Mario Hezonja’s early pro basketball experiences slowing his growth

Mario Hezonja, Orlando Magic, Bojan Bogdanovic, Brooklyn Nets

Mar 29, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Orlando Magic guard Mario Hezonja (23) drives to the basket as Brooklyn Nets guard Bojan Bogdanovic (44) attempted to defend during the second quarter at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Mario Hezonja’s rookie season showed he still has a lot to learn. While other players seem racing ahead of him, Hezonja clearly still needs some seasoning.

Mario Hezonja has had a rough start to the 2017 season.

The Orlando Magic understood when they picked him with the fifth pick in the 2015 Draft out of Croatia that he was a promising prospect who would take some time to blossom into a full rotation player. They hoped he would still be able to provide the shooting the team needed to break through and continue to grow from there.

But his rookie season showed Hezonja still has a lot to learn both on the defensive and the offensive end. The results did not come immediately.

Hezonja has shown some more confidence and signs of life early in his sophomore year. But it is hard not to look at the success so far from Dario Saric — both at the Olympics and with the Philadelphia 76ers — and wonder why.

The way Hezonja developed as a young player in Spain has a lot to do with their different development tracks.

Hezonja did not play too much in Europe. This is why he is, more or less, starting from scratch as a basketball player.

That differs from Dario Saric. The Philadelphia 76ers’ Croatian power forward matured on every basketball team he played in. He established his role on the teams he played, eclipsed those teams, and then entered the NBA.

Saric’s plan to grow as a player is paying off. The Magic should learn from this. Sometimes waiting on a players stashed overseas makes sense.

It worked for Hezonja’s countrymen — Dario Saric and Bojan Bogdanovic. Hezonja’s early NBA struggles likely have to do with his upbringing in basketball.

Patience pays off, and developing for a young player comes easily if he is playing serious minutes, even in a weaker league. Hezonja’s relative inexperience entering the league certainly played a role in the slow start to his career.

Mario Hezonja, Croatia, Michael Gbinije, Nigeria, Olympics

Aug 13, 2016; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Croatia shooting guard Mario Hezonja (8) is defended by Nigeria guard Michael Gbinije (12) during the men’s preliminary game in the Rio 2016 Summer Olympic Games at Carioca Arena 1. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Mario Hezonja in Europe

Entering the Draft, Hezonja was hailed as one the top European talents for a number of years. Hezonja signed a three-year deal with Barcelona when he was only 17. He was a can’t-miss talent.

Even though he was a top talent and dominated the international tournaments with ease, mostly relying on his athleticism, Hezonja never really saw a lot of minutes.

Per Game Table
Season League(s) G GS MP FG FGA FG% 3P 3PA 3P% 2P 2PA 2P% eFG% FT FTA FT% ORB DRB TRB AST STL BLK TOV PF PTS
93 12.8 1.8 3.9 .452 0.8 2.1 .377 1.0 1.8 .542 .554 0.5 0.6 .796 0.3 1.5 1.8 1.0 0.5 0.1 0.9 1.4 4.8
2012-13 Liga ACB, Euroleague 5 5.6 0.4 1.4 .286 0.0 0.0 0.4 1.4 .286 .286 0.2 0.4 .500 0.2 0.8 1.0 0.0 0.2 0.0 0.6 0.8 1.0
2013-14 Liga ACB, Euroleague 34 9.7 1.4 3.1 .452 0.5 1.4 .370 0.9 1.7 .517 .534 0.6 0.6 .864 0.1 1.5 1.6 0.8 0.2 0.1 0.5 1.0 3.8
2014-15 Liga ACB, Euroleague 54 15.4 2.2 4.7 .457 1.1 2.8 .379 1.1 1.9 .573 .570 0.4 0.6 .767 0.4 1.5 2.0 1.2 0.6 0.1 1.1 1.8 5.8

Hezonja mostly shot threes and scored in transition, which has produced a really solid highlight reel. But he was never the focal point of the offense, as the team knew he was leaving for the NBA.

When Hezonja entered the league, he did have a NBA-ready body, but not a lot of senior basketball under his belt.

His experience with Croatian national team was valuable. But Hezonja never really asserted himself.

At Eurobasket 2015, played in Croatia, he scored 6.7 points per game on 27.3 percent from beyond the arc (at almost four shots per game). He improved his play in the 2016 Olympics (as did the whole Croatian team), where he scored 9.0 points per game on 50 percent shooting from beyond the arc (at exactly four shots per game). This was good enough for 3rd in the whole tournament in 3-point percentage.

Dario Saric, Orlando Magic

Jun 26, 2014; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Dario Saric (Croatia) shakes hands with NBA commissioner Adam Silver after being selected as the number twelve overall pick to the Orlando Magic in the 2014 NBA Draft at the Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Dario Saric and his path to NBA

Another Croatian, Dario Saric, had an entirely different path to the NBA.

Saric played for Cibona Zagreb in 2013 and 2014. At 19 years old, he led Cibona to the ABA League Championship. He was also named the MVP and Final Four MVP for one of the top leagues in the world.

In the 2014 Draft, he was drafted by the Orlando Magic and immediately sent to Philadelphia. Saric told the public he was not yet leaving for the NBA, and would probably come over in couple of years.

Saric used those years to develop and become a key piece of Anadolu Efes, a Turkish powerhouse.

Per Game Table
Season League(s) G GS MP FG FGA FG% 3P 3PA 3P% 2P 2PA 2P% eFG% FT FTA FT% ORB DRB TRB AST STL BLK TOV PF PTS
66 24.3 3.8 8.2 .461 0.8 2.3 .344 3.0 5.8 .508 .510 2.1 2.7 .783 1.7 4.5 6.3 1.9 0.7 0.5 2.0 2.3 10.4
2011-12 Euroleague 4 15.0 0.8 3.8 .200 0.3 1.5 .167 0.5 2.3 .222 .233 0.3 0.5 .500 1.3 3.3 4.5 0.5 0.3 0.3 3.0 1.5 2.0
2012-13 Eurocup 1 17.0 2.0 6.0 .333 0.0 1.0 .000 2.0 5.0 .400 .333 0.0 0.0 1.0 3.0 4.0 2.0 0.0 0.0 3.0 4.0 4.0
2013-14 Eurocup 10 32.8 5.0 10.3 .485 0.4 1.3 .308 4.6 9.0 .511 .505 2.5 3.2 .781 2.9 5.4 8.3 2.7 1.0 0.9 3.1 2.7 12.9
2014-15 Euroleague 27 24.4 3.4 7.8 .433 0.7 2.3 .306 2.7 5.5 .486 .479 2.4 3.4 .707 1.6 4.7 6.4 2.3 0.7 0.4 1.9 2.0 9.9
2015-16 Euroleague 24 22.5 4.3 8.6 .500 1.2 3.0 .403 3.1 5.6 .552 .570 1.9 2.0 .939 1.5 4.3 5.8 1.5 0.5 0.5 1.5 2.5 11.7

The two teammates from the national team met in Philadelphia last week, with Saric playing his best game of the year. He scored 21 points on 3-for-3 shooting from beyond the arc. Hezonja did not have a good game, scoring only two points on four shots.

The difference between the two in their comfort level and abilities on the floor could not be more stark.

Saric is only 22 now, but is an experienced player already. He is one of the leaders of the Croatian national team, and has led them to the quarterfinals of the Olympics. Hezonja plays only a small number of minutes for the Croatian team, and is certainly not the primary, or the secondary option.

The Saric gamble with staying in Europe has paid off. He came to the league with natural progression in his career. He was the leader in Cibona, and he was a key player in of the best European clubs, all the while being a key contributor for the Croatian national team.

It was like going back to college to improve on certain skills before taking the leap to the NBA rather than going one and done. Some players are ready for that leap. Saric recognized he was not and improved in the meantime.

Mario Hezonja, Orlando Magic, James Ennis, Memphis Grizzlies

Oct 3, 2016; Memphis, TN, USA; Orlando Magic guard Mario Hezonja (8) shoots over Memphis Grizzlies forward James Ennis (8) during the first quarter at FedExForum. Mandatory Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Key Word for Mario: Patience

Mario Hezonja did not come to the league with this experience. His only weapons were his 3-point shot and athleticism. But lacking playing time means he still needed to adapt to NBA basketball, while not even having proper European experience.

He went from playing 15 minutes per game for Barcelona to playing 18 minutes per game for Orlando. That is a bigger leap than the added three minutes per game might suggest.

And being the fifth pick comes with a lot of expectations.

After a bad start to the season, he is showing signs of life: he scored nine points in a win against the Wizards, eight of which came in the fourth quarter. One of the key plays was this steal and coast-to-coast slam:

The verdict is simple though. Mario Hezonja will need more time and patience to adapt to the NBA.

It is up to coach Frank Vogel to balance his playing time carefully while steering him into the right direction. Playing him in fourth quarters certainly helps. Returning to him after making mistakes helps too. Hezonja needs his coach’s faith.

It is up to the Magic to perhaps think differently when drafting Euro players: sometimes draft and stash does work — despite the scars from the Fran Vazquez pick. It is better to think long term.

The Magic will need to continue to think long term and remain patient with Hezonja even as his countrymen they passed up seems ready to make a more immediate impact.

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