How high is Mario Hezonja’s ‘High Upside?’

Mar 29, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Orlando Magic guard Mario Hezonja (23) drives to the basket as Brooklyn Nets guard Bojan Bogdanovic (44) attempted to defend during the second quarter at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 29, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Orlando Magic guard Mario Hezonja (23) drives to the basket as Brooklyn Nets guard Bojan Bogdanovic (44) attempted to defend during the second quarter at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

Mario Hezonja teased Orlando Magic fans at times with just how good he may eventually be, but getting a read on his ultimate potential can prove tricky.

As is often the case with NBA rookies, Mario Hezonja’s first NBA season was one of rather disparate highs and lows. A lot of the variance had to do with a role in flux, as first-year coach Scott Skiles had to be creative to find minutes for the No. 5 overall draft selection and Skiles had to put expectations and accountability on the rookie, perhaps before he was truly ready.

We expected Hezonja to be brought on slowly, simply for the fact the Magic had established rotation players in front of him at both the 2 and 3 spots. His flexibility did help some with finding him minutes, but Skiles preferred to roll with more established options most of the season.

As the Magic drifted further out of the playoff picture in the season’s waning months, Skiles opted to give Hezonja more minutes and a bigger role.

In the final two months of the season, Hezonja averaged 23 minutes per game. In those 28 contests, he averaged 7.6 points, 2.9 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game. He also shot 44 percent from the field on about seven shots per night.

Hezona’s per-36 numbers for the season work out to 12.2 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game. While these numbers are fairly reflective of what a talent he is, gauging just how good he can be as he develops proves to be far more challenging.

Hezonja scored in double figures 21 times his rookie season while only seeing 30 minutes or more on nine different occasions. He produced when he got the minutes, but certainly the season was hardly devoid of rookie mistakes. He took his fair share of bad shots while also picking up some silly fouls and careless turnovers as any rookie would.

These issues are problematic for any rookie, but given Hezonja’s fairly inconsistent playing time, it perhaps was all the more understandable.

As the season wore on though, Hezonja appeared to be more comfortable.

The Tobias Harris trade helped both Hezonja and Aaron Gordon as the Magic started to look toward their younger players on the roster for their future. The result was a lot prettier than expected.

The Magic won six of their final 10 games while knocking off a few playoff teams (the Indiana Pacers, Memphis Grizzlies and Miami Heat). Orlando played some of its best ball of the season while eliminated from playoff contention, and Hezonja had an awful lot to do with it.

Hezonja scored in double figures in five of those final 10 games, while having a couple outlying performances that may hint as to how good he can be.

Hezonja had 19 points, seven assists, three rebounds and five steals in the victory over the Milwaukee Bucks on Apr. 11. His activity level was high throughout the game, and the five steals were hardly just the fortuitous type that happens without defensive effort. He kept his hands active and played passing lanes, exhibiting a high degree of anticipation.

Hezonja’s ability to see a play (offensive or defensive) before it actually happens is part of what separates him from other players. He showed a penchant throughout the season to deliver pinpoint passes right on time to teammates.

Hezonja’s skill set goes far beyond just shooting the ball or finding his own offense. His exemplary court vision was apparent frequently, even if the assists from his looks were sometimes slow in coming.

He had three assists or more in five of those final 10 games, and he was able to play some point guard minutes for Skiles when the rotation wore thin during Elfrid Payton’s injuries early in 2016.

The Magic knew they were getting a potentially premier swingman when they drafted Hezonja, but it was an added bonus that he can also play the point guard position. To be sure, point guard is not his natural position, but his playmaking abilities will bail the Magic out time and time again as his career develops.

But that all still really leaves us with the question, “How good can Hezonja be?”

This is still one of the most difficult things to answer. Statistics only provide a rough outline. But guessing those figures can be difficult, though certainly not fruitless.

Hezonja’s season high was 21 points, on a 9-for-17 shooting performance in a win over the Chicago Bulls on Mar. 2. That night, Hezonja both started and played 37 minutes, while finishing +13.

It seems any real projections we were to wager with Hezonja begin first with these two factors:

A) How large will Hezonja’s role be in the offense? How many field goals will he attempt?

B) How many minutes will he play in upcoming seasons?

These are tricky to answer, perhaps even more so since Orlando’s roster is due to undergo some changes this offseason.

Hezonja probably still will not start next season. But he most certainly is likely to be a rotation player. If he bides his chances with the second unit, he could be a go-to scorer when Orlando’s starters hit the pine.

Nevertheless, to expect Hezonja to attempt more than eight field goals per game next season seems somewhat unlikely.

The Magic balanced their offensive attack and will make Hezonja a key cog in it, but he is still just 21 years old. If the Magic opt to sign a veteran swingman to add balance to this roster, it may be Hezonja’s minutes that take some of the hit. He will have to earn everything once again.

It seems the best that can be achieved here is some sort of compromising middle ground.

If Hezonja sees a role much like he did in the season’s final two months, he will get about eight shots per game and post figures around eight or nine points with a couple assists.

Yes, that is fairly vague, but projecting a player’s role increases from his rookie season to sophomore season is an inexact science. Most veterans will say the most growth occurs between the rookie and sophomore year so it would stand to reason Hezonja will improve individually too.

Projections, in general, tend to be something of a crap shoot for this reason, and until Hezonja’s role is more defined, it is nothing more than fancy guesswork to project stats.

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For the meantime, we must be content to realize Hezonja is a young, gifted swingman whose upside could be anywhere from “solid role player and bench player” to “strong starter” to “future All-Star.”

Perhaps the biggest reason it is nothing more than guesswork is because Hezonja himself is the real X-factor.

If he continues to work and hone his already vast skill set, the chance is there for him to become a star, an All-Star. Barring any real change in his attitude, the path is fairly clear for him to become a major rotation player for the Magic next season.

The season’s strange end showed just how vital Hezonja can really be.