Forget about Croatia native and future Philadelphia 76er Dario Saric for a minute. Nineteen-year-old shooting guard Mario Hezonja is the next big thing from Croatia. If fact, as of now, he’s a big as it gets overseas.
Hezonja, ranked No. 2 overall in the class of international talent of 1995, is projected to be a lottery pick in the upcoming NBA Draft according to the industry leaders DraftExpress. If he were playing college basketball right now, which he had the option to do at Kentucky, Hezonja thinks no prospect would be regarded more highly.
“If I was in college I’d probably be the No. 1 pick,” Hezonja said to Basketball Insiders. “I had an offer from Kentucky. I’m European and I need to work harder to break into the U.S market.”
Hezonja averages eight points, shooting 44.8 percent from the perimeter, to go along with two rebounds and 1.3 assists in 16.7 minutes over 10 appearances in the Euroleague for Spanish power-club Barcelona.
Last night, though he was nonchalant in the first half, Hezonja stormed back in crunch time and came one basket short of completing an impressive double-digit comeback over reigning European champions, Maccabi Tel Aviv in Israel.
Trailing Maccabi by double-figures with under five minutes remaining in the contest, Spanish coach Xavi Pascual, hoping for a much needed sparks, inserted the young phenom into the game. It was Hezonja’s superb defense on December’s Euro-MVP Devin Smith on one end, and crucial plays at the other, that rallied back the Spanish.
Hezonja knocked down a jumper from the left-corner to cut Maccabi’s lead to 66-62 with a minute a change left. Then, with 25 seconds remaining, Hezonja intercepted a backcourt pass and raced to the end zone for a one-handed tomahawk dunk to bring Barcelona within 68-66.
With the game on the line and the clock running out, it was the Croatian cub — not newcomer Edwin Jackson, or former NBA draftees Alex Abrines and Thomas Satoransky — who took matters into his own hands. Hezonja called the former N.Y. Knicks bust Maciej Lampe, who set a screen, then rolled to the basket and received a brilliant pass from the Croatian kid. However, Lampe was met a the rim and Tel Aviv secured a crucial 68-66 W.
“My coach trusts me and I believe in myself,” Hezonja said. “I’m not scared at all of the last moments of the game, I want to win. The pick-and-roll was good but we lost, so I blame myself.”
Like his fellow countryman Saric, Hezonja is focused primarily on his development. He would have been selected in the first round of last year’s deep draft, and even though he’s ranked much higher in this year’s class, he’s still not even certain he will declare.
“I don’t know if I’ll enter the draft,” Hezonja said. “I might, but who knows what pick I’ll be? Before I go to the NBA I want to become a leader and win with Barcelona.”
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