Mario Hezonja said he hopes to continue to work hard and prove himself even though the Orlando Magic decided to decline his team option.
The former fifth overall pick of the 2015 NBA Draft has failed to live up to expectations in just about every way. He is on the borderline of the Magic’s current rotation and has continued to be a point of contention and debate among Magic fans. Everyone sees the potential and talent Hezonja has, it just has never come through on the court.
After a disappointing second season, Hezonja had to perform this year and prove he was at least a NBA player. His first two years-plus left a lot of doubt. And Hezonja knew that putting in the work this year to rehab a knee injury and be ready for the Magic’s upcoming season.
Hezonja has contributed this year. He certainly has improved from his disappointing sophomore season. But the news the Magic were willing to let him hit free agency, rather than pay the $5.2 million he was due under his rookie contract, is a major blow to his career and his chances. Orlando seemingly decided to move on. Or put more pressure on the young player.
Hezonja though is not going to let that distract them. He recognizes the business involved and that he still has prove himself. Nothing has changed.
Hezonja told reporters in Memphis, including Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel and John Denton of OrlandoMagic.com, he is not going to let his contract uncertainty change his work ethic or approach.
"“This is not going to change anything and I’m still going to be working hard on my game and still coming with the same mentality to try and get even better,” Hezonja said. “I’m here to play and I didn’t come from home to here to watch. The goal for me is to play. I’ll do what Coach asks me to do, but I want to play. … I wish I had been playing in these three years so that this (contract extension) could be judged by my playing time. But this way, it looks a little weird, but it’s not going to change my mentality.”"
Hezonja is averaging 3.9 points per game in 11.7 minutes per game across seven games. His shooting has bounced back. He is hitting 47.8 percent of his shots and 5 for 9 from beyond the arc.
He has looked much more fluid and athletic after a knee injury limited his action last year. But it is hard to say he is a clear-cut rotation player. As things stand, Hezonja has played well enough to receive spot minutes when Orlando goes to a 10-man rotation. But probably not much more than that.
Coach Frank Vogel in the last two games subbed in Marreese Speights and Arron Afflalo for Mario Hezonja in the second half of those two victories. Consistency is still eluding Hezonja. And his inability to get a consistent role or playing time is not helping him much.
But that is the situation Hezonja finds himself in. He struggled to crack the rotation last year and ended up averaging 4.9 points per game while shooting 35.5 percent from the floor and 29.9 percent from beyond the arc. Those were hardly even close to the numbers the Magic envisioned from him. Especially with his shooting. That was supposed to be his NBA-ready skill.
Hezonja simply has not developed. The Magic have their blame for putting a project like Hezonja in a situation where he could not make mistakes without getting a quick hook. They also have their blame for constantly switching coaches and failing to provide any kind of stability.
"“It’s a little weird because I haven’t been playing for two years and it’s weird to judge the situation,” Hezonja told OrlandoMagic.com. “It was a difficult situation from the beginning. Maybe I did a tiny mistake in my career. I just wish (the contract extension) was judged by playing time and then we’d be talking about a totally different story.“I still remain confident. This is not going to change me as a person or player. I still want to be the best and I’m still going to be working as hard as anybody.”"
But Hezonja, whether it is because of the injury or something else, failed to live up to his potential too. His poor shooting especially was a major loss for him. The skill that was meant to keep him on a NBA floor never developed.
Whatever the case, several reports suggest Hezonja and his agent would like to see him move to a new location to get a fresh start. Declining the team option will give him a better chance at getting that fresh start next year. Provided a team is willing to give it to him.
Hezonja is right that he cannot change his approach. Whatever opportunity comes for him, he has to take advantage of and be ready for. It may not come with the Magic. Orlando could still be open to trading him down the road. He may have to scratch and claw his way onto a roster next summer.
All Hezonja can do is play out this season the best he can. That appears to be what he is hoping to do.