The New York Knicks and Orlando Magic played a dog-fight for about 40 minutes, but finally the Knicks were unable to contain Nikola Vucevic, whose 26 points led Orlando to their 107-99 win.
Another highlight for the Magic was receiving a considerable contribution from their blue-chip rookie, Mario Hezonja, the fifth pick in last spring’s draft.
Let’s take a closer look at Hezonja’s 19 minutes on the court—a boost from the 12.3 minutes he’s been averaging. Indeed, he’s evolved from being a garbage-time guy to being part of Orlando’s regular rotation.
Offense was deemed to be Hezonja’s strength, yet his performance at this end of the court was mixed.
FGM-A = 5-8 3PM-A = 1-4 A= 3 TO = 2
He converted all of his 2-point attempts. During one of his rare stints at the point, he carried the ball across half court, and when Sasha Vujacic failed to challenge the rookie as he approached the attack zone, Hezonja simply pulled-right and buried a 23-foot jumper.
Hezonja also pulled a veteran move against fellow rookie Jerian Grant—dribbling right, bumping Grant off-stride and then hitting a 17-footer.
Hezonja hustled to trail a fastbreak and showed excellent body-control as he leaped to bank home a flipper.
His toughest, and most impressive, hoop came after he grabbed an offensive rebound in a crowd then scored a nifty reverse layup.
One of his long-ball misses spun out. Another was a 40-foot heave to beat the shot clock. Hezonja’s third miss came on the only play that was run for him:
Filling the two-guard slot, he set a sturdy screen just below the foul line, curled around a down-screen—then missed a wide-open trey.
Perhaps he was shocked at having his number called.
He did, however, make a pair of egregious mistakes on offense. Grant stole the ball while Hezonja was attempting a right-to-left crossover dribble. And when Hezonja had used up his dribble along the right baseline and turned to face the basket looking for someone to pass to, Grant simply ripped the ball out of his hands.
His passes were crisp and accurate. Two assists were kickouts for successful treys (by Evan Fournier and Channing Frye), and a slick bounce-pass found a cutting Jason Smith for a layup.
If defense was supposed to be Hezonja’s most serious flaw, he really didn’t disgrace himself there.
He scrapped his way through several screens—once denying a pass to Arron Afflalo that messed up the timing on New York’s set. In another battle through a screen, Hezonja forced Kristaps Porzingis to move laterally in order to get a significant piece of the rook—and was whistled for an illegal screen.
Hezonja fought his way around another screen to keep pace with a driving Vujacic, and then blocked the resulting layup attempt. He was nailed on a screen that allowed Grant to score an uncontested layup.
Count the deuce on Hezonja’s debit column, but in fact he received no help from his big man.
The only truly bad play Hezonja made on defense was when he sagged into the middle to provide help on a low-posted Porzingis. His intention was admirable, but he wandered too far away from Langston Galloway, then spun around in confusion as Galloway cut back-boor, received an assist-pass from Porzingis and hit an unopposed layup.
Since his playing time up till now has been minimal, Hezonja still has a long way to go to improve his recognition of opponents’ five-on-five offenses. When his schooling advances, he’ll certainly be able to make the necessary adjustments.
On offense, the rookie’s most significant problem is the shakiness of his left-handed handle.
He’s not a speed-demon with super-duper changes of direction, so it remains to be seen if Hezonja will be able to drive his way hoopwards for profit.
In any event, later rather than sooner, Mario Hezonja will certainly evolve into a productive NBA player.