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.”
NBA Daily: 2018 NBA Mock Draft – 3/20/18
With most of the major NBA draft prospects eliminated from March Madness, things in the mock draft world are starting to get interesting.
A Lot of Mock Movement
With the race to the bottom in full swing in the NBA and the field of 64 in college basketball whittled down to a very sweet sixteen, there has been considerable talk in NBA circles about the impending 2018 NBA Draft class. There seems to be a more consistent view of the top 15 to 20 prospects, but there still seems to be a lack of a firm pecking order. Arizona’s Deandre Ayton seems like to the prohibitive favorite to go number one overall, but its far from a lock.
It’s important to note that these weekly Mock Draft will start to take on more of a “team driven” shape as we get closer to the mid-May NBA Combine in Chicago and more importantly once the draft order gets set. Until then, we’ll continue to drop our views of the draft class each Tuesday, until we reach May when we’ll drop the weekly Consensus Mock drafts, giving you four different views of the draft all the way to the final decisions in late June.
Here is this week’s Mock Draft:
Here are some of the pick swaps and how they landed where they are currently projected:
The Cleveland Cavaliers are owed the Brooklyn Nets’ first-round pick as a result of the Kyrie Irving trade this past summer. The Brooklyn Nets traded several unprotected picks to Boston as part of the Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce trades in 2015.
The Philadelphia 76ers are owed the LA Lakers’ 2018 Draft pick, unprotected, as a result of the 2012 Steve Nash trade with the Suns. The Suns traded that pick to the 76ers as part of the Michael Carter-Williams three-team trade with the Milwaukee in 2015. The 76ers traded that pick to the Boston Celtics as part of the draft pick trade that became Markelle Fultz before the draft; it has 2 through 5 protections and based on the standings today would convey to Philadelphia.
The LA Clippers are owed the Detroit Pistons first-round pick in 2018 as a result of the Blake Griffin trade. The pick is top four protected and based on the current standings would convey.
The Phoenix Suns are owed the Milwaukee Bucks’ first-round pick as part of the Eric Bledsoe trade. The pick only conveys if the Bucks pick lands between the 11th and 16th pick, which based on the standings today would convey.
The Phoenix Suns are owed the Miami HEAT’s first-round pick as part of the Goran Dragic trade in 2015, it is top-seven protected and would convey to Phoenix based on the current standings.
The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Minnesota Timberwolves’ first-round pick as part of the Adreian Payne trade in 2015. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would convey.
The Chicago Bulls are owed the New Orleans Pelicans first-round pick as a result of the Nikola Mirotic trade. The pick is top-five protected and based on the current standings would convey.
The LA Lakers are owed the Cleveland Cavaliers first-round pick as a result of Jordan Clarkson/Larry Nance Jr. trade. The pick is top-three protected and based on the current standings would convey.
The Minnesota Timberwolves are owed the Oklahoma City Thunder’s first-round pick as part of the Jazz/Wolves Ricky Rubio trade this past summer. The Jazz acquired the pick as part of the Thunder’s deal to obtain Enes Kanter in 2015. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would convey.
The Brooklyn Nets are owed the Toronto Raptors’ first-round pick as part of the DeMarre Carroll salary dump trade this past summer. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would convey.
The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Houston Rockets’ first-round pick as part of a three-team deal with the LA Clippers and Denver Nuggets involving Danilo Gallinari and taking back Jamal Crawford and Diamond Stone. The pick is top-three protected and based on the current standings would convey.
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NBA Daily: Jonathan Isaac Proving to be Key Part of Orlando’s Future
Basketball Insiders spoke with Jonathan Isaac about his rookie season, injuries, areas to improve on, his faith and more.
On January 13, the Orlando Magic were eliminated from playoff contention. This date served as a formality as the team has known for quite some time that any postseason hopes had long since sailed. The Magic started the year off on a winning note and held an 8-4 record in early November. However, the team lost their next nine games and never really recovered.
Many factors play a role in a young but talented team like the Magic having another season end like this. Injuries to franchise cornerstone Aaron Gordon as well as forward Evan Fournier and forward Jonathan Isaac magnified the team’s issues.
Isaac, a rookie selected sixth overall in the first round of the 2017 NBA Draft, started the season off reasonably well. On November 10, in 21 minutes of action, he registered an 11-point, six-rebound, one-assist, one-steal, two-block all-around effort against the Phoenix Suns to help the Magic get to that 8-4 record. Isaac then suffered an ankle injury midway through his next game and wouldn’t play again until December 17, by which time the team was already 11-20 with athe season quickly going sideways. From November until March, Isaac would only play in three games until finally returning to consistent action in the month of March with the season all but decided.
Basketball Insiders spoke to Isaac recently to discuss how he has pushed through this season, staying healthy, his impressive skill set and more.
“I’ve had a lot of time off from being injured so, I think my body is holding up fine along with how much I’ve played. I haven’t played a full season,” Isaac told Basketball Insiders “I feel good. I feel good.”
Isaac talked about what part of his game he feels strongly about and has improved on.
“I think defensively,” Isaac said. “I didn’t expect myself to make strides defensively like I have. I’ve been able to just be able to just do different things and help this team defensively and I didn’t expect that coming in so, that would be the one thing.”
Magic Head Coach Frank Vogel was effusive in his praise of Isaac’s defense and also focused on the rookie’s great defensive potential.
“His defense is out of this world. I mean it’s really something else,” Vogel said. “Just watch him play and everybody’s getting a taste of it right now. They haven’t seen him a whole lot but he’s an elite defender right now at 20-years old and the sky’s the limit for what he can be on that end of the floor.
While Isaac hasn’t logged a huge number of minutes on the floor this season, he has impressed in his limited action. As Coach Vogel stated, anyone who has taken the time to watch Isaac play this season has noticed his ability to guard other big men and his overall defensive impact.
“I think I’ve been able to do a good job on most of the people that I’ve had to guard,” Isaac said.
Missing Isaac’s defense impact and overall contributions partially explains why the Magic cooled off after their hot start. However, with the playoffs no longer an option, younger players like Isaac now have the opportunity to play with less attention and pressure. While it can be argued that the Magic aren’t really playing for anything, the truth is these late-season games can be an opportunity to develop these younger players and determine what to work on during the offseason.
There is more to Isaac than just basketball, however. Isaac discussed other parts of his life that are important to him, including religion and his faith.
“[M]y faith in Jesus is something that I put a lot of emphasis on,” Isaac told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a part of me.”
Isaac did not hesitate to credit his faith when asked if it helped him push through his injuries.
“I would say definitely,” Isaac said. “Especially with getting injured so early in the season and being out for 40 games. That’s a lot on somebody’s mental capacity and then just staying positive, staying joyful in times where joy doesn’t seem like it’s the right emotion to have. And I definitely [attribute] that to my faith.”
Looking forward, both Vogel and Isaac discussed the future and what the young big man can improve on.
“Offensively, he’s grown in confidence, he’s gained so he’s going to give us a big lift and our future’s bright with him,” Vogel stated.
Isaac gave a hint of his offseason training plans when asked what he looks forward to working on.
“I would say consistency with my jump shot. Really working on my three-ball and I would say ball-handling,” Isaac stated.
When asked if there was anything more he wanted to add, Isaac simply smiled and said, “Oh no, I think I got to get to church right now,” as the team prepared to play later that evening.
Tyronn Lue’s Health Concerns Latest Bump In The Road For Cavaliers
Spencer Davies outlines Tyronn Lue’s decision to take a leave of absence to deal with health issues and covers the reaction around the NBA.
The win-loss record is not where they want it to be.
The performances have not been up to par with what they expect.
With that said, one thing is for certain: There is no other team that will have been more battle tested going into the playoffs than the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Day after day and week after week, there’s always something going on with the team. Between in-house arguments, on-court miscommunication, roster turnover, and more, it has been one giant roller coaster of a season.
Monday morning, another twist was added to the ride. In a statement released by the Cavaliers organization, Tyronn Lue and general manager Koby Altman announced that the head coach would be taking a leave of absence to address his health:
“After many conversations with our doctors and Koby and much thought given to what is best for the team and my health, I need to step back from coaching for the time being and focus on trying to establish a stronger and healthier foundation from which to coach for the rest of the season.
“I have had chest pains and other troubling symptoms, compounded by a loss of sleep, throughout the year. Despite a battery of tests, there have been no conclusions as to what the exact issue is. While I have tried to work through it, the last thing I want is for it to affect the team.
“I am going to use this time to focus on a prescribed routine and medication, which has previously been difficult to start in the midst of a season. My goal is to come out of it a stronger and healthier version of myself so I can continue to lead this team to the Championship we are all working towards. I greatly appreciate Dan Gilbert, Koby Altman, our medical team and the organization’s support throughout.”
There were multiple instances where Lue either missed part of a half or an entire game this season. The symptoms are definitely not to be taken lightly. According to a report by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Dave McMenamin, Lue attempted to return to the bench Saturday night in Chicago but the team didn’t allow him to. Evidently, Lue was “coughing up blood” some nights.
Seeing it first hand after postgame press conferences, Lue was visibly exhausted and stress could likely be playing a part. He’s been fighting through the tough times the team has been going through and avoided stepping away twice this season.
Charlotte Hornets head coach Steve Clifford had his own battle with health problems earlier this season and temporarily left the team for those reasons. He has attempted to reach out to Lue, a friend and former player of his.
Other head coaches around the league—Joe Prunty, Steve Kerr, and Luke Walton—have all gone to bat for Lue when discussing the rigors of an NBA schedule and the toll it takes.
Altman supports the decision for Lue to get to the bottom of what’s going on.
“We know how difficult these circumstances are for Coach Lue and we support him totally in this focused approach to addressing his health issues,” he said.
LeBron James is glad that Lue is going to take some time to get better.
“Obviously, health is the most important with everything in life,” James said Monday after shootaround. “Not surprised by it at all. I knew he was struggling, but he was never not himself. He was just dealing with it the best way he could, but he was never not himself when he was around.
“It doesn’t matter what’s going on here. We play a great sport, our coaches get to coach a great sport, and you guys get to cover a great sports. But health is most important right now and that’s what our coach is doing right now and we’re all in favor for it.”
The latest piece of news is a blow to the already injury-ridden Cleveland group. Assistant coach Larry Drew will take over duties until Lue returns.
The good news for the Cavaliers is that Kevin Love can potentially return to the mix as soon as Monday night against Milwaukee.