New management and a deep class of incoming rookies will put pressure on Mario Hezonja to start producing quickly or lose what’s left of his playing time.
After a disappointing 2017 season, this summer is shaping up to be one of major changes for the Orlando Magic.
A new president of basketball operations in former Toronto Raptors general manager Jeff Weltman and a new general manager in former Milwaukee Bucks general manager John Hammond bring experienced leadership to the front office. And four top-35 selections in this year’s deep draft class promise an infusion of young talent the franchise needs to become relevant again.
It is clear the Magic want to try something different in the near future.
But third-year swingman Mario Hezonja’s role in that future is unclear.
Hezonja’s first two years in the league have been unsatisfying, to say the least. Especially given the Magic drafted him as the fifth overall selection in the 2015 NBA Draft.
His inability to fully grasp NBA-level defensive schemes led to erratic playing time as former head coach Scott Skiles and current head coach Frank Vogel often pulled him after mistakes. Under coaches like Skiles and Vogel, who rationed playing time largely based on defensive ability, Hezonja just has not been able to stay on the court.
That the Magic were so starved for shooting (the team’s 3-point percentage ranked last in the league at 32.7 percent) and still often could not find any extended time for him says something about what the coaches thought of his defense.
Of course, Hezonja would have helped his cause for playing time if he played better on offense. While being yanked in and out of the lineup — and for some stretches of the season, it was mostly out — it was hard for Hezonja to get comfortable on offense, where he was supposed to make most of his contributions as a deadly shooter on the wings.
His shooting splits (field goal percentage/3-point percentage/free throw percentage) this past season were 36/30/80, a far cry from even just his own rookie year (43/35/91). He also shot fewer threes while replacing some of those shots with inefficient mid-range shots.
To be fair, it is generally more difficult for offensive-oriented players to develop rhythms in short spurts compared to defensive-oriented players, who can often get by with sheer activity level and effort. And it is particularly difficult for those who rely on jumpers.
The win-now edict the Magic have tried to live up to also made things difficult for Hezonja. He would have benefited from being allowed to play through mistakes in a low-pressure situation. The Magic drafted him to be a bit of a project, hoping his 3-point shooting would keep him on the floor. That turned out not to be the case.
To say the least, Hezonja has not lived up to expectations by any measure. His value seems at its lowest.
It is likely Hezonja has some latent potential that still needs to be tapped into. That Magic just did not have the patience to wait for it.
But for now, it is just not clear what Hezonja does well enough that would justify consistent playing time on a team that is trying to win.
That leaves Hezonja’s future very much in doubt. He has failed to live up to his lofty expectations, he has underperformed and he now faces a shifting landscape on the team.
Weltman and Hammond are coming in with fresh perspectives on the team and no pre-existing attachments to the players on the roster. They did not sign any of the current players, and a struggling player like Hezonja might, therefore, be on particularly thin ice.
The players picked in this year’s draft will be guys Weltman and Hammond want. Given that the Magic have four picks in a deep draft class, it is not hard to envision a scenario in which a precocious rookie or two eat into Hezonja’s already inconsistent playing time. Those young players will need their time too.
For Hezonja to get back onto the court, he will have to fight for it. He will have to improve his poor shooting and improving defense. Hezonja will have to tap into that latent talent that made him the fifth overall pick in 2015.
For his part, Hezonja is planning on forgoing EuroBasket this summer and spending it in Orlando to train. It will be the first time in his NBA career that he will be in town for most of the offseason (EuroBasket in 2015, Olympics in 2016). During draft workouts open to the media, Hezonja was already in the gym working out.
He senses the urgency at this point of his career, telling Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel he decided to train in Orlando this summer because he needed “extra work.”
Coach Frank Vogel concurred, adding: “I definitely think that it would be good for him to be around us as much as possible this summer.”
Perhaps a summer with the team will be just what he needs to make the progress the team has been expecting of him for the past two years.
It better be, because this year might be Hezonja’s last stand with the Magic.