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NBA Rookie Preview: Orlando Magic Swingman Mario Hezonja

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In June, the Orlando Magic added one of Europe’s most electrifying young ballers by drafting Croatian kangaroo Mario Hezonja.

The explosive 6’8″ swingman landed No. 5 overall because he can light up the scoreboard from deep and besiege the rim off the bounce. During his time for both Barcelona and the Croatian national team, Hezonja offered an irresistible blend of slashing and perimeter scoring. He looks and plays the part of a dangerous NBA wing because he operates aggressively and oozes confidence.

Hezonja’s only 20 years old, however, so he’ll make a few mistakes and endure growing pains. He also must earn the favor of Orlando’s new skipper Scott Skiles before he gains substantial minutes.

What should Magic fans expect from this highly anticipated import as his NBA career tips off?

Defensive Role

Before we dive into Hezonja’s offensive exploits, it’s important to note that coach Skiles is a defensive-minded coach. He’s intense, structured and will favor those who execute his game plan on defense. That means talented stoppers like Elfrid Payton, Aaron Gordon and Victor Oladipo have a great chance to thrive under Skiles.

Hezonja has the physical tools to succeed on defense as well, but he’s a rookie and will have to earn Skiles’s trust.

Due to his 6’8″ frame and athleticism, Hezonja will likely be asked to guard both small forwards and shooting guards. Those aren’t easy positions for a rookie to check, especially the small-forward spot.

When Hezonja’s executing soundly, he’ll supply pleasantly surprising versatility. Mike Schmitz of DraftExpress.com has scouted Hezonja heavily the past couple of years, and he explained what to expect from the youngster:

“(Hezonja) has the tools to be a two-way player when he’s locked in,” Schmitz said. “Tremendous lateral quicks for a 6’8″ wing. Chases shooters. Solid instincts in the passing lanes. Strong frame.”

There will be some lapses, however, as Schmitz notes that Hezonja’s discipline tends to waver on that end of the floor:

“(Hezonja’s) defensive effort fluctuates based on his offensive involvement,” Schmitz said. “Gets beat off the bounce more than he should given his physical tools…discipline isn’t great.”

Mistakes are inevitable for young players, and they’re manageable for teams like Orlando that aren’t gunning for a title. As long as Hezonja exhibits consistent intensity, Skiles will be willing to utilize him.

Hezonja’s defensive output will undoubtedly be a huge factor that determines his exact playing time. If the effort is up, he shouldn’t have a problem seeing 18-20 minutes per game.

Offensive Role

Hezonja will take a backseat to Payton, Oladipo and Gordon in terms of playing time and touches, but there’s still a significant role he could carve out.

As I mentioned over at Bleacher Report, the Magic have several adroit guards as well as a handful of talented small forwards. But Hezonja is the only one of the bunch who can truly play both positions fluidly and provide swingman interchangeability.

This multidimensional impact is extremely valuable because he can switch between being a facilitator, off-ball weapon and rim-attacker in the same game. Hezonja could serve as a weak-side cutter or come off screens for three-pointers, or he could generate offense as an intermittent initiator.

Skiles would be wise to sprinkle in some pick-and-roll plays with Hezonja as the handler. Unlike Payton and Oladipo, Hezonja will make opponents pay for going under screens because he’s much more deadly from three-land.

He can light up like a bonfire via the catch or the bounce. Despite playing just 15.1 minutes per game in 2014-15, he recorded 17 multi-triple games, including six outings with four or more three-pointers. Enjoy this 8-of-8 performance from long range back in January:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QKpHYuwEGaU

When he’s not busy creating for teammates or launching a three-point barrage, Hezonja keeps defenders honest by attacking the cup. He made a lot of noise during Orlando Summer League with a soul-crushing dunk against the Oklahoma City Thunder. If you’ve watched film on him, you know that play wasn’t a fluke.

An important question to ask is whether Skiles will give the aggressive youngster enough opportunities to play his gunslinging style. The answer is yes, as Tim Faklis of The Sporting News explains:

…Skiles has shown a leniency with rookies that like to chuck the ball a bit. Ben Gordon became the only rookie to win the NBA Sixth Man of the Year Award while taking 14 shots per game for Skiles’ 2004-05 Bulls. A few years later, Brandon Jennings nearly won Rookie of the Year under Skiles in Milwaukee…Skiles’ first year with the Magic will be a developmental process. This is good news for Hezonja.

Whether he sees 14 minutes per game or 22, Hezonja will make a few sloppy plays, hoist up ill-advised shots and suffer the occasional cold spell. But the mix of development and fireworks will be worth it, which is why Skiles will lean toward finding 18-22 minutes for the Croatian prodigy.

Hezonja will be one of the first wings off the bench, with the ability to play as the 2 in relief of Oladipo or as the 3 in relief of Gordon or Tobias Harris. In 18-22 minutes per game, he could launch 6-8 field goal attempts and score upwards of 8-10 points.

The Magic have yearned for a swingman scorer with Hezonja’s versatility. While he won’t unleash his full powers in 2015-16, his rookie year will serve as a delicious appetizer.

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