Orlando Magic: Mario Hezonja’s Last Stand

Mario Hezonja’s second season with the Orlando Magic has been a trying one. Inserted back into the starting lineup, this may be his last chance to impress.

The Orlando Magic remained quiet over the trade deadline period at a time when many thought they would be making roster moves.

Sending Serge Ibaka to the Toronto Raptors for Terrence Ross before the All-Star break was as busy as it got for the team.

With their own pick in this summer’s draft, you’d be forgiven then for thinking they would be tanking for the rest of the season.

Not so, according to head coach Frank Vogel. In an interview with the Orlando Sentinel after the team met up after the break, he was in bullish mood about this team’s goals.

The Magic are not mathematically out of playoff contention yet, as they find themselves 6½ out of eighth place.

So it looks like the team will go down fighting and will do so with a newly committed desire to play more small ball lineups.

This new wrinkle in the rotation has created an opportunity for another player to stake his claim for more minutes.

Oct 12, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon (00) and guard Mario Hezonja (8) talk before the game against the San Antonio Spurs at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

That player is Mario Hezonja and it may be his last chance to impress in the pinstriped blue.

This may seem like a drastic proclamation; this is Hezonja’s second year in the league. He is also only 21 years old.

But he’s playing only 11.4 minutes per game this season, way down from the 17.9 he averaged as a rookie.

As you can imagine, his uninspiring numbers from year one have fallen even lower in his sophomore campaign, which does not inspire hope.

There’s more to Hezonja’s current predicament than the numbers, however, and to see him play for the Magic each night is to watch a guy whose confidence is shot.

This has led to the player falling into a vicious cycle, whereby he snatches at the limited opportunities he is given.

When Hezonja checks into a game, he tries too hard to impress in the limited run he’s trusted with.

Whether it’s hoisting up ill-advised jumpers or trying to take over an offensive play, there is no fluidity to his game.

Consider this, Hezonja was thought of as a potentially excellent offensive player when in Europe. The work was going to have to come on the defensive end.

In his rookie year, his offensive rating was minus-1.9. Bad, but not unexpected. This season, that number has fallen off a cliff and hit the depressing lows of minus-5.6.

Throughout his time in the league though, his defensive rating has hovered right around the minus-1.0 spot.

So it’s not that Hezonja lacks the work ethic to succeed in the league, he’s just stuck in an unfamiliar rut.

For a guy who came to the NBA with a reputation of having supreme confidence in himself, this has hurt his game badly.

It is also why this latest opportunity may be the last and it could have come at a really bad time for him.

The Magic are fed up with losing and even if rumors of a potential DeMarcus Cousins trade were over-exaggerated, the roster needs a shake up.

That’s likely to come this summer, when the team will have cap space and trade assets to make some moves or sign free agents.

While Hezonja is getting a chance to impress as a starter, his diminished role this season is concerning.

Even worse he’ll be coming to play some small-ball 4 minutes in place of Aaron Gordon, who is traditionally a power forward.

So not only is this opportunity an important one, it will likely coincide with playing in a more unfamiliar role.

All is not lost however, as Vogel has spoken about the need for the Magic to adapt with the times, and play a more small ball brand of basketball.

Hezonja can certainly help in this regard, being a 6’7″ shooter who will stretch the floor if deployed in this role.

While it’s exciting to think in this way, the optimism that the final third of the season can bring needs to be managed.

If Hezonja fails in this experiment, and in some ways you couldn’t blame him given that he’ll likely match up against bigger players, what then?

The flexibility he potentially gives them is great, but that is also assuming he is playing well. This season, that hasn’t been the case.

With general manager Rob Hennigan feeling more heat than ever, this summer has become a massive one for the team.

There’s guaranteed to be roster overhaul as the team goes through a mini rebuild. No player looks to be off limits in their pursuit to get back into the postseason.

If Hezonja has been marginalized as a small forward and if he’s unable to provide any help as a 4 in a small ball lineup, what then?

Which is why, despite his young age and clear potential, this moment is the biggest of Mario Hezonja’s young career.

Succeed and it gives his career a new lease of life in Orlando. His versatility has it’s uses, he just needs his confidence back so that we can see it nightly.

Fail and he could yet turn into one of the what-if stories in the NBA, especially with Vogel saying the team is not trying to tank.

It’s about improving now … and quickly. This is Hezonja’s chance to be reborn with this team, but will he be able to take it?

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