Injuries clear a path for Mario Hezonja to find his rhythm

Dec 28, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA;  Orlando Magic guard Mario Hezonja (8) brings the ball down court during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Charlotte Hornets at Amway Center.The Hornets won 120-101.  Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Mario Hezonja has waited patiently for his turn to rejoin the rotation. Now injuries will give him a chance to get an opportunity and make his mark.

Mario Hezonja admits his run back in the Orlando Magic’s rotation has been far from perfect.

There have been moments he has been caught on the wrong side of the floor or his dribble moves are not as crisp or his shot not quite in rhythm. It is tough to sit on the bench and wait your turn, getting no playing time and seemingly being out of sight out of mind for so long. It can try anyone.

Then suddenly opportunity comes. And it comes at an important time with the season slipping away. Hezonja steps back into the rotation as he tries to find his rhythm again after spending much of the last two months out of the rotation.

The urgency only increases now with Jodie Meeks out 4-6 weeks with a dislocated thumb and Evan Fournier still out with a heel injury. The Magic, all of a sudden, need someone to step up into that starting shooting guard role to save the season and climb precariously back into the Playoff race.

Coach Frank Vogel said it would be a by committee approach with C.J. Watson, Hezonja and the two-guard lineup of D.J. Augustin and Elfrid Payton manning the position (C.J. Wilcox is out Friday with knee tendinitis). Undoubtedly, it will mean Hezonja will get his opportunity once again.

“It’s bad we have injuries like that in a crucial moment of the season,” Hezonja said. “It’s a great opportunity for me to show what I can do and help the team win. All that individual stuff aside, we got to get wins. I have to be quick but not rush.”

Hezonja has been back in the rotation now for five games. It has been admittedly rough. His minutes even then have been somewhat inconsistent. And his shot is still coming around.

This is admittedly part of a process of returning to a rhythm. Hezonja sat on the bench and hardly played for a very long time this season. He is averaging just 8.9 minutes per game this year — averaging 3.3 points per game and shooting 35.5 percent from the floor.

Hezonja said his job right now is to outrun everyone and help the team where needed. He said right now that is more on the defensive side. He knows he has to hit open shots and not make too many mistakes. It is a simple role, but that is what he has to do “efficiently,” as Hezonja put it.

Vogel said Hezonja would get his opportunity at some point in the season even as he stayed on the bench. These may not be the circumstances they envisioned, but here opportunity comes for the second year player.

It is something Hezonja has been readying for behind the scenes but may need some time to adjust to. But opportunity is knocking and Hezonja needs to deliver.

“I think he’s ready,” Nikola Vucevic said. “He’s been really patient with his situation. He’s been really good with it not getting too frustrated and letting him hurt it too much. He is working really hard. I think he’s been really good with it. I think he is ready to get back out there on the court and show what he can do.”

Hezonja has had to learn patience to wait for this opportunity. In games where he has played more than 10 minutes, Hezonja has had some surprising production. In games he played 10 or minutes this year, Hezonja averages 5.9 points per game and 35.4 percent from beyond the arc. That is at least slightly better than his season averages. The opportunities for such large playing time have been too infrequent since he left the rotation at the start of the season.

For Hezonja, his struggle this year has been gaining trust. He put in the work this summer to improve and get into shape — Hezonja said he was outrunning everybody after playing in the Olympics when he returned to Orlando. And he has continued to keep his body in peak shape.

Translating that to the basketball court and showing his value has been the tricky part for him. And for a young player — just as it is for fans — patience is the biggest thing to learn for his development. The moments for Hezonja to shine and prove himself have been few this season.

And now he has to figure out how to get his rhythm back. And now with opportunity, Hezonja hopes that patience pays off.

“For me, it was super hard because . . . I want it all,” Hezonja said. “It was really hard for me personally to be patient like that. it’s working. At the beginning, I don’t trust you. But they have been around for a while. they know what they are saying. They are not saying that because they don’t like me, it is just to make you better. It takes time. As time goes by you realize you’ve got to be like that.”

Hezonja has shown more flashes of what made him the fifth overall pick in some of his recent play. But they are still flashes. He admitted frustration he could not translate things he could do in practice to games.

But he knows they are coming. Hezonja said he is trying to reintegrate himself back slowly, gaining more and more confidence with each game rep and opportunity.

Against the New Orleans Pelicans on Wednesday, Hezonja looked his most confident on offense in a while. He shot confidently and helped move the ball. He scored eight points on on 3-for-5 shooting, making both 3-pointers he took. He added five rebounds for good measure.

It is clear Hezonja is getting more comfortable. Perhaps this opportunity is coming at the best time for him to succeed and thrive. Only time will tell.

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