Former Orlando Magic draft pick plotting NBA return?

One of the Orlando Magic's more infamous draft misses could be plotting a return to the NBA. And a return to the Magic kind of makes sense.
Mario Hezonja was a disappointing draft pick for the Orlando Magic. Since departing the NBA, he has revitalized his career and is plotting a return.
Mario Hezonja was a disappointing draft pick for the Orlando Magic. Since departing the NBA, he has revitalized his career and is plotting a return. / Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

There was a ton of excitement during the 2015 NBA Draft when the Orlando Magic used the fifth pick on Mario Hezonja.

The Croatian guard entered the draft with tons of hype. Fran Fraschilla, ESPN's international draft expert, hyped Hezonja up as someone who could one day win the dunk and 3-point shooting contests. He had bravado and a personality that seemed perfect for the NBA.

The experiment, of course, became something of a nightmare. Hezonja never clicked with the NBA game. He struggled to connect with Scott Skiles, and then a coaching change after one year to Frank Vogel further threw him for a loop.

When Jeff Weltman and his staff came in during the summer of 2017, they did not even bother to pick up the final team option on his rookie contract.

Hezonja played three seasons with the Magic, averaging 6.9 points per game and shooting 33.2 percent from three. His high-water mark came in 2018, his final year in Orlando, where he averaged 9.6 points per game on a 51.5 percent effective field goal percentage.

He played two more seasons in the NBA with the New York Knicks and Portland Trail Blazers before returning to Europe.

He has since revitalized his career. Facing a contract dispute with Real Madrid this offseason, Hezonja seems open for a return to the NBA. And you have to at least think about an Orlando reunion.

Marc Stein reports on his Substack that Hezonja's name is coming up in free agent circles as someone who could make a return to the NBA for the first time in four seasons.

An NBA return is possible. And considering Hezonja's skills as a shooter and still potential as a playmaker, a reunion as unlikely as it might be cannot be ruled out.

Marion Hezonja rediscovered his potential in Europe

Mario Hezonja never lived up to expectations after the Orlando Magic picked him with the fifth pick in the 2014. It was one of the major draft misses—probably the biggest draft miss—of Rob Hennigan's doomed tenure in charge of the Magic.

Hezonja will forever be a giant what-if in Magic history, with the team selecting him over future All-Stars like Myles Turner (No. 11) and especially Devin Booker (No. 12).

Twisting the knife further, Turner said he was shocked the Magic did not pick him. And Booker tried to use family connections in Grand Rapids, Mich., to pitch his selection directly to the DeVos family.

It was a draft to forget in a forgettable period of Magic history as they struggled to rebuild in the wake of Dwight Howard.

Hezonja though never found his footing and after the 2020 season returned to Europe. But that is when his career took off.

He has averaged at least 14.0 points per game in all but one season in EuroLeague with Panathinaikos, UNICS and Real Madrid, where he spent the last two seasons. He averaged 14.0 points per game and shot 45.3 percent from three in 33 EuroLeague games last year.

He topped off averaging 18.1 points per game on poor shooting for UNICS in Russia in 2022 (their EuroLeague season was suspended because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine that season).

Last year in the Spanish ACB League for Real Madrid, he averaged 10.6 points per game on 35.2 percent shooting.

Hezonja helped Panathinaikos to a Greek Cup championship in 2021. He is coming off a season where Real Madrid won the Copa Del Ray (the ACB championship) and reached the championship game in EuroLeague.

He had eight points and eight rebounds in the championship game loss to Panathinaikos and 12 points and six rebounds in the semifinal win over Olympiacos.

He has been a part of some winning teams since leaving the NBA. And Hezonja has played a major role coming off the bench for successful teams. He has carved a nice role for himself and his skill set.

Mario Hezonja does not have the individual accolades of players like Vasilje Micic or Sahsa Vezenkov, who came over from Europe this year but struggled to find their impact in the league. He is not a EuroLeague MVP or anything. But he has been part of strong teams in the competition and is clearly looking for an opportunity either to start for a EuroLeague team or to return to the NBA.

Hezonja has revitalized his career, making an NBA return possible.

Would the Orlando Magic be a fit for him?

There is a ton of baggage with Mario Hezonja and the Orlando Magic fan base. He was a missed opportunity for the team and the bottom of the well for the Magic's failed rebuild in the immediate aftermath of losing Dwight Howard.

It just did not work out. And there is a lot of baggage that comes with that.

Hezonja's maturity was one of the big things that kept him from success—in addition to the Magic's poor organizational structure and support. He is 29 years old and has gone through a lot since then. It is hard to imagine he has not taken some lessons from spinning out of the NBA.

Everyone has to consider talent when it is present. And Hezonja is still a talented player who fills a lot of needs for the Magic.

Hezonja will never live up to the billing that got him picked fifth nearly a decade ago. But he is still a solid shooter. And his understanding of the game has grown. He knows how to contribute to a winning team.

It is hard to say if the Magic would be interested.

It was Weltman, after all, who declined that fourth-year team option and set him loose in one of his first moves in charge of the Magic.

Hezonja still comes to Orlando during the offseason and plays in pick up runs with the pros who live in town. He probably has some relationship with players on the current roster—he played with Jonathan Isaac in his rookie year. There is still a connection to the city.

But Hezonja has talent. And everyone has to consider talent.

Orlando seems set with wing shooters, with the likely addition of at least one wing player to the lineup and the desire to develop Jett Howard and Caleb Houstan. But the team is likely looking for a mid-level wing to boost the lineup.

And there is no guarantee that Hezonja will end up back in the NBA—although things seem to be trending back in that direction.

Hezonja is a free agent. And it is very possible he is using some NBA buzz to try to leverage for a better contract elsewhere.

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Hezonja is at the very least in the bin of players the Magic will consider and that every team will consider as free agency approaches.