Over the Orlando Magic’s most recent string of games, Mario Hezonja has been the team’s most valuable player. Hezonja, a third-year guard/forward combo from Croatia, has struggled for most of his NBA career. Initially, his strong shooting and cocky demeanor were why Orlando had drafted him. Unfortunately, his first few years saw little success and development. However, that appears to have finally changed, as Hezonja’s improvement really looks legitimate.
Mario Hezonja’s Improvement is For Real
Hezonja came into the season with a lot of uncertainty. For instance, the new Magic front office declined to exercise the team option on Hezonja’s contract. This essentially meant that the team wouldn’t choose to retain him after this season. However, Hezonja is proving why that was a poor choice. Since Orlando’s string of injuries in the last two months, Hezonja has been given an increased role. It’s in those months that Hezonja has done so well. Particularly, Hezonja has really excelled in the last 5-10 games. In the last five, he’s averaging 17 points.
It’s worth asking why Hezonja has started playing so well lately. What’s been the biggest change to his game? For one, Hezonja’s finally getting a real opportunity with the team. The key to unlocking Hezonja’s potential was always giving him a clear role and patience to develop. The last month or so has given him exactly that.
Additionally, a better coach is a big part of the equation. Former coach Scott Skiles was really hard on rookie players. Skiles was unforgiving of rookie mistakes and likely stunted many of Orlando’s young players. However, head coach Frank Vogel has been different. Whether injuries have forced him to or not, Vogel is giving Hezonja the chance to showcase all of his many skills. Vogel’s particular ability to develop young players has really helped too.
He really implored Hezonja to play better defense this season. And Hezonja still has a ways to go. However, Hezonja is making some impressive decisions on that end of the floor lately. Vogel has talked about how Hezonja’s defensive play has been impressive to him in addition to his offense.
Orlando’s roster has also changed. The Magic have had a serious injury problem all season long. That helped Hezonja, in a sense. A depleted rotation allowed to him to play more minutes.
However, that didn’t make it easy for him. With Gordon and Isaac both hurt, there was a major shortage of players to fill the power forward position. With few options, Vogel put Hezonja at the 4. Normally, this wouldn’t be ideal. However, Hezonja went with it and played great. He lacks the size to defend at the 4, but his athleticism and skill earned him lots of points on offense.
Hezonja is Revitalizing His Offense
Ultimately, he got minutes at his more natural positions as well. There, he continued to excel. In Orlando’s recent game against the Chicago Bulls, he put up 24 points. There have been several more games where he scores 20+ as well. That said, aside from a clear role, better coach, and opportunities because of injuries, what’s changed?
The biggest reason for Hezonja’s success is that he’s acclimating to the NBA style of play. European basketball is of course slightly different from American basketball. The NBA is a league with a lot of pick-and-rolls. NBA defenses are also more complex. Additionally, the size of NBA players is of course different. It makes sense that it would take Hezonja additional time to adjust to this change.
Hezonja has certainly done that. Currently, he ranks an astonishing second in the league on pick-and-rolls. He’s also the second-best shooter on the Magic. Only Evan Fournier ranks higher. However, his biggest strength isn’t necessarily his pick-and-roll. He’s also one of the best range shooters in the league. Hezonja is really adapting to what players need to do in today’s NBA. He’s shooting 35% from 3, but his accuracy from even further out is one of the highest in the league.
What to Make of Mario
Hezonja’s improvement raises as many problems as solutions. He’s been consistently good since stepping into his new role. However, he still has some work to do. Continuing his play and improving his defense is key. Additionally, the Magic will now need to pursue enticing him to stay with a new contract. Exercising his team option would have been a good decision in hindsight. Regardless, Hezonja is showing he belongs on this team. The Magic should do what they can to keep him.
Mario Hezonja has improved his play this season for the Orlando Magic. Photo by Keith Allison/Wikipedia Commons