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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.

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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 Seattle-based writer in his third year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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