Mario Hezonja still the right choice for Orlando Magic

Dec 23, 2015; Orlando, FL, USA; Orlando Magic guard Mario Hezonja (23) dunks against the Houston Rockets during the second quarter at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 23, 2015; Orlando, FL, USA; Orlando Magic guard Mario Hezonja (23) dunks against the Houston Rockets during the second quarter at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

It has been almost a year since the Orlando Magic selected Mario Hezonja in the 2015 NBA Draft. Hezonja is still the right choice.

After an up and down rookie season, Mario Hezonja showed flashes of his sky-high potential. Obviously, a year is an extremely short time to judge a team’s draft pick, but with all things considered the Magic seem to have made the right choice by selecting the Croatian with the fifth pick last year.

Heading into the draft, Hezonja was a mystery. The 20-year-old had highlight-filled tape. Displaying tremendous range, rim-rattling dunks and a knack for passing the ball. However, as is the case for many European NBA prospects, there were a ton of question marks.

Related Story: Player Evaluations: Mario Hezonja

On the defensive side of the ball, scouts were concerned about who he could guard. Hezonja is 6-foot-8 but has the skills of a much smaller guard and it was clear he may have trouble guarding NBA talent. Hezonja is not big enough to bang with other fowards and does not possess the lateral quickness of NBA guards.

For the most part, Hezonja did what he was expected to do and provided Orlando with much-needed offense but was lackluster defensively.

For being picked fifth overall, Hezonja’s numbers were far from impressive (6.1 points per game, 2.2 rebounds per game, 1.4 assists per game, 17.9 minutes per game). But these numbers were expected.

Hezonja was not a day-one player. In other words, he was not ready to have a big role in a NBA rotation, and he still has a lot to adjust to.

Unlike players Frank Kaminsky and Justise Winslow, Hezonja was not a NBA-ready player. And that is not what the Magic needed.

Mario Hezonja, Orlando Magic
Feb 19, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Orlando Magic guard Mario Hezonja (23) shoots a layup against the Dallas Mavericks during the second half at Amway Center. Orlando defeated Dallas 110-104. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

Yes, there were playoff expectations for this team, but once January hit, the Magic were clearly a Lottery team. They needed another piece that would be a part of their core.

At the same time, draft experts knew Hezonja would have to work harder to see the floor. Things would be even harder for Hezonja with Scott Skiles being his head coach.

Skiles has been known to play veterans ahead of rookies and with Hezonja’s lackluster ability on defense, Skiles buried Hezonja for long stretches of his rookie season opting to let him learn by watching and work behind the scenes rather than mistakes in games. All the blame cannot go on Skiles, but not giving a rookie a solidified role definitely played a part in the shooting struggles Hezonja had throughout the season.

With the inconsistency in minutes, Hezonja could not get anything going.

At times, his confident swagger came through and his flashy play-style wowed Magic fans. Then all of a sudden, he would disappear and fans would be clamoring for his return to the floor after a few games on the pine.

Now, after looking back on his rookie year, what makes him still the right choice for Orlando?

First things first, Hezonja has pure, raw talent. Last season the Magic were still a few pieces away from the Playoffs and with the hope in 2017 that Hezonja can hone that talent and become an important piece for a postseason run.

Hezonja has a lot of tools the Magic desperately need on the offensive end. Frank Vogel was hired for his defensive prowess but as Magic fans know, the offense needs some work. Particularly, 3-point shooting and playmaking and that is where Hezonja can make a huge impact for the Magic.

Hezonja has the ability to play the position of point forward Hedo Turkoglu did a few years ago. He is very unselfish and has solid court vision. He made mistakes last season that led to turnovers. But that is typical for such a young player.

Hezonja has versatility. He can play either shooting guard or forward. The shooting ability he has can spread the floor and allow for the other slashing guards to score. With that being said, Vogel will have to decide on risk vs. reward with where he plays Hezonja. Hezonja will have to improve individually before entering the 2017 season.

Finally, Frank Vogel’s presence should help the young Hezonja more than Skiles. Vogel is known for his player development. Vogel can help Hezonja take the next step in his career and hopefully have more trust in him than Skiles did.

Although his rookie season may have been a tad disappointing to some, the future is bright for Mario Hezonja. With a more consistent role next season, there may be a chance for Hezonja to burst into the spotlight just like Aaron Gordon did this past season.

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The Magic have built for the future the last few seasons and Hezonja was the last piece to that puzzle. The Magic will look to add free agents and build around the core that Hezonja could headline in a few years.