clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Mario Hezonja's legendary confidence isn't gone. It's just hibernating

It's been a rougher rookie year than Mario Hezonja hoped to have, but he's not changing his persona.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

DALLAS -- Mario Hezonja can't figure out the right corner.

At Orlando's morning shootaround in Dallas last week, most of the Magic players have already scattered, icing knees or crashing on the chairs surrounding the court. Not Hezonja. He's shooting around the arc, making five consecutive shots at each spot, progressing to the final corner in a matter of minutes. But whether it's a lack of concentration or bad luck, something's holding him up there.

"Noooo," he yells, only half-jokingly, when a shot rims out after four straight makes.

The fifth-overall pick by the Orlando Magic in last year's draft, Hezonja entered the league known as a gifted scorer, symbolized by his picture-perfect jump shot. But he was known for something else, too: bravado bordering on arrogance. To sum it up in a quote, recall the time he was asked whether he'd go and see Lionel Messi play, to which he responded, "Let Messi come see me."

But swagger goes nowhere under Scott Skiles, the head coach who has been running a strict meritocracy in his first year with the Magic. Given that, it's no wonder that Hezonja has only played more than 20 minutes in 16 of his 58 games this year. With Orlando still in a playoff race and the guard rotation already crowded with Victor Oladipo, Elfrid Payton, Evan Fournier and the recently added Brandon Jennings, Hezonja has to earn every minute.

This held true even in last week's game against Dallas, where Hezonja was elevated into the starting lineup when Fournier went down with an injury. Hezonja only played 16 minutes and didn't reappear after getting yanked early in the second half.

"They were going right at him and pretty much scoring every time," Skiles said after the game. "Then he came out in the third and I felt like he took a couple suspect shots."

The Croatian youngster is playing fewer minutes this year than he did with FC Barcelona last year, despite longer games in the NBA. His offensive skills are good but developing, while his product on the defensive end is a work in progress. Skiles is a demanding coach. As the four players selected above him in last year's draft -- Karl-Anthony Towns, D'Angelo Russell, Jahlil Okafor and Kristaps Porzingis -- all play huge roles for their respective teams, Hezonja has been forced to accept a nondescript bench gig for a team eight games below .500.

For a player who said he "never had respect to anybody on a basketball court" and insisted the greatest living soccer player come watch him, this season has been humbling. But it has also helped him let go of his individuality and further embrace the team concept, too.

"I didn't really have any expectations [coming in]. I was just trying to get better every day," Hezonja told SB Nation. "[My team] and I individually have proved a lot. In the beginning, it was strange for media, for people outside of basketball, but now you can see we improved a lot."

Notice how the personal pronouns turn plural, despite being asked about his own expectations for this season. It's a more mature answer, one that may not have come a year ago at this time, when Hezonja took every chance he got to showboat on the fast break or animatedly celebrate a made three-pointer.

The bravado isn't gone. When Dewayne Dedmon cracked a joke at his expense, Hezonja's response is an emphatic, "You gonna do me like that, bro!?" On the court at shootaround and in the locker room before playing Dallas, Hezonja has a loud presence. A couple years ago, before the Magic's core was in place, Hezonja might have been a starter soaking up 35 minutes a night. But Hezonja realizes things in Orlando have changed.

"EP (Elfrid Payton) and Victor (Oladipo) were thrown in the fire as soon as they came, but it's a different situation now that it's a push for the playoffs. We really, really needs the wins," Hezonja said.

The slower burn may help Hezonja, who is technically deficient, especially on defense. It's the little things, Skiles said, like his feet being staggered instead of parallel, which makes it easier to quickly reverse directions when chasing players around screens.

"If you're driving your parents' car, if your parents buy you your first car, you tend to not take as good care of that as the one you earn with your own money," Skiles said. "That's human nature. Hopefully that will apply to him and he'll understand that he'll have to earn it, and then it becomes important to you. He's been resistant to nothing. He's easy to coach, easy to deal with, working hard."

Hezonja credits Payton and Oladipo for this, too. There's no right or wrong way for rookies, Oladipo said, who averaged 31 minutes his rookie year.

"Everybody's path is different," Oladipo told SB Nation. "Everybody isn't going to be treated the same way based on coaches, different positions people are in. I had to go in and do what I do, had to play hard, learn on the fly, still learning right now, and so is he. It's a process for everybody. You've just got to be patient."

One game after his dud against the Mavericks, Hezonja started again and set career highs with 21 points and 37 minutes played. The "things he does already at an NBA level," as Skiles said, stand out, whether it's his quick-trigger three-point stroke or a smooth spin in the lane for a bucket.

It all comes back to the Dallas floor at shootaround, back to that right corner. Three minutes in, then four, then five, and Hezonja's still shooting. At this point, he's the last Magic player on the floor. Finally, Hezonja gets serious -- one, two, three, now four straight makes, finally five. He lets out a celebratory yell and sprints straight off the floor, back into the visiting locker room.

Even if it hasn't shown up on the court yet, the bravado's still there. You'll see it soon.

* * *

2015 Class: NBA rookies imitate Kobe, LeBron and more stars

Be sure to subscribe to SB Nation's YouTube channel for highlight videos, features, analysis and more