Always in rhythm? Mario Hezonja is brimming with confidence (finally)

Mario Hezonja‘s bravado was famous entering the NBA Draft. He is finally displaying that in the NBA and his confidence is only growing.

Final
Miami Heat
109
Orlando Magic
111

The good-natured Dante Marchitelli pulled over Mario Hezonja at halftime for the halftime interview as the young Croatian forward was pouring in points and seemingly keeping the Orlando Magic in the game on his own.

Hezonja has always been good with the media. His responses have had that mix of confidence that made him a Twitter darling during the draft process and savvy introspection. It always seemed like Hezonja understood how much he still had to learn, but still had that quiet confidence. Some of it feels like an act with him.

He knows how to handle himself in front of a camera. Especially when he is struggling. That has been far too often throughout his three-year career.

But Hezonja was feeling good and playing well. It has been this way for some time, but this game was different.

In the first half of the Orlando Magic’s 111-109 win over the Miami Heat on Monday, Hezonja was pulling up for jumpers and draining them. He would come around screens and drain jumpers without thinking. He was flinging passes over his head to Bismack Biyombo.

Hezonja was putting everything together it seems. This game a culmination of it all, a building of strong play over the last few weeks as his playing time got more consistent.

Marchitelli asked Hezonja how he stays in rhythm and without batting an eye, Hezonja responded, “I am always in rhythm.” He ran off afterward, knowing that was the ultimate mic drop.

The response was a reminder of Hezonja’s youthful playfulness. The irrational confidence that hade Hezonja demanding fellow FC Barcelona player Lionel Messi come see him play basketball. You know, rather than the then-18-year-old to see the greatest soccer player in the world.

That quote and the other moments of bravado have followed him into the NBA. Everyone just waited for an excuse for Hezonja to bring them out on the court. For them to be more than a playful joke.

Those moments have been few and far between — remember his between-the-legs turnover on a 4-on-1 fast break? It was to the point the Magic declined to pick up his fourth-year team option, turning him into an unrestricted free agent this summer.

Hezonja’s famous bravado is finally coming out. And it is earned. Confidence is brimming in the young player.

At halftime, Hezonja had 11 points on 4-for-6 shooting. The rest of the starters had produced just 23 points on 9-for-19 shooting. It was safe to say, Hezonja was a key reason the Magic were down by one. A deficit coach Chad Forcier said the Magic were lucky to have.

Hezonja was dealing and he knew it.

It continued into the second half. He finished with a team-high 20 points on 7-for-14 shooting, making four of his nine 3-pointers. It was a masterful game for Hezonja. The confidence was more than warranted.

He came around curls ready to fire. Hezonja caught the ball at the top of the key with the defense late to rotate and shot the ball without hesitancy. He had two air balls as he started heat checking some — overconfidence, right? — but he recovered quickly on his next shot. There was little doubt he was going to make.

That is what confidence does. It builds and makes the next play better than the previous one.

This kind of game — just his third career game with 20 or more points — has been coming for a while.

In Hezonja’s last five games, he is averaging 15.0 points per game while shooting 53.1 percent from the floor and 56.0 percent from beyond the arc. In the four games since Aaron Gordon went down with a hip injury, Hezonja has scored in double figures in each game.

During Hezonja’s last 15 games, he is averaging 11.7 points per game while shooting 47.6 percent from the floor and 37.9 percent from beyond the arc.

These are more than respectable numbers. Hezonja has turned himself from struggling reserve player into a consistent rotation performer. Hezonja has taken advantage of this opportunity and then some.

His issues last year were that he could not stay on the floor. He shot just 35.5 percent from the floor and 29.9 percent from beyond the arc. The poor percentage partly a product of his lack of playing time. But in a chicken-or-an-egg twist, his poor shooting robbed him of playing time. So too might have been a mid-season injury that never really seemed to heal right.

Injuries have forced coach Frank Vogel to play Mario Hezonja more this year. And that time and the comfort of a consistent role have helped him establish a rhythm. It is not always on.

Now, Hezonja has earned his minutes and earned his place in the rotation. Vogel said repeatedly his talent is beginning to shine through. He has come a long way.

The Magic’s decision to decline his team option was a poor one when they made it. Giving up on such a young player with so much talent was always ill-advised. The Magic may have thought they had Playoff ambitions at that early stage in the season and could not wait on his development. But Hezonja is clearly a talented player who needed the right environment to grow.

Maybe everyone believed at the time the Magic could not give him that space to grow anymore. Even if unintentionally, the Magic are giving him that much-needed space to grow.

There are still growing pains.

Vogel is playing Hezonja at power forward (69 percent of his minutes this year, according to Basketball-Reference) trying to find a place where he can be successful on both ends. No one saw Hezonja as a stretch-4 when he was drafted.

There are still matchups where Hezonja does not work at power forward — see the decision to start Marreese Speights the last two games against Julius Randle and Markieff Morris, to mixed effect.

Hezonja will still have wild forays into the lane. When he plays within himself and plays carefully, he can make shots effectively. But he will get overconfident at times and drive wildly into the lane, giving the ball away on turnovers.

Defensively, Hezonja is still not a natural. But Monday’s game was a step in the right direction. Vogel lauded his defense as much as his offense in the game. He was in the right spots and helping off his man at generally the right moments.

Hezonja had his shooting barrage against the Detroit Pistons earlier this year. This game was similar to that. But it might have been his most complete game in the NBA.

Heading into the trade deadline, Hezonja has created some value. Maybe enough for a team to bite and take on the risk of impending free agency — with the attendant Bird Rights to re-sign him and the restriction of his declined team option.

All the off-court stuff will take care of itself for Hezonja. He has done his job on the court. At last, he is brimming with the confidence he displayed for Barcelona. The athleticism and shooting ability that had him pegged as a high draft pick three years ago.

Hezonja may not be in rhythm all the time as he claims. But that confidence is back. Back for the first time in the NBA.