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NBA Daily: Finally, Mario Hezonja Is Breaking Out

Mario Hezonja talked to Basketball Insiders about staying in rhythm, dealing with trade rumors and his positional flexibility.

Ben Nadeau

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Even after all this time, Mario Hezonja is still a difficult NBA prospect to nail down.

In between flashes of immense athleticism and a multi-positional talent, there were weeks and weeks that Hezonja, 22, spent glued to the Orlando Magic bench. Often raw and inconsistent, steady playing time had been difficult for Hezonja to lock down over the early stages of his career, typically surpassed by veterans with longer leashes and career resumes. This up-and-down partnership would eventually lead to Orlando declining Hezonja’s option for a fourth-year at the end of October, a move that will make him an unrestricted free agent in the summertime.

But since that resolution — and in thanks to one of the NBA’s most unfortunate list of injuries — the Magic have come to rely on the Croatian playmaker quite a bit recently. Over the last 19 games, Hezonja has averaged 11.2 points and 3.9 rebounds (even joining the starting lineup in nine of these games). As he now creeps toward a career-high in minutes per game, Hezonja has chalked up the new-found success to staying in rhythm.

“It’s all about the rhythm, I’ve been working — actual work, after practice, before practice, all the extra steps to maintain the rhythm,” Hezonja told Basketball Insiders. “Even though practice is different than actual games, the minutes and being on the court helps with the rhythm and everything else comes naturally to me.”

Before he was permanently inserted into the Magic rotation in early December, there were 11 instances in which Hezonja played less than 10 minutes in a contest and he racked up seven DNPs along the way. Unsurprisingly, Hezonja isn’t all that interested in padding his statistics or working toward career-highs — no, what he wants is to help the Magic turn their sinking season around.

“I shoot to make. I’m not into percentages, I’m not paying attention to that,” Hezonja said. “I just want to make every shot that I take — that’s what I’m working toward because I just want to win games.”

Of course, Orlando began the year as an unexpected dark horse and soared out to an 8-4 record, a perch that neared the top of the Eastern Conference. Then the laundry list of injuries came hard and fast. First, it was Jonathan Isaac, then Terrence Ross. Starters Aaron Gordon (nine) and Evan Fournier (eight) have both missed a chunk of games, while center Nikola Vucevic has been sidelined since Christmas.

These injuries have decimated the Magic, who now sit in the conference’s basement-dwelling 15th place at 14-33. Acting as one of Orlando’s brightest developments this season, thankfully, Hezonja has certainly looked the part over his run of extended minutes. Naturally, Hezonja says that the correlation between his increased role and subsequent statistical output is not a coincidence.

“The minutes are big. If I had them before, maybe these [numbers] would’ve come before, but now it’s all coming together,” Hezonja said. “I’m telling you, it’s all about rhythm, so everything comes after that.

“Injuries suck — they’ve pushed us a little bit behind, but I don’t think that’s the reason why I’m playing.”

As a highly-touted European prospect, the expectations for the 6-foot-8 Croatian — who was picked at No. 5 overall in 2015, ahead of players like Myles Turner and Devin Booker — have always loomed large. But while he bounced in and out of the rotation for two different head coaches, many began to wonder if the talented Hezonja would ever take the next step. With the minutes in fine supply as of late, however, Hezonja has played his most consistent stretch of basketball since he arrived in the NBA.

Fans and front offices alike are obsessed with finding ready-made prospects in the draft, so when a player like Hezonja didn’t immediately take the league by storm, the negative chatter inevitably began. But competitive as they come, the 22-year-old was able to answer the call when head coach Frank Vogel needed somebody to step up as the number of injuries and losses grew by the game,

All of a sudden, Orlando may come to regret declining that team option.

“Every year, I’ve improved — mostly in the off-season. During the season, you will learn from other guys who learned from opponents and what they do,” Hezonja told Basketball Insiders. “You talk to people and everything that you do over time is so helpful.

“You win, you improve. You lose, you improve — it’s unbelievable. It’s how the NBA works and it’s amazing, I’ve definitely gotten better every year.”

Not only has Hezonja found his niche as a talented scorer, but he’s even done it across four different positions in his young career as well. Beyond his assumed appearances at shooting guard and small forward, Hezonja once flirted with the idea of point guard during his rookie year under former head coach Scott Skiles. Under Vogel, Hezonja has gone the other direction to power forward, where he frequently punishes slower defenders in his ever-confident fashion.

Since Dec. 13, Hezonja has crossed the double-digit threshold in 12 of his last 19 games, topping out with a perspective-altering 28 points on 8-for-12 from three-point range against the Detroit Pistons. No matter where he plays or who guards him, Hezonja has quickly become an invaluable member of Orlando’s rotation. When asked about his positional flexibility, Hezonja again focused back to the team.

“Yes, I’m expecting to play center next year,” Hezonja told Basketball Insiders jokingly. “It’s about how I can help the team from other spots, especially with the injuries and now that we don’t have enough guys, I’m covering basically three positions. It’s definitely helpful for my individual game, but it’s helped the team too.”

Nevertheless, those whispers haven’t totally subsided.

Hezonja, along with Fournier and Payton, could be moved before the Feb. 8 deadline, according to Marc Stein of the New York Times. While the declined fourth-year option could leave the door open for an agreeable return to Orlando, rival executives expect Jeff Weltman — Orlando’s team president — to “aggressively hunt” for a Hezonja deal in the coming weeks. Amidst the never-ending trade rumors and his soon-to-be first-ever trip to free agency, it would be understandable if Hezonja was a little distracted these days.

But even with an undecided future, Hezonja isn’t worried about new contracts or opportunities, not even the rumors themselves. Hezonja has been down this road before — he cropped up in trade rumors last season too — so he knows that this won’t likely be the last time either. Undeterred by all the noise, Hezonja is finally breaking out and producing some of his finest moments on an NBA court yet — and he’s ready to keep on rising as well.

“Rumors, they always show up late, but it’s all from before because we changed a lot of people, we changed the front office, so everything pops out — everybody talks about different stuff,” Hezonja told Basketball Insiders. “I wasn’t paying attention at all to it — I mean, I’m not on Twitter, I barely use Instagram, so I’m not swiping, I’m not a typical athlete nowadays.

“I’m really focused on basketball, that’s why I’m here in America, so I really don’t care about anything else.”

Ben Nadeau is a Boston-based writer in his second year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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NBA Daily: Poeltl Looking Forward To New Beginning With Spurs

Spencer Davies looks at the under-the-radar portion of the DeMar DeRozan-Kawhi Leonard trade and how Jakob Poeltl is already embracing the change.

Spencer Davies

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One month ago, a superstar-swapping trade between the Toronto Raptors and San Antonio Spurs was agreed upon.

The deal—which once again sparked a national debate about player loyalty—sent a reportedly disgruntled Kawhi Leonard to The North in exchange for Masai Ujiri’s franchise cornerstone, DeMar DeRozan.

Longtime Spur and veteran sharpshooter Danny Green was also moved to Toronto, while San Antonio acquired a protected future first-round draft pick and 22-year-old big man Jakob Poeltl.

Remember, Poeltl was an integral piece of a talented Raptor bench that produced a better net rating than their starters, as well as nearly all five-man groups in the league.

While the majority of pundits have gone back and forth about who won the trade, few have mentioned the ninth overall selection in the 2016 NBA Draft. Being involved in the transaction admittedly caught Poeltl “a little bit off guard.”

But entering his third year as a pro, the seven-foot Austrian is embracing the change and a brand new start with one of the most well-respected organizations in sports.

“That’s one of the things I’m most excited about, just the fact that this program has such a big history in developing players,” Poeltl told reporters in his first media appearance since the move. “I’m really excited for the process. Gonna be a lot of work, but I’m looking forward to it.”

From what he has heard from players who have been a part of the Spurs in the past and those who are currently there, it’s an unselfish group of people. They consider it a family environment.

“Everybody is just in it together,” Poeltl said. “From the very top to the very last guy on the bench or in the gym. It’s really like a great atmosphere, at least from what I’ve heard. So I’m looking forward to actually experiencing it myself.”

As soon as Poeltl got to San Antonio, he gazed at the championship banners hanging inside of the gym and quickly realized the expectations he’ll have to fulfill this season are a little higher than where he came from.

“It’s crazy, it’s different,” Poeltl said. “Obviously in Toronto, we didn’t have banners like that. Like we’re on a good way there, but this program here has some tradition to it. Over the last 20 years been a great basketball team. Obviously, you can tell by the championships and all the accomplishments.

“It’s a little bit of pressure, too. Like we’re trying to live up to that. There’s obviously a very high standard here, so we’ve gotta come in and put the work in and really show what we’ve got on the court as a team.”

Poeltl hasn’t wasted any time in immersing himself into the culture. In fact, he’s been working out at their practice facility since he arrived and feels like there’s a “natural chemistry” already with his new teammates.

In the weight room, Poeltl came across the forever face of the Spurs and future Hall-of-Fame forward, Tim Duncan. The conversation between them was short, sweet and casual. Basketball wasn’t brought up, as that will likely be saved for another time when the season approaches.

Duncan still sticks around and helps in practices from time-to-time, but he won’t be there every day. Somebody else who will be, however, is Pau Gasol, a fellow international center that Poeltl looks forward to learning from.

Though those two will be able to give veteran advice and priceless pointers, Poeltl’s most crucial teachings will come from the Spurs lead general—Gregg Popovich. Like with Duncan, on-court discussions were not the focus of their first interaction.

“We went to dinner,” Poeltl said. “We didn’t really talk too much basketball. It was more just like trying to get to know each other, like a first impression. I think there’s more than enough time for us to talk basketball and really learn what the Spurs are all about on the basketball court.

“But it was a really good conversation. Like I really enjoyed it. He’s a very down-to-earth type guy for if you think about what he’s accomplished in his career. He’s really cool.”

Once training camp comes and the dialogue does take a turn towards the hardwood, Poeltl will be all ears. As it stands now, Poeltl’s niche is the hustle guy. He picks up the scraps, corrals offensive rebounds and dives after loose balls, but don’t pigeonhole “role player” to his name. He plans on doing more in San Antonio.

“I take a lot of pride in that,” Poeltl said. “I think I do a lot of the little things out there—set good screens, be in the right places, making good reads off of my teammates and making plays for my teammates at the same time. Obviously like for me, that’s my role right now and I’m really enjoying that.

“I’m working on my game every single day in practice and I’m trying to develop more offensively and defensively so I can take on more responsibilities in the future.”

Moving on from the team that drafted you to another can be difficult. Luckily, Poeltl isn’t coming alone.

“Obviously it helps to have a familiar face like a guy that I’ve played with over the last three years,” Poeltl said of DeRozan. “Like I know how he plays basketball, he knows me. I think we play well together.”

In the two years they have played together, Poeltl has noticed DeRozan fine-tune his game. Although he is first and foremost a pure scorer, his all-around offense is getting better.

DeRozan’s reads on the opposition are crisper, as are the adjustments he makes due to that. He understands when to take games over and has involved his teammates more and more with each season.

It’s no surprise that the four-time All-Star guard is coming to the Spurs with a statement to make. All he’s done since being drafted is improve and devote himself to his second home in Toronto. He hasn’t uttered one favorable comment towards the front office he feels betrayed him.

Witnessing the kind of player DeRozan is when he’s pushed, Poeltl expects we’ll see a whole other side of him unleashed this year.

“It’s a little bit scary, to be honest,” Poeltl said. “Because I know what he can do when he has a chip on his shoulder, when he gets that extra motivation. I think he’s gonna be ready.”

Poeltl doesn’t have quite that big of a score to settle with the Raptors.

He’s just ready to give his all to an organization in a blue-collar town that matches the kind of work ethic he’s had since he started playing the game.

“That’s kinda how I’ve been for my whole basketball career,” Poeltl said. “Just get the work done.”

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NBA Daily: Can an Anthony-D’Antoni Marriage Work for Houston?

Shane Rhodes lays out how the Carmelo Anthony-Mike D’Antoni pairing could work this time around in Houston.

Shane Rhodes

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It’s official: Carmelo Anthony has joined the Houston Rockets after putting pen to paper on a contract. In doing so, Anthony will join a gifted offensive team helmed by former Coach of the Year Mike D’Antoni.

Stop me if you’ve heard that one before.

Back in 2011, when Anthony joined the New York Knicks via a blockbuster trade with the Denver Nuggets, a younger D’Antoni was in the midst of his third year with New York. While he didn’t exactly have a sterling record with the Knicks prior to the acquisition (89-129 before), things improved little upon Anthony’s arrival in the Big Apple (31-38 after). The two butted heads constantly and, after just a year (and an ultimatum forced on the Knicks by Anthony), D’Antoni was out the door; he resigned from his position and pursued work elsewhere.

Now, together once again, questions remain about how their relationship and, ultimately, their offensive styles will mesh in Houston. D’Antoni has already come out and said things will be different this time around, but nothing is so certain in the NBA; what is stopping things from going south as they did for the Knicks, who, despite a bevy of talent, just couldn’t make things work?

It’s important to understand where things went wrong in New York in order to look at where they could go wrong in Houston.

From the jump, the two weren’t exactly the best fit. Anthony wanted to play the way he had his entire career — heavy isolation, high usage basketball — while D’Antoni’s offense was spread out, predicated on ball movement, and closer to what we see in the modern offense.

Those two styles aren’t exactly conducive to the success of one another.

The Knicks finished the season 42-40, going just 13-14 in Anthony’s 27 games with the team. The two continued to be at odds with one another into the next season until, after leading the Knicks to an underwhelming 18-24 start, D’Antoni resigned. While things improved under Mike Woodson in 2012 — Anthony posted the highest usage rate of his career while the Knicks won 52 games — they quickly devolved into disaster and the Knicks, once again, found themselves in a hole that they are still trying to climb out of.

Now, on to Houston. This isn’t the same D’Antoni; he has changed and so has his offense. While ball movement still plays an integral role, D’Antoni has put much more of an emphasis on isolation plays in order to better fit the profile of his current roster.

The Rockets posted historic offensive numbers with James Harden and Chris Paul running the show, but did so unlike D’Antoni teams of the past. Gone are the days of the seven-seconds-or-less offense; the Rockets played at a pace (97.4 possessions per 48 minutes) that was middle of the pack, while their assist total came in at just 26th in the league, third worst among teams that made the postseason last year. Despite that, Houston managed to post the highest offensive rating (114.7) in the league.

While those stylistic changes should aid Anthony as he looks to rebound next season, they alone don’t make this the perfect fit for the Rockets. Anthony will never see the touches that he was once accustomed to in New York or Denver. He isn’t the same player he was five years ago, either; as his athleticism has declined, so too has Anthony’s ability to get past his defenders, leading to tougher, lower percentage shots that could sink the Rockets come the postseason.

The only thing that really holds Anthony back now is his own stubborn ignorance of those facts. He refused to adjust last season with the Oklahoma City Thunder because he still has “so much left in the tank.” Anthony posted some of the worst numbers of his career last season and, while Billy Donovan isn’t the offensive wizard that D’Antoni is, things should only get worse as Harden (36.1 percent usage rate) and Paul (24.5) dominate the ball if Anthony remains unwilling to change.

So, while his words may hold true, Anthony is no longer in a position where he needs to put the team on his back in order for it to be successful. Houston already has a well-established hierarchy, and Anthony is merely a column meant to buttress what is already in place. If he can’t come to accept that, the chance Houston is taking on him could backfire tremendously.

Still, Houston needs someone to eat the minutes vacated by the departure of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute in free agency. While he may not be able to match their defensive exploits, Anthony is still more than capable of filling their shoes, or even providing an upgrade, offensively. That potential upgrade alone could make the move a worthwhile one for the Rockets, who came just minutes from dethroning the Golden State Warriors despite the loss of Chris Paul in the Western Conference Finals.

For things to truly work out, however, Anthony must be willing to accept a change in his role, a diminished one in an offense that isn’t hurting for star power or shot takers, but one that desperately needs role players. If Anthony can adapt, he could be exactly what they need to challenge the Warriors. If not, Anthony’s arrival could blow up in D’Antoni’s face just as it did with the Knicks.

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NBA Daily: The NCAA’s Recent Policy Changes are Problematic

The NCAA made unilateral changes to its rules that may look good on paper but more likely make a difficult situation even more complicated.

James Blancarte

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Going into 1995 NBA Draft, the NBA still allowed high school players to enter straight into the NBA but few had actually done so over the years. That year, Kevin Garnett, an extremely talented high school prospect, went straight into the draft from high school and went on to have a Hall of Fame career. Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, like Garnett, also went straight to the NBA from high school and each have also had Hall of Fame careers. Many other similarly situated players such as Rashard Lewis, Jermaine O’Neal and Tracy McGrady succeeded on the same path. Yet concerns remained that although there were individual success stories, perhaps it would be best overall to have kids mature a bit more before entering the NBA. Eventually, through collective bargaining, new rules were put in place that prohibited high school players from entering the league.

As time has gone on there has been some frustration with the fact that perhaps these young men, legally adults at 18 years of age, have been unfairly prevented from earning at least one year of significant income as an NBA rookie. There is also frustration, mentioned below, at how the NCAA and college programs have policed themselves (or failed to do so) over the years. There is rampant abuse and under the table dealing that has largely benefitted the people around these young athletes and the schools, while often times harming the players or not benefitting them in any tangible way. The FBI has been conducting an investigation into these practices, which has shed new light and more focus onto the situation. Accordingly, now there is widespread discussion and speculation that the NBA again intends to reverse course and allow players to bypass the collegiate game.

With accusations of impropriety, constant attacks against the amateur model and an ongoing federal investigation, the NCAA took drastic action last Wednesday to counter the negativity around the college game — at least in appearance.

First the good part; players will be allowed to enter the draft and should they be not be chosen, the player may return to school under certain circumstances. Back at his collegiate program, a player can return to a place where he can continue to mature as a basketball player and as a college student. This is a nice option for many players and should have been available years ago.

For NBA teams, they now face the prospect of a first wave of high school seniors going straight to the NBA in addition to the other collegiate and international prospects. If it turns out that these high school prospects are collectively more prepared than expected and demonstrate they can contribute at a high level shortly after entering the league, there could be a sizable shift in how teams value first-round draft picks. Teams are already extremely hesitant to trade first-round picks, which means there would be some additional stagnation in the trade market. There are many complexities to this prospective new system that could have consequences that aren’t even foreseeable at this juncture.

Additionally, while this may be an appealing option for some players who are on the fence about going pro, it may not have as much widespread appeal. Some prospects may not realistically expect to be drafted. Once skipped over, a player is likely to seek compensation in the G-League or by playing international basketball. That’s the rub overall, the college game is sticking to the amateur model and the insistence that players not be compensated beyond the education they receive. Even worse, a player may have declared for the draft knowing that he might be leaving behind academic or conduct violations behind. Should that player attempt to go back, he would have to deal with any situation that joining the professional ranks would have avoided. The point here is that while this new rule may look good for the NCAA from a PR perspective, the truth is it may have little benefit to the college players overall.

Now the thornier part. As reported, the NCAA will allow “elite” high school prospects to obtain an agent. Previously this would have been a violation of NCAA rules that prevent amateur students from doing so. Should a player instead decide to go to college, he would have to break off his relationship with the agent. This adds more complications and issues to a system that is already plagued with questionable rules and policies.

In addition, it appears that USA Basketball was not initially thrilled to be put in a position to determine which players are considered “elite,” which could cause some more logistical issues. Also, there has been speculation about whether prospects participating in the USA Basketball system would be the only players selected or, at least, preferred over international prospects. Matt Norlander of CBS Sports spoke to NCAA’s senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt who explained this wasn’t the case.

“It is not going to be just the prospects who are Junior National Team players for USA Basketball. It’s going to be more than that. How that’s going to be determined, and how large a pool, is to be determined. That could be years away,” Gavitt stated.

There is much more to dive into on this issue unfortunately. The NCAA has seemingly taken a strategy to fixing issues that are symptoms of a bigger problem – that is the NCAA’s insistence on treating its players as students who should not be compensated rather than actual athletes. There are no easy solutions to this situation and adding more layers of complexity with unilateral changes such are likely to make matters worse.

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