By John Denton
Nov. 1, 2017
MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Jeff Weltman, President of Basketball Operations for the Orlando Magic, has been consistent in saying that he wants to use this season as a time of evaluation and he hopes to leave the team’s options open in terms of future salary cap space.
With those thoughts in mind, the Magic let Tuesday’s deadline pass without picking up the fourth-year option on forward Mario Hezonja’s contract. Weltman and GM John Hammond will now use the rest of this season to evaluate the play of 22-year-old Hezonja, who will now become an unrestricted free agent on July 1. They used a similar tact with standout forward Aaron Gordon and point guard Elfrid Payton, who will be restricted free agents in July after failing to reach contract extensions with the Magic prior to the start of the regular season. Orlando will be able to match any contract offers those players receive if it so chooses to do so.
Hezonja, the No. 5 pick of the 2015 NBA Draft by former GM Rob Hennigan, said the lack of an extension will not change his outlook on the season or his hopes for a future with the Magic. He feels that his productivity has been restricted much of his first two years in the NBA because of a lack of playing time. In Orlando’s first seven games, Hezonja has appeared in six of them and has averaged 4.5 points on 50 percent shooting and 62.5 percent accuracy from 3-point range while playing 12.8 minutes a night. He is hopeful that his role will grow throughout the season so that he can show the Magic his full potential.
“This is not going to change anything and I’m still going to be working hard on my game and still coming with the same mentality to try and get even better,’’ said Hezonja, a native of Croatia who played professionally in Spain prior to arriving in the NBA. “I’m here to play and I didn’t come from home to here to watch. The goal for me is to play. I’ll do what Coach asks me to do, but I want to play. … I wish I had been playing in these three years so that this (contract extension) could be judged by my playing time. But this way, it looks a little weird, but it’s not going to change my mentality.’’
Hezonja has seen his playing time and production fall each of his three NBA season, going from 17.9 minutes and 6.1 points a game as a rookie in 2015-16 to 14.8 minutes and 4.9 points a game in 2016-17 to the current levels (12.8 minutes and 4.5 points) this season. Hezonja said the coaching change from Scott Skiles to Frank Vogel, a knee injury this past summer and seemingly constant position movement have been factors in his slow transition to the NBA, but he still has plenty of confidence in his abilities.
“It’s a little weird because I haven’t been playing for two years and it’s weird to judge the situation,’’ he said. “It was a difficult situation from the beginning. Maybe I did a tiny mistake in career. I just wish (the contract extension) was judged by playing time and then we’d be talking about a totally different story.
“I still remain with the confidence,’’ Hezonja added. “This is not going to change me as a person or player. I still want to be the best and I’m still going to be working as hard as anybody.’’
ISAAC’S INSTINCTS: Every game presents a learning lesson for Orlando Magic forward Jonathan Isaac and thus far the 20-year-old has picked up on a couple of things: The NBA is loaded with superstar players and rookies rarely – if ever – get the benefit of the doubt against them.
Isaac, the No. 6 pick in last June’s NBA Draft, satisfied a childhood dream on Monday in New Orleans when he faced off against Pelicans’ superstar forward Anthony Davis. The 6-foot-10, 252-pound Davis is one of the players that Isaac – 6-foot-10 and 210 pounds, himself – relates to because they have similar body types and project as prototypical power forwards because of their unique blend of size and athleticism.
“I remember watching him when I was in (high) school and where he is now after his progression, it’s crazy,’’ Isaac said of the 24-year-old Davis, who was the No. 1 pick of the 2012 NBA Draft. “What he’s been able to do with his body and his game – it was definitely a tough matchup, but I just tried to be as physical as possible. … (Being star struck), that’s late-night thoughts and after games, all the time I’m like, `I just played in a NBA game when I was just in (college) six months ago.’’’
Isaac’s first half on Monday was a big challenge as Davis went at him repeatedly and drew three quick fouls on the rookie. Isaac was much better after halftime, recording a big blocked shot down the stretch and helping the Magic hold the Pelicans to just 35 second-half points.
Isaac, who came into Monday averaging 5.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and 0.7 blocks in 18.2 minutes a game, admitted that he’s struggled somewhat with the quick whistles he’s been hit with by NBA referees.
“It’s frustrating because I’m trying to play physical, but I’m sure it will calm down,’’ admitted Isaac, who has picked up at least two fouls in six of the Magic’s seven games before Monday. “I feel like I’m getting calls on body contact too when my hands aren’t even in there. I guess it is just a transition (from college to the NBA) to not reach as much.’’
BEST IN THE LEAGUE: Remarkably, the Magic went into Wednesday night’s game in Memphis as the NBA’s most dominant team from the 3-point line – both offensively and defensively.
Through their first seven games, the Magic not only are shooting the best percentage in the league from the 3-point line (44.1 percent), they are also first in the NBA in 3-pointer percentage allowed (27.5 percent). Both of those numbers are huge jumps over last season when the Magic ranked 29th in the NBA in their own 3-point shooting percentage (32.8) and 24th in 3-point percentage allowed (36.7 percent).
Magic coach Frank Vogel credited some of that 3-point defensive improvement to “luck,’’ while he also pointed to a couple of his team’s biggest flaws so far. Orlando came into Wednesday ranked last in the NBA in points allowed in the paint per game (53.4 points per game) and 29th in second-chance points allowed (16.6 points per game).
“Luck. We’ve had some lucky outings with teams missing (3-point) shots,’’ Vogel said. “With the way we’re allowing points in the paint, why would they ever shoot a three? We have to do a better job in the paint. Hopefully, our (defensive) switching is taking away some of the easy threes, but we have also faced some teams who have had off nights.’’
SURPRISE, SURPRISE: In a recent ESPN roundtable discussion of the most surprising teams in the NBA thus far, the only argument centered around whether it is the Magic or the Grizzlies that have most caught the league off guard.
Orlando came into Wednesday at 5-2 and tied atop the East, while Memphis was 5-2 and alone in first in the West. Memphis coach David Fizdale has been able to weather the losses of veterans Zach Randolph, Vince Carter and Tony Allen and has the precise and methodical Grizzlies playing well again. They have impressively beaten Golden State and Houston (twice) while also edging New Orleans and Dallas. However, Memphis is coming off a 104-99 loss to Charlotte on Monday. Orlando owns dominant victories over Cleveland and San Antonio – games in which they held leads of 37 and 36 points – and it has been atop the NBA much of the season because of a super-charged offense that is scoring points at a high rate.
Fizdale said both the Magic and his Grizzlies should take the talk of their teams being “surprise’’ squads as tremendous compliments.
“I don’t think (ESPN) was trying to be down on us because if I looked at our team before the season I don’t know where I would have picked us either. There are a lot of unknowns on this team,’’ he said. “And I don’t know if people knew how good Orlando can be.
“I’m super impressed (with the Magic),’’ he added. “Frank (Vogel), in seven games, to me he’s already the coach of the month. Their wins are so impressive and they’re not just close wins; they’ve blown some people out of the building and he’s really got these (Orlando) guys buying into their style of play. Nothing surprises me when it comes to Frank Vogel and him being a heck of a coach and getting his teams to play at a high level.’’
UP NEXT: Orlando will play its first game at the Amway Center in a week when it hosts the Chicago Bulls on Friday. It will be the start of a three-game home stand with games coming up against Boston (Sunday) and New York (Nov. 8) before the Magic head out for their first West Coast trip of the season.
Orlando is 3-0 at home, beating Miami, Brooklyn and San Antonio at the Amway Center thus far.
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