Mario Hezonja’s slow growth found its groove in the end

Apr 11, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward John Henson (31) guards against Orlando Magic guard Mario Hezonja (23) during the first quarter of a basketball game at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 11, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward John Henson (31) guards against Orlando Magic guard Mario Hezonja (23) during the first quarter of a basketball game at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports /

Mario Hezonja struggled throughout his rookie year until the light finally clicked at the end, providing confidence and hope for what is to come.

A top-five draft pick is supposed to be many things.

There is a perception about what a draft pick this high is supposed to be. They are supposed to become stars and corner pieces to a franchise. They are, to perhaps some extent, supposed to contribute immediately.

Related Story: Orlando Magic still made right choice with Mario Hezonja

Especially in a Draft class like the 2015 Draft class. This is one of the few draft classes that seemed to make an immediate impact. Karl-Anthony Towns is already picking up a significant amount of all-NBA votes. Kristaps Porzingis became verifiable phenomenon with the New York Knicks. Justise Winslow was contributing to the Playoff-bound Miami Heat.

Mario Hezonja was sort of left out of the fold. Of the Lottery picks, only D’Angelo Russell had fewer win shares. And the Lakers finished with the second worst record in the league.

Of the Lottery picks, only Trey Lyles played fewer minutes per game.

Hezonja’s season was always going to be a slow growth. The Magic were not going to rush things with him. That is not something Scott Skiles was going to do too. It was never going to be about how he compared to his peers, as tempting as that might be.

The whole season, as expected, was a constant growing process.

“I don’t think I was good,” Mario Hezonja said of his season. “But definitely, everything, I’m not going to say surprise me, but it was better. I knew some things are going to be how I saw it is. Some things were not what I thought — like players, organizations, a lot of things outside basketball. Individually, I’m never happy with myself.”

His 6.1 points per game on a 51.3 percent effective field goal percentage were nothing impressive to look at. He certainly did not earn any more minutes than he was playing for the most part. He would have flashes of brilliance and then flashes of invisibility.

That was the part that was expected. But as the season came to its close, Hezonja started to come on much stronger.

In the final 13 games of the season, Hezonja averaged 25.7 minutes per game, never playing fewer than 15 minutes in any game down the stretch. With that added playing time, he scored 8.2 points per game and hit 41.7 percent of his 3-pointers and posted a 48.3 percent effective field goal percentage. He also added 2.2 assists per game.

There were still moments where he looked hesitant and still feeling his way through the season, but the flashes of brilliance came out more. Playing time helps with that.

That was especially in the Magic’s final home game against the Milwaukee Bucks. Hezonja posted 19 points, seven assists and five steals. It was not all positive, of course, but it was a lasting taste of just how far he had come.

“Even more attentiveness on defense,” Elfrid Payton said after that win over the Bucks on Hezonja’s improvement. “He is doing a lot of things that is hard to explain to you guys. But he is doing those things, and that is a big help to us on the defensive end. And just his understanding of the game on offense in knowing when to cut. He is showing a little bit of his passing. He has knocked down some big shots too.”

Dewayne Dedmon concurred that Hezonja had made big strides on the defensive end too. Everyone knew his shot would be there for him when push came to shove. Largely it was.

The expectation was for Hezonja to get better gradually. Judging by the way his season ended, it certainly seemed like he did.

The lessons he learned as the season progressed will surely make him a better player. And make him a better contributor for his sophomore year.

He certainly did not get worse.

“Just because its different and you face all of your life playing against the best in the world,” Hezonja said. “You can’t get worse. You do bad, you do good, you get better anyway. It’s the off time, but you use it to really get better. You know what to do, you know what not to do.”

Mario Hezonja, Orlando Magic, Trey Burke, Utah Jazz
Nov 13, 2015; Orlando, FL, USA; Orlando Magic guard Mario Hezonja (23) shoots over Utah Jazz guard Trey Burke (3) during the first quarter at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

Hezonja credited the coaching staff for helping him adjust to the NBA. It was perhaps a bit slower than most wanted. And it certainly seemed like Hezonja could take on more. Skiles had a somewhat tight leash on him, specifically when Hezonja committed turnovers or made defensive mistakes.

At the end of the year, Hezonja got that longer leash almost out of necessity as injuries took hold and the Magic let players sit out longer to recover. Hezonja began taking advantage of the playing time he got.

The major lesson from the season was already learned though. He belonged and had a place in the NBA. But there was still so much to improve on.

It was the common line Hezonja gave the media throughout the season. He needed to improve on everything constantly.

“You know my answer every time,” Hezonja said. “Maybe I can point to some things — get stronger with the ball or get stronger overall. Everything. That’s just me. That’s my approach to basketball. I want to be the best and get better at everything and all things that can help my team.”

There was no harder critic on Hezonja and his play than himself. That is both encouraging that he wants to and knows he can get better. But discouraging in that the wrong coach can lower his confidence. Perhaps Frank Vogel’s approach will work better. No one will know until October.

Next: What Frank Vogel will do for the Orlando Magic's defense

As another draft approaches and Hezonja’s rookie year turns into his sophomore year, it was clear what Hezonja can do as he got better toward the end of the season.