2018 is Mario Hezonja’s ‘do or die’ season

ORLANDO, FL - OCTOBER 5: Mario Hezonja
ORLANDO, FL - OCTOBER 5: Mario Hezonja /

Orlando Magic fans were optimistic about Mario Hezonja‘s prospects after the team drafted him. But Hezonja has had a rocky career in the NBA. And his time is running out.

Interest has always followed Mario Hezonja.

Not only in the NBA, but even before that, as a player for FC Barcelona. As a young athletic player for FC Barcelona, Hezonja only received about 15 minutes per game on a FC Barcelona team full of veterans.

Hezonja’s sweet shooting ability and an explosive frame at 6-foot-8 made him a very reasonable pick as the fifth overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft.

More than that, it was his bravado that caught everyone’s eyes. Hezonja was irrationally confident and had the talent to back it up. He was the one dapping up an opposing coach at the end of a game after draining a 3-pointer. He was the one demanding Lionel Messi come see him rather than the other way around.

It was youthful boisterousness. But it endeared him to a NBA culture that loves that individual flair.

He seemed to be exactly what the Orlando Magic were looking for. Fans got very excited.

Hezonja’s rookie season was decent. He shot the ball fine at 43 percent from the field and 35 percent from behind the arc. He averaged 6.1 points per game in 17.9 minutes per game while showing flashes on the offensive end of the floor.

The development stopped though. And in his sophomore year Hezonja disappointed Magic fans.

He shot 35.5 percent from the field and 29.9 percent from behind the arc. His play was very inconsistent and so were his minutes.

Coach Frank Vogel, his second coach in two seasons in the NBA, never really defined Hezonja’s role, playing him in three different positions throughout the course of the season. The Magic, with an edict to win, could not afford to give Hezonja the kind of trial and error a high draft pick needs. Hezonja was without a home.

Hezonja found himself out of the rotation within a few weeks into the season and never quite cracked it again. Not when the Magic were still competing. When he did get an opportunity, he often failed to perform.

Hezonja talked about his previous season at Media Day. He said the struggles last season were because of an injury he was dealing with in his knee ligament. He explained further that it would swell up and cause him “sharp pain.”

This year, the expectations for Hezonja are higher. It is his third year in the NBA. He needs to show the Magic coaching staff and the fans he belongs. If he can somehow get a consistent reserve type, this season is a big win for Hezonja.

At this point, Hezonja needs to prove he belongs in the NBA.

The opportunity for Hezonja still seems limited. He was out of the original rotation for the Magic on opening night.

The injury to Aaron Gordon seemed to open a spot in the rotation. The Magic turned to Hezonja to play power forward, as he did to end last season, behind Jonathan Isaac.

He has scored 14 points in 41 minutes across those two games. He is shooting 5 for 10 from the floor and 4 for 5 from beyond the arc. In this small sample size, it would appear Hezonja has rediscovered confidence in his shot.

Hezonja may not have the look of a power forward — or even a stretch-4 — but he did his best to body up bigger players the last two games. And, while he is still getting a sense of where to be on the NBA floor, when he is in the right spot he has contributed to this point.

There are still growing pains — some you would not expect from a third-year player — but Hezonja is going through them. His play in Saturday’s win over the Cleveland Cavaliers was especially encouraging.

Where Mario Hezonja goes after Aaron Gordon returns is still anyone’s guess. His role is not defined beyond the Magic’s current injury situation.

Having a defined role in the NBA is a big achievement. Thus far, things have not gone Hezonja’s way. Hezonja needs to show improvement on the defensive end of the floor and be consistent shooting the ball from the 3-point line.

Hezonja still flashes some of that incredible skill that netted him the fifth overall pick.

His passing off the dribble in open space is likely his best NBA skill. He did a great job of finding teammates for good shots when he got the ball. Hezonja needs to further develop those skills and become a two-dimensional offensive player who can create for himself and for his teammates off the dribble.

But time is running out for Hezonja.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

The Magic hold a team option on Hezonja’s contract for the 2019 campaign, which still has not been picked up. The Magic have until Oct. 31 to do so.

The team and coaching staff changing has hampered the development of many Magic’s young players, including Hezonja. Continuity with Hezonja and Vogel settling on a development plan for Hezonja will help him too.

The coaching staff simply needs to instill belief in Hezonja’s ability to contribute on the offensive end while playing adequate defense on the other end of the floor too.

Hezonja’s playing time has been nearly as inconsistent as his play on the court, there have been ups and downs. Hezonja has been very mature about it. He continues to work hard, as Vogel mentioned last season when Hezonja was out of the Magic rotation.

If Hezonja is going to succeed and play a contributing role for the Magic, he has to show improvement as a defender. In Vogel’s rotation, that is how a player gets minutes. He also has to make shots, quite simply. He has to rediscover that NBA skill.

There is a lot on the line for Hezonja.

Next: Nikola Vucevic displaying expanded range

Another disappointing season could put an end to Hezonja’s Magic career. But the belief from the coaching staff has to be existent for his career to pan out. When they give him the opportunity, Hezonja must take advantage.