The statline on Tuesday night was very good if not eye-popping. Still, Mario Hezonja showed that he’s never looked more at home than with Real Madrid in Euroleague Basketball
It’s been quite the rollercoaster of a career for Mario Hezonja. Picked ahead of Kristaps Porzingis in the same NBA draft class, he has taken a long and winding road. Finally, with Real Madrid the kings of Euroleague Basketball, he looks at home.
This is his life now
Let’s start with the stat line. Mario Hezonja logged 16 points on 5 of 8 shooting with 5 assists, 5 rebounds, 1 steal, and 1 block in victory over Maccabi Tel Aviv. All of this in 26 minutes and shockingly in line with his season averages.
With Real Madrid, Hezonja gets to play with the most loaded roster in living memory of Euroleague Basketball. They are coasting to first overall seed in the playoffs. The number of shot attempts seems low but in the flow of play it reflects what Hezonja likes.
When Mario Hezonja wants the ball, he gets it more often than not. When Super Mario wants to play off the ball, he can. There are so many options around him as both shooters and creators that he can be picky. This is the Goldilocks spot for a man who has long been in search of the right fit.
Before we all went wild over Luka Doncic, Mario Hezonja held the spot of next hot young Euro. I first saw him playing at the ANGT in London (although it may have been a Nike event then) in 2013. He looked largely disinterested as his Barcelona team got to the final but he was already part of the senior side.
With the first team, he never really gelled with what Xavi Pascual wanted. Still, Hezonja found ways to shine and hopes were high for him going to the NBA. He was the fifth overall pick and that was as good as it got.
The statlines for his NBA career of those of just another body. He never hit double digit points per season. He never got starter minutes. In short, he was never trusted to be the key piece for anybody. There were memorable moments, just rarely for anything basketball related. Hezonja is probably best remembered by NBA fans for stepping over Giannis Antetokounmpo, and not the dunk that preceded it.
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Super Mario comes home
Everything about Mario Hezonja’s game looked suited to the NBA style more than Euroleague Basketball. Even with the comparative drop in talent level, this would still require an adjustment.
The concern was that the NBA would have been a humbling experience for Hezonja. The last thing any basketball team needs is that man being humble. Everything about his game comes from extraordinary confidence. Even a smidgen of humility could ruin him.
Fortunately at Panathinaikos and Unics Kazan, there was never any fear of that. Those teams signed Mario Hezonja to be the guy. That was fine but it came with a catch. He couldn’t conduct the way he wanted to. While the bowl in the NBA was too cold for him. The one at these stops was too hot.
This bowl is just right
Due to Unics leaving Euroleague Basketball as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Hezonja had a chance to find a new home. It was always likely that he would end up with a contender but Hezonja hit the stylistic jackpot with Real Madrid.
This is a team loaded with guys that have been in the NBA but didn’t last. He wouldn’t need to check his ego at the door nor would he need to force it on anyone. It was also one with an abundance of talent. In his first season, Mario Hezonja became a Euroleague Basketball champion.
Now he’s in a groove that looks so good. He’s neither the kid nor the old head. This is a player in his prime that can work around the other talent with him. This also suits him increasing his defensive workrate. Hezonja getting to do more off ball work offensively has improved his court vision. The Real Madrid version of Mario Hezonja is exactly what he needs to be.
The next step?
Mario Hezonja is in an unusual spot. His original two year deal with Real Madrid is due to expire this summer. At that stage, he’ll be 29 and in his prime. Real will certainly make an effort to keep him but it also won’t break its own salary policies to do so.
There will be no shortage of suitors across Euroleague Basketball for his services. Added to that, there remains the lure of the NBA. I feel safe discounting China or Japan right now, he wouldn’t get the off the ball style he wants in either.
Would an NBA team take a gamble on him at a price he considers acceptable? It’s hard to say but entirely plausible. Whether that’s what he wants however is another story entirely. Hezonja might well have found the best situation for him to play his best basketball right where he is.
Right now, he just wants to collect some more trophies. After more than a decade chasing individual growth as a pro, most of it has come in a situation where his team is winning.