Orlando Magic 2017 Season Review: What Went Wrong — Mario Hezonja

Feb 26, 2016; New York, NY, USA; Orlando Magic guard Mario Hezonja (23) dribbles the ball as New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony (7) defends during the first half at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 26, 2016; New York, NY, USA; Orlando Magic guard Mario Hezonja (23) dribbles the ball as New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony (7) defends during the first half at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports /

The Orlando Magic spent a top-five pick on Mario Hezonja and had modest expectations for his contributions this year. He never even met those in 2017.

Any player taken with a top-five pick in the NBA Draft carries with him the expectation to be great. There is no escaping that narrative, even if it is a particularly weak draft or a player is pegged as a project. Pressure only increases as a player with this pedigree struggles.

Mario Hezonja was caught in this storm. He is undoubtedly incredibly talented. That potential is what got him drafted fifth overall in the first place.

The pressures of being a raw prospect on a team seeking to compete for real has stunted Hezonja’s growth on one hand. On another hand, Hezonja never rose to the challenge his team asked of him.

His role should have been a simple one — make open 3-pointers, attack the gaps in the defense and continue to improve. The team did not even expect him to start. It should have been well within his growth progression.

A new coach did bring some new expectations and some new hope. Hezonja clearly did not fit Scott Skiles‘ eye as a player. He struggled defensively throughout the year. And that is always going to make it tough to impress the hard-headed Skiles.

Hezonja said at one point during the year he struggled to grasp some of Skiles’ defensive rules and principles. He needed time to learn and the patience to let him do so.

He always had that one saving grace — his shot — to keep him involved and keep up hope. Coach Frank Vogel seemed a better teacher and better for Hezonja.

But Hezonja’s most important NBA skill betrayed him throughout the season. His shot disappeared. Even with all his talent — his passing ability, his athleticism and his slowly improving defense — it was inconsequential without his shot falling.

There is a lot of pressure on a fifth overall pick to develop and contribute meaningfully. Hezonja’s sophomore year felt like stagnation at best and regression at worst. It was hard to find a place for Hezonja to get minutes consistently. And his role and place in the rotation fluctuated accordingly.

Hezonja averaged 4.9 points per game in 14.8 minutes per game. He shot a disappointing 34.6 percent from the floor and an even more disappointing 29.9 percent from beyond the arc. According to NBA.com, Hezonja made just 34.7 percent on shots considered open by NBA.com, where the closest defender is no closer than four feet.

This suggests something fundamentally wrong with Hezonja and his shot this year. It is hard to say what it is. His form looks as smooth as ever. The results were simply poor. And when it comes to shooting, results matter.

For a player drafted for his shooting and billed as one of the best shooters in his draft class, this is somewhat alarming.

It may have been too early to pull Hezonja out of the rotation when the Orlando Magic did just eight games into the season. The pressure to win seemed to overtake the team. In those first eight games, Hezonja shot 33.3 percent from the floor and an icy 19.2 percent from beyond the arc. The sample size might not have been big but the problems that persisted for this team were becoming apparent.

With the team aiming for rthe Playoffs, the Magic did not have time to wait on Hezonja’s development. Not during these precious games. They could not lose these minutes with ineffective play.

Hezonja spent the rest of the season in and out of the rotation. He did not fully rejoin the rotation until February after getting benched in November. By then, the season was over and there was the time to focus on Hezonja’s development.

That led to Vogel’s most intriguing and somewhat puzzling decision in-season. Hezonja would play power forward for the rest of the year behind Aaron Gordon.

It is hard to look at Hezonja and imagine him as a power forward under any definition of that word. But the Magic seemingly felt boxed into that decision considering Hezonja’s struggles.

Hezonja struggled to stay in front of smaller, quicker defenders. And he struggled to break them down off the dribble. Despite his great vision and passing ability, he was not good attacking off the dribble. And without a reliable jumper, it limited his opportunities on the perimeter.

Playing him at power forward was almost a concession of the team having to play him while minimizing his potential damage.

To Hezonja’s credit, he kept at working and improving. He played progressively better defense as the season went on. He did look a lot more comfortable on the court. And he embraced playing power forward and the opportunity it presented.

In his final 30 games, he averaged 6.5 points per game and shot 30.0 percent from beyond the arc. Given a more consistent role, Hezonja began producing in earnest. If anything, Hezonja ended his season on a positive note.

Power forward may not be his future, but at least he added some confidence late in the season.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

But in the end, this was a season of stagnation for a top-five draft pick. It may still be early to call Hezonja a bust, but it is looking that way.

Hezonja said he plans to skip Eurobasket and playing for the national team. He wants to stay in Orlando and work on his game to contribute more to his club team.

For sure, Orlando needed to see some growth from Hezonja this year. It was one of the many bets the organization made heading into this season. Like so many of those risks, it was one of the ones that failed.

Hezonja still has all the talent in the world, but it has not had the opportunity to blossom. It is both a problem with how the team was built, where Hezonja is at in his development compared to the Magic’s ambitions and Hezonja’s own struggles to gain his footing.

There was no hint Hezonja would have a season of so much struggle. He played well at the Olympics.

But the reality is the Magic hoped he could grow into a bench contributor this year and then eventually challenge for a starting spot next year.

Next: What Went Wrong: Serge Ibaka

He did not hit that mark. And his NBA future is now in greater question than ever.