Mario Hezonja Has found his niche as a NBA player

Impatience from fans, coaching staff and front office did not give Mario Hezonja a chance to develop with consistent playing time. Now, in year three, he is getting just that.

The Orlando Magic drafted Mario Hezonja with the fifth overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft because they felt he was the most “NBA-Ready” prospect in the draft class. Someone who had tremendous upside but could help contribute to a budding playoff team. He filled a need for the team too with his shooting ability.

The Magic felt like they could make a push into the playoffs in the 2016 season, as they ultimately finished with a 35-47 win season under short-tenured head coach Scott Skiles.

The urgency to win did not help with Hezonja’s situation to develop as a NBA player. He showed glimpses and flashes of why the Magic drafted him. His ability to make great passes, run in transition and shoot the ball with confidence from five feet behind the 3-point line all were on display. He still had a lot to learn. Skiles was not going to tolerate too many of his rookie mistakes. His growth was stunted just a bit.

In his second year, Hezonja’s playing time was scarce. He was kicked out of the rotation after the first eight games of the season as he struggled to shoot. Vogel tended to rely more heavily on veterans — including Jeff Green who shot an icy 27.5 percent from beyond the arc that season.

This year started very shakily for Hezonja. He was given the news in November the Magic would not pick up his team option, making him an unrestricted free agent in the upcoming summer.

Josh Robbins interviewed Hezonja shortly after the news broke and Hezonja had a very selfless attitude towards the situation.

“It’s not going to change anything,” Hezonja said “I’m still going to be working hard on my game, still come in with the same mentality: just trying to get even better.”

All reports and indications suggested Hezonja and his representatives welcomed the news with the opportunity to seek a new situation. But that new situation may not mean anything if Hezonja did not turn the narrative of his career around.

Even though he was fighting a mysterious knee issue, Hezonja shot just a 42.0 percent effective field goal percentage, shooting worse than 30 percent from beyond the arc.

Hezonja had limited minutes and could not get into a proper rhythm. The question was when Hezonja might get that consistent opportunity.

The injuries to Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac and Terrence Ross gave Hezonja that chance. And he has largely delivered, looking more and more like a solid contributor with each passing game.

Since Dec. 9, Hezonja started nine of the team’s 18 games. In those 9 starts, he averaged 14.2 points per game, 5.3 rebounds per game, 1.8 assists per game and 1.1 steals per game. Doing all that while shooting 49 percent from the field and 39 percent from the 3-point line in around 30 minutes per game.

Overall since Dec. 9, Hezonja is averaging 11.7 points per game and 4.5 rebounds per game and shooting 46.7 percent from the floor and 31.6 percent from beyond the arc. Those numbers are not blowing anyone away, but they are passable.

Hezonja has at least become a useful NBA player. After the way he played last year, that is a huge step for him.

“He’s just more comfortable,” coach Frank Vogel recently told Orlando Magic Daily. “He understands his defensive assignments a little better, his reads. When he is making plays off the bounce, that’s probably the biggest area where he is being more physical. He is finishing and not getting himself into too much trouble with turnovers and making the right play.”

In the past, Hezonja would often try to squeeze in passes even though there was no spacing on that area of the floor. But this season he has looked more comfortable and patient surveying defense. He is finishing with more creativity around the rim without committing turnovers.

The Magic have struggled to find a good fit for him defensively too. Vogel has taken to playing Hezonja at power forward more than on the wings. He has struggled some with the size. But even defensively Hezonja has shown growth.

He has worked to be more physical and keep bigger players off the block. He roams less and stays home more, keeping to his defensive responsibilities. Hezonja has learned how to play with patience on both ends.

Defensively, Hezonja is probably still best at the three. The Magic use him as a weapon on offense by putting him at the power forward spot so he can beat his man off the dribble and create for others.

And Hezonja still has a bit of that famous swagger. He scored a career-high 28 points on 8-for-12 shooting from beyond the arc. This was the culmination of all his hard work this year. He made good on his high draft selection for one night and showed his massive offensive potential.

It is clear how much Hezonja has grown. And in a dark time for the Magic with injuries, Hezonja has stood out as a bright spot, perhaps changing the Magic’s early calculations when they declined his option in late October.

“He has been a bright spot in this stretch of our injuries,” Vogel said. “Everybody needs to understand he is a very young player as well. Part of our team’s development is to see him get out there. He looks like a far more comfortable player right now than he did at any point last season. That’s been an encouraging thing for us.”

The coaching staff certainly acknowledges the growth as a player. The Magic are beginning to instill their belief back in Hezonja.

But it may be too late, as the Magic declined his team option. It seems both parties recognize their relationship has run its course. Hezonja is playing for his team but also playing for himself and his future in the league.

What jersey Hezonja wears next season is beyond the Magic’s control at this point. As a result, he has been a part of some trade rumors as of late. That is no surprise. The Magic reportedly tried to give Hezonja away with his restricted free agency rights earlier in the season.

Now, at least the Magic might get a little something for him if they deal him before February’s deadline.

And that is good news for Hezonja and for the Magic. Hezonja has developed and found his niche in the NBA.

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