On the eve of the ACB finals and just a week before the 2015 NBA Draft, BallinEurope takes a deep look at the Croatian sensation Mario Hezonja
Mario Hezonja has been on the NBA radar a long time. The FC Barcelona swingman has been talked up since he was 14 as a serious prospect. Now, 5 years later, he has finally declared for the NBA Draft. With such a long run of attention comes expectation. Flaws can get glossed over or magnified, upside can be wildly misinterpreted. Essentially, when a player is talked about for this long it’s easy to lose sight of what he can actually do on the court.
One of Hezonja’s first real steps into the global limelight against serious competition came at the Nike Invitational Junior Tournament (NIJT) in London back in 2013. At the time, Hezonja was already logging minutes at adult level with Barcelona’s B side and the jump down to junior competition seemed to affect his concentration. There were sparks but he wasn’t playing alongside the same level of mature talent he had become used to working with. Despite Barcelona making it to the final their heavy defeat at the hands of Badalona came with a poor display by Hezonja. Through the group stages he did enough to get the job done but in the final he looked largely disinterested. Still there was one spark, a break and dunk up the left wing that showed this was a kid with the body to do something special.
Rob Scott, of Euroleague Adventures, also witnessed Hezonja’s uninspiring performance at the competition. Scott was disappointed at the time but has been impressed with the Croatian’s development since.
“It was only a year since I’d seen Dario Saric show off every great aspect of his game in the same tournament in Istanbul, so Mario’s no-show was something of a let down. It means absolutely nothing for his draft prospects though,” Scott told BallinEurope.
“The thing that stands out the most is his jumpshot. It’s just so smooth, with a textbook trajectory, and he can get it off over anyone, from deep range. Nobody would have been comparing him to Klay Thompson at the NIJT, that’s for sure,” said Scott.
Read Sam Chadwick’s 2015 NBA draft profile of Mario Hezonja
Hezonja is now in his second season with Barcelona’s first team. The Blaugrana are one of the top sides in Europe. Tomorrow will see them play in the Spanish finals for the ninth straight year while the club, which plays in the shadow of the Camp Nou, has reached the Euroleague Final Four in 5 of the last 7 seasons including lifting the championship in 2010. There is hardly a higher level short of the NBA Hezonja could reach and after only cameo appearances last year he’s starting to get enough minutes to get noticed and, unquestionably, build his confidence.
“He wouldn’t even be getting opportunities to perform at a team like Barcelona if he didn’t have prodigious talent and the ability to use it. He drained five threes against [Real] Madrid twice – every game matters but those matter a lot,” said Scott.
“I’m a huge Mario booster, particularly since he started trying on defense. If he spent the last year in college, he’d be in the running for the number one pick. He thinks so anyway, and I agree.”
While Hezonja’s presence and somewhat increased role with Barcelona has been a boon to his confidence, he hasn’t been the go-to guy for Barcelona coach Xavi Pascual this year. Austin Green of Los Crossovers, an American journalist based in Spain who has seen a lot of Hezonja in person, said the issue of Hezonja’s usage is complicated.
“Basketball is like most skills in life: more reps will increase your proficiency. When you’re in more live-action scenarios, you make mistakes you can later learn from. You improve your awareness, your ability to read certain situations and react to them in the most effective way. You pick up subtle nuances that you would probably never notice otherwise,” said Green.
“So, in that sense, Mario’s bench-bound season was probably not great for his development but in the grand scheme of his career and his ability to succeed as an NBA player, I doubt it will have much of an impact,” he said.
“He struggles with his defensive awareness. He gets caught ball-watching. He has trouble chasing guys around screens. He probably could have improved more in those areas with more playing time, but he just turned 20 in February — most 19 and 20-year-olds have similar problems defensively. He’s super athletic and maniacally competitive. He’ll be just fine.”
While much is made of Hezonja’s attitude, Green said the reason he is struggling to get more minutes at Barcelona is far more about what Pascual needs to get from his team than anything unique to the Croatian although there is definitely an element of animosity.
“Basically, Hezonja is a young kid on an elite team that’s very deep at his positions (2 and 3). He wasn’t getting much playing time early in the season, then Barca had some injury problems and he started playing 20+ minutes per game. The injured guys returned, and Hezonja’s minutes went back down,” said Green,
“I think he deserved more playing time than he received this season, but Xavi Pascual is a defensive-minded coach — if you’re causing issues on that end and you have a brash attitude like Mario, you’re probably not going to play much,” he said.
“Now, Pascual benching him when he knew NBA scouts were coming is just immature bullshit on his part, and it probably prevented his team from improving as much as it could have throughout the season. But basketball can be an intense profession. Sometimes strong personalities clash and cooler heads don’t always prevail.”
Through Euroleague play we saw glimpses of why so many are salivating over the young man but also why there is pause for caution. In a Top 16 defeat away to Maccabi Tel Aviv, Hezonja was essentially running a one-man comeback despite logging just 16 minutes on the floor. Once more it was his athleticism driving in from the left that brought fire to a tired looking Barca side that night but he still struggled with his decision making. His explosions from deep against Real Madrid twice in Top 16 play, making 5 threes on each occasion, showed he could deliver against top tier opposition albeit with the latter in a dead rubber.
It was his most recent outing that told his story to date best. Barcelona were struggling in a decisive playoff game with Unicaja Malaga when Hezonja entered. In just 6.39 on the floor, Hezonja scored 8 points on 3 of 4 shooting, grabbed 2 rebounds while also fitting in enough time to pick up 3 fouls. For all the potential frustrations, Green remains convinced of Hezonja’s potential in the NBA.
“He’s a potential All-Star, a two-way monster on the wing who can rain threes, feast on fast break opportunities and defend multiple positions. Unless you’re bringing some very crisp defensive rotations, you can’t help off of him around the arc. His shot is gorgeous. He’s very good at sensing opportunities to dive backdoor along the baseline for dunks. He’s not the best ball-handler, but he can explode past people and finish at the rim,” said Green.
“I think he’s a good passer but his decision-making isn’t the greatest. Sometimes he opts for the flashy play when a simple one will do, and sometimes he keeps the ball for himself when he should feed a teammate. He still needs to work on his defense. He has the frame and athleticism to be an elite defender but it’ll take some time. As I mentioned above, there are some awareness issues and he sometimes closes out in a poor stance (standing too high), which allows ball-handlers to collapse the defense with dribble-penetration,” he said.
“I saw him in person when he tried to defend Fede Van Lacke, the savviest of veterans, and it was a nightmare for Mario. He had to chase a small, quick and crafty guy around a gauntlet of screens and he got roasted all night. But that happens to everyone from time to time. I have high hopes for him on that end.”
Green thinks Hezonja will need to check some aspects of his personality, at least early in his career, if he is going to avoid a rocky start.
“He’s going to be an immediate target of the referees if he doesn’t dial back the post-whistle crying. His theatrics get old quickly and it negatively impacts how he is officiated later in the game. No one is going to give him a 50-50 call if he reacts so demonstrably every time he picks up a foul. I think that occasionally his body language is simply frustration at himself and not the officials, but sometimes he needs to just chill out. Don’t throw your arms up in disgust. Just keep your mouth shut, raise your hand, and play better defense,” said Green.
“In general, I love Mario. I love his combination of shooting and athleticism. I love that he thinks he’s best player any time he steps on the floor, and that he will never be intimidated by the moment. I love his potential as a defender. I love that he throws some style on his fast break dunks — basketball is supposed to be fun, you might as well give the fans a show when you can. I love that he is insanely competitive. And even though his lack of playing time was frustrating, I love that he now has the extra motivation of shoving his NBA success down Xavi Pascaul’s throat,” he said.
“I am 100 per cent confident he would have averaged 20-25 PPG in college basketball, and that he would be a top-2 pick in this draft. Whoever gets him in that 5-10 range should be very happy (unless you’re George Karl and you have to deal with Super Mario and Boogie Cousins in one locker room…may God have mercy on his soul).”
The comparison with NCAA ball is one every Euro who eschews playing in the college ranks has to deal with. Comparing players up against such different types of opposition, not just the difference between playing against professionals or amateurs but also the styles, isn’t easy. One man who gets more experience than most looking at both college and European hoops is Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress. He spoke highly of how Hezonja handled himself against top tier talents.
No level of competition prepares you for the NBA as much as the Euroleague. Its simply the highest level you can find outside the NBA
He continued: “I think we saw that when given the opportunity he could be a real impact player at that level, and that’s at age 19/20. He’s only going to continue to improve. And we haven’t even talked about his personality. He’s got as much self-confidence as any player in the draft (and for good reason), and that’s often half the battle, is believing you can do it.”
That’s the other side to Hezonja’s attitude. Some coaches might not warm to him but the young man generally backs up his confidence. The only way Givony sees it being a negative is if he ends up in the wrong situation.
“If a team drafts him and asks him to come off the bench and play a minor role, that might be an issue. But considering where he’ll be drafted I think he will be fine,” said Givony.
At the time of Givony speaking to BiE, DraftExpress projected Hezonja to land at 8 where the Detroit Pistons have the pick. Hezonja has since moved up to 6, where the Sacramento Kings sit. Irrespective of the langing spot, Givony sees the Croatian fitting in fast and shaving off the rough edges to his game.
“He’s a guy that can fit into almost any style really. He can flat-out score, and in a lot of different ways. I think he’ll figure out how to be successful,” said Givony.
“I think he will become a little more well-rounded in the NBA. 60 per cent of his shots were threes this year, but on his career he’s under 50 per cent. Threes are worth more than twos, so if he becomes the lights out shooter we all think he will, you want him shooting a lot of threes, But with his athleticism, I think he’ll be able to create for himself as well. He wasn’t asked to do that for Barcelona.”
Come next Thursday night Hezonja knows he will hear his name called and with his buyout being renegotiated, he will likely make the jump quickly.