By John Denton
Oct. 9, 2017
DALLAS – Mario Hezonja’s two-year stint in the NBA has been, at times, rocky with his inability to earn consistent playing time, but it has never once damaged the Orlando Magic guard/forward’s confidence.
Sometimes, Hezonja’s overflowing confidence even works against him, head coach Frank Vogel said.
“He still looks comfortable – maybe too comfortable at times – and maybe we need to reign him back a little in terms of (shot selection),’’ Vogel said with a chuckle. “He’s taking good shots and it’s not about how well he shoots it, but recognizing the right shots. When you guy with a talent and the right approach, he’s going to have success and that’s where he is.’’
Hezonja, 22, seems to have carved out a solid role in the Magic’s rotation this preseason, anchoring the second unit and playing 17 minutes a night in the first three exhibition games. He’s done so despite once again struggling with his shot, making just eight of 26 field goals (30.8 percent) and only one of 12 3-pointers. He has been able to average 8.0 points, 1.3 rebounds and 1.3 assists a game by being active in attacking the rim and making plays in transition.
Hezonja will get another chance to cement his spot in the rotation tonight when the Magic (2-1) face the Mavericks (2-1) in Dallas at American Airlines Center. Tipoff is just after 8:30 p.m. E.T. and there is no local television in Central Florida. (Fox Sports Southwest is televising the game, so it should be available on NBA League Pass). Radio coverage will be on the Magic Radio Network (AM 580 – WDBO in Orlando).
Orlando added a 20th player to its roster on Monday when it inked point guard Rodney Purvis to a make-good contract. In 137 career college games at UConn and North Carolina State, the 6-foot-4 Purvis averaged 11.6 points, 3.0 rebounds and 1.8 assists. He will most likely spend this season with the Lakeland Magic of the G League.
Hezonja, the fifth overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, has struggled to find his niche on the Magic in his first two seasons. He played 79 games (including nine starts) as a rookie and showed signs of promise, but the head coaching change from Scott Skiles to Vogel seemed to set him back last season. After averaging 6.1 points on 43.3 percent shooting and 34.9 percent accuracy from 3-point range, Hezonja played only 65 games and 14.8 minutes a game last season. A balky shot (35.5 percent from the floor and 29.9 percent from 3-point range) hurt his effectiveness and Vogel experimented with him as a power forward in addition to playing some on the wings.
Hezonja stayed in America most of the offseason in hopes of working on his game so that he would be much improved by the start of training camp. However, a troublesome knee injury limited how much time he could spend on the court, and it could have something to do with how poorly he’s shot the ball this preseason, Vogel said. Hezonja said handling the pain in his knee is still an ongoing process.
“A little bit (painful), still, but better,’’ he said recently. “It’s better than when I was in L.A. (during the summer), better than when I left L.A., and better than scrimmage (before training camp). I’m happy about it, but I just can’t jump as I know that I can. I’m still working on the taking off phase and the landing phase, but it’s getting there. I just have to keep getting better from there.’’
Hezonja said being able to play for Vogel a second consecutive year has been a big boon for him this preseason. He is familiar with the offensive and defensive systems and he knows fully what is expected from him by the coaching staff.
“Trust-wise it’s a lot different now because since I’ve been here I’ve (played) five different positions, including the bench,’’ Hezonja said to how much coaches have experimented with him all over the floor. “It’s been weird because I’ve been all over the place and I didn’t always know (fully) what I was doing or where my teammates were, so it was confusion. I’m still at (shooting guard, small forward and power forward), but it’s more natural and there’s trust now there with the relationship between me and Frank.
“It’s easy for me to be confident individually, but you still need that confidence from the coach,’’ he added. “(The continuity) is a great thing because (Vogel) knows us now. As he says, we are building from where we ended last year and I really like that.’’
Magic point guard Elfrid Payton, Hezonja’s best friend on the team, likes how aggressive and active the Croatian wing player has been this preseason. Payton and Hezonja have always leaned on one another for support during their time together in the NBA.
“I’m just trying to be a big brother to him and sometimes I have to give him that tough love,’’ Payton said. “I don’t always like to do it, but you’ve got to have those conversations. Pat him on the back when he needs it and encourage him.
“He’s needs to be aggressive because in that second unit we need him to score and have some shooting there along with Jonathon Simmons,’’ Payton added. “J-Simms is going to get into the paint, so we need somebody like Mario to spread the floor and knock down shots. He’s confident and he’s never lacking that, but he’s got to continue to work.’’
Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.