How Mario Hezonja Can Save His Career

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HOLLYWOOD, CA - JANUARY 09: (L-R) NBA Players of Orlando Magic Mario Hezonja, C.J. Wilcox and Elfrid Payton attend the premiere of Warner Bros. Pictures' 'Live By Night' at TCL Chinese Theatre on January 9, 2017 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Barry King/Getty Images)

With the fifth overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, the Orlando Magic selected Mario Hezonja. In doing so, they passed on some arguably better prospects, including a now-blossoming star, Devin Booker. Then-current general manager Rob Hennigan felt that Hezonja, a confident, if not cocky, Croatian swingman could improve the Magic’s shooting on the wing. Two seasons later, he hasn’t shown any signs of a breakout.

How Mario Hezonja Can Save His Career

A Slow Start

Per Dar-Wei Chen, “His shooting splits (field goal percentage/three-point percentage/free throw percentage) this past season were 36/30/80.” That alone is a regression from Hezonja’s rookie season numbers (43/35/91).

The Issues

Under defensive oriented coaches like Scott Skiles and Frank Vogel, Hezonja, an offensive-minded player, has struggled to find minutes. From the outside, it appears that the former FC Barcelona standout is a bust. However, Hezonja still has the tools and potential to save his career and become a reliable player for the Magic. In order to live up to his draft spot, Hezonja needs to resurrect his shooting game and become a floor spacing wing.

The Shooting

Orlando has a bad problem with shooting. Per teamrankings.com, the Magic had the league’s fourth-worst offense in the 2016-17 season. Orlando’s new management drafted yet another defense-first player with limited offensive ability, Jonathan Isaac, in June’s draft. That means that the team’s offense likely won’t drastically improve next year despite yet another lottery pick – unless there is improvement from within.

The Magic’s only established players who can space the floor and shoot well consistently are Evan Fournier and Terrence Ross. Because of Orlando’s lack of shooters, the team struggled to space the floor last season. Defenders practically dared Orlando to shoot from mid-range, retreating to the net to protect it from drives. That is evident in Orlando’s 32.8 percent mark from three-point range, which ranked 29th in the league last season.

So how does Hezonja fix this? His 2016-17 three-point conversion rate of 29.9 percent was below even the Magic’s team percentage. Hezonja’s rookie season stats may offer some hope. He shot 34.9 percent from beyond the arc that season. It’s nothing terribly impressive, but he was just a rookie then, so he could at least improve upon that number. Additionally, it’s common for second-year players across all sports to face a sophomore slump, as a matter of adjusting to professional play. Hezonja can improve his shooting percentage again simply by taking on a more clear role with the team. Role definition was certainly a problem for the entire group last season, given the logjam in the front court.

Hezonja’s Role

The Magic need to play to Hezonja’s strengths next season. They should make him the go-to guy in bench-heavy units, feeding him open shots from beyond the arc and taking advantage of defensive gaps. Orlando placed too much weight on Hezonja’s back during his first two seasons in the NBA. By doing so, they potentially stunted his development, but the potential is still there. He’s shown ability, particularly in his rookie season, that he can be a strong floor spacing wing, something the Magic desperately need. Additionally, per NBA.com, Hezonja showed some slow but sure progression on defense last season. His perimeter defense in particular improved in his second NBA season.

Hezonja’s career isn’t over yet. He can be a lethal weapon for this squad; all he needs is a simpler role that plays to his offensive strengths, and the Magic’s patience to let him develop the rest of his game.

 

Main Photo:
HOLLYWOOD, CA – JANUARY 09: (L-R) NBA Players of Orlando Magic Mario Hezonja, C.J. Wilcox, and Elfrid Payton attend the premiere of Warner Bros. Pictures’ ‘Live By Night’ at TCL Chinese Theatre on January 9, 2017 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Barry King/Getty Images)

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