By Rob Scott / @robscott33
Mario Hezonja is an enigma. Mario Hezonja has been an NBA prospect since the age of 15. Mario Hezonja is crazy. Mario Hezonja is… a mystery? No, he isn’t.
One NBA GM told me Mario Hezonja reminded him of a "smaller Peja Stojakovic". 6-8 wing is a mystery, but could go as high as 6th overall.
— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) June 19, 2015
That tweet went out just after 7pm, Central European Team on 19th June. A couple of hours later, Hezonja had dropped five threes on Real Madrid in Game One of the ACB Finals. The point isn’t so much that he wasn’t a mystery after that, it was where the hell have you been if you thought he was a mystery at all?
That it came in the same Draft-news-cycle as Kristaps Porzingis’ one-on-zero workout in a Las Vegas gym was a delicious irony. If only young Mario had drilled three after three from NBA range in front of a bunch of NBA executives and zero defenders?
Of course, whatever the media narrative, the number of significant NBA decision makers who couldn’t give you a detailed breakdown of his (and Porzingis’) game is probably exactly the same as the number of guys who maybe aren’t that great at their jobs. A very low number.
As Fran Fraschilla said: his Game One explosion, less than a week before the draft, won’t have made any difference to teams who have already scouted him. Those that haven’t bothered must be living in the dark ages.
If he drops past number five, it’s either a sign of rampant American exceptionalism or dereliction of scouting duty. If he drops to the late lottery because he’s too busy playing the ACB finals to do one-on-zero workouts then the NBA is officially insane.
Before anyone thinks this is an overreaction, like a middling prospect who has a good NCAA tournament game, this isn’t the first time this has happened. There were the two Euroleague games in February and April when he also drained five threes against Madrid. There’s the eight-triple ACB game against Manresa and the 16 points in 21 minutes against Joventut. In between those stochastic outbursts we may have been surviving on scraps - an audacious dunk here, a chasedown block here- but what he has done in the time available is more than enough to rate him alongside any potential top pick.
Assuming you don’t work in an NBA front office and haven’t parsed ACB and Euroleague boxscores, watched highlights or followed FIBA youth tournaments the past few years, take this as your comfortable starting point: The first time he steps onto an NBA court, he’ll already be one of the best shooters in the league.
His jumpshot makes him NBA ready from day one, and shooting makes everything about building a successful basketball team a whole lot easier. Right from the off, he will absolutely drain pull up threes, swish them off screens and punish help from the corner as well as any prospect in the past few years. At 6’8″ and with plenty of elevation, there are few wings NBA wings who could challenge that release. Unscientifically, I can tell you that his threes rarely even disturb the net save for a gentle ripple, like a cat purring.
I’m saying this not because I think it’s the only asset he has - far from it - but to tell you that he’s not a project who needs more time to marinade in Europe. His game will develop over the next few years, like any great 20-year old player, but while he’s straightening out the kinks, you can already bank on him to get buckets.
He will also absolutely, positively yam on someone in his NBA rookie season then stare them down. ‘NBA Twitter’ is going to explode.
Sure, he has a bit of tunnel vision on his drives but he’s a wing not a point guard and that feels like nit picking at this point. He drives to score, and with the extra space on the NBA court, he will definitely do it in a multitude of ways. Put him on a team that pushes the ball in transition and he’ll be devastating in the open floor.
The most commonly voiced doubts as to his value as a high draft pick are lack of playing time, defense and attitude. They are all interwoven, and it’s tough to separate them into discreet issues.
It wasn’t some kind of rigid ‘seniority’ protocol that made him disappear from the rotation for large parts of the season, it was the competition at his position and the fact that like most 20-year-olds, he got lost on defense a lot. He earned the time he got, and he probably deserved a little more.
At this level, playing on a team that was expected to win the toughest competitions in Europe, and with a coach who has to overcome every instinct in his body to play a guy who struggles defensively, that’s pretty great. In fact, no, it’s downright miraculous.
It’s true that his defense still needs work. He really needs to learn how to chase guys round screens and he also needs to make consistent effort, although since we last looked at this back in December, he has at least dialled up the intensity if not the results.
These occasional lapses in defensive effort are probably borne out of frustration that he can’t affect the play. That’s something that should come with maturity. His post defense is pretty good because that’s a straight-up man-on-man battle and he can use his body and strength. It’s making defensive reads and rotations that he struggles with.
But guess what? Young players need reps to make defensive reads at the speed of the ACB and NBA game. Instincts are one thing but a mediocre natural defender can be drilled into an average one, not just through instruction but through repetition in real situations. One thing he hasn’t had this year is consistent and lengthy playing time.
Where some people seem to be confused is how to evaluate Hezonja’s production, his minutes and his role on this Barcelona team. It bears repeating that this isn’t a development squad. Pascual has seen his offensive eruptions just like everyone else, so there must be something else he doesn’t like about Mario’s game, or so the assumption goes. It makes a certain amount of sense, but when his offense is the only thing keeping his team afloat in a Finals game, maybe Pascual’s reluctance to keep him in is the big mystery?
Ignore the warning label
What about his supposed attitude problem? The fact that this warning label continues to stick could be a combination of a lack of opportunity to communicate through the English-speaking media, write-ups fuelled on Euro-caution and an unwitting conflation of his limited minutes into a convenient story.
Despite the defensive issues, questions need to be asked about Pascual’s usage of Hezonja, particularly in these ACB finals. Barça took a 20-point beating in Game Two, going down 100-80 in Madrid. Hezonja played just 15 minutes, taking three shots. Juan Carlos Navarro, visibly off the pace in Game 1 didn’t dress, but Edwin Jackson played 21 minutes.
This has been a weird season for Pascual’s wing rotation - the club just took Jackson, at that point in December the French league’s leading scorer, as a two-month office temp. Although they signed him until the end of the season, once Navarro came back from injury in February, they barely used him. Alex Abrines has been in favour for most of this year, but played three minutes in Game One of the finals, 16 in Game Two. Just know that Hezonja isn’t the only player to have suffered through Xavi Pascual’s indecision over who fills the wing spots in his rotation.
Scouts and writers have parsed more or less each and every Hezonja possession looking for clues and evidence of how good he might be. The one thing a confident process of talent evaluation needs is repetition, but in Mario’s case that has to be put to one side.
The magnitude of what he has sporadically displayed this season, in addition to his dominance of FIBA youth tournaments from an early age, should be more than enough to compensate for its lack of volume. Assuming that since he didn’t play in some games, and sparingly in others, he lacks the talent or or ability to play at this level would be completely off-base.
Mario Hezonja will remain a draft prospect for the next two days, then the focus will be on how he fits into whichever team called his name. He won’t be a ‘mystery’ much longer because he never really was one.