hezonja.
Hezonja’s poor shooting — 29.9 percent from beyond the arc — characterized his second season. An apparent knee injury sapped him of the athleticism that had Fran Fraschilla shouting Hezonja could win the Slam Dunk and 3-point Contests on Draft Night.
The swagger and bravado slowly faded. Hezonja said he never lost his confidence, but the play on the floor was hardly encouraging. It was plays like this earlier this season showing just how far he had fallen:
Magic coach Frank Vogel started playing Hezonja at power forward last year, just trying to find a place to give him minutes as the Magic’s season wound down. Finding a place for him defensively was Vogel’s main struggle.
Even early in this season, Vogel was struggling to get the young player minutes. His early season woes failed to convince the new management to pick up his fourth-year option.
The Magic’s injuries essentially forced Hezonja into the lineup though. It felt like a move that would send the Magic spiraling into one of the worst teams in the league — and they still are entering the All-Star Break just a game clear of the worst record in the league.
But Hezonja has snatched his new opportunity, and people are starting to believe yet again.
“He has gone from a player that you’re not sure if you can put him in a game to a guy who is leading us on scoring half the time and improving on defense on a daily basis,” Vogel said before Wednesday’s game against the Charlotte Hornets. “I have seen development across the board.”
The numbers are pretty clear on this.
In Hezonja’s last 10 games, he is averaging 16.1 points per game while shooting 50.4 percent from the floor and 42.9 percent from beyond the arc. He has topped 20 points four times in that stretch, including in his last three games.
He scored 24 points in a four-point loss to the Chicago Bulls where he got the last shot to try to give the Magic a win. It was a 30-foot heave leaving Hezonja a bit disgusted he missed it as he watched the play after the game, according to Josh Robbins of The Orlando Sentinel.
After scoring 11 of his 20 points in the first half in a Feb. 5 win over the Miami Heat, the beginning of his recent revival, FOX Sports Florida’s Dante Marchitelli asked Hezonja how he stayed in rhythm.
Hezonja’s response was the stuff his reputation is made of. And more importantly the playfulness was deserved:
It is safe to say Hezonja has found some footing in the NBA. At long last, his play is matching the unquenchable confidence everyone saw in him through the draft process. The kind of refreshing personality everyone who subscribed to his potential hoped would burst its way through.
Why has Hezonja emerged in this stretch? And where does that leave him for the rest of his career?
Opportunity certainly matters. Hezonja could not find the court early this season. His own poor defensive play and inconsistent shooting made it almost impossible to put him on the floor. Orlando’s continually growing injury list forced the Magic to play him significant minutes.
From there, Hezonja could get comfortable and find his rhythm. Without any other players breathing down his neck for playing time or a player he had to beat out, Hezonja had some freedom to make mistakes. Perhaps for the first time in his career.
But what is also encouraging about this run for Hezonja is he does not seem to be making those mistakes that kept him from playing — at least not to the same extent.
He is showing a maturity he lacked even earlier in the season. As the cliche goes, the game is slowing down for him. The same guy who went for the fancy pass against the Detroit Pistons early in the season and turned it over is also doing this now to the Charlotte Hornets:
Among those finishes were a silky ball fake past the defense and a finish in traffic around Dwight Howard. The confidence is clearly oozing off him. Then again, Hezonja was always confident. What he needed was control. He needed to understand his role and be given the opportunity to play it.
Hezonja will still make his youthful mistakes. He will hoist ill-advised 3-pointers from the parking lot. The proverbial heat checks. That is part of what endears him to his remaining fans.
But those are growing less and less. Even in other areas which were weaknesses before, he is starting to show promise.
Orlando still does not quite trust Hezonja to drive either. He has 2.9 drives per game according to NBA.com’s Player Tracking Data. He makes 54.1 percent of his shots on those drives, but also turns it over 10.7 percent of the time. In isolation, according to NBA.com, he scores 0.76 points per possession with a 41.4 percent effective field goal percentage.
Hezonja scores 1.02 points per possession as the ball handler on pick and rolls but only plays that role on 0.9 possessions per game.
Defensively, Hezonja is still an imperfect fit. The Magic have played Hezonja mostly at power forward this season — 75 percent of his minutes according to Basketball-Reference. The Magic have done this mostly because of his defensive shortcomings. He is clearly not a power forward and often gets overpowered by larger players on the defensive end.
With Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac nearing a return from injury, Vogel may have to play him more on the wing. That is when Hezonja will get his real test to see if he can hold his own defensively. Or whether his offensive output can overcome those defensive shortcomings.
There is clearly something there. And like so much with Hezonja’s career, it just needs the opportunity to grow.
Vogel said Hezonja has earned his keep in the rotation. Even when the Magic are healthy, Hezonja will get his opportunity. Beyond that? His future with Orlando is up in the air. And Hezonja controls the keys to his future as an unrestricted free agent.
That bravado and overconfidence have finally delivered some results for him. He just had to find the opportunity.