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Mario Hezonja needs to show growth in year 2

April 11, 2016 - Orlando, FL, USA - Orlando guard Mario Hezonja (23) drives against Milwaukee players Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) and Tyler Ennis (11) on Monday, April 11, 2016, at the Amway Center in Orlando, Fla (Photo by Charles King/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire)
Photo by Charles King/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire

The Orlando Magic have lacked consistent shooting threat over the past few seasons. They used several players as the primary option but were without a three-point shooter. They drafted Mario Hezonja to fill that role last year.

They took him with the No. 5 overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, but he saw limited action in his first season.

The Croatian averaged 17.9 minutes per game, which was 10th among Magic players, fewer than Ersan Ilyasova, C.J. Watson and Brandon Jennings.

Hezonja averaged just 6.1 points and 5.3 field goal attempts per game. Former Magic head coach Scott Skiles wanted to hold the swingman accountable for his rookie mistakes and, at times, kept him out of the lineup.

“Mario checked in, took a shot fading out of bounds with 4.5 seconds left on the shot clock, he let (C.J.) Miles go by him twice and score, and when they were in the penalty he fouled Solomon Hill when he wasn’t supposed to let him go right,’’ Skiles said after Orlando’s loss at Philadelphia in February. “We keep trying to impress upon him – and all of our guys – when you come in off the bench you’ve got to be ready to go. You can’t come in and make one, two, three, four and five mistakes and think you are going to be able to stay in (the game). It just doesn’t happen that way.’’

Magic fans are hopeful to see more from Hezonja in Year Two. Now that the team traded both Tobias Harris and Victor Oladipo, there is an even greater need for a scorer. Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon are still “project players,” but Hezonja was expected to be the most NBA-ready of Orlando’s recent first round draft picks.

The swingman is only 19 years old but has already played professionally for four seasons. Granted, the Euroleague isn’t the NBA, but it’s still a step up from college basketball.

He also showed flashes of both athleticism and shooting ability in last year’s Summer League. This summer, however, he wasn’t on either Magic roster for the 2016 event, instead reporting to the Croatian national team in preparation for the Olympics.

You’d think that would add to optimism, but so far, Hezonja has been quiet in his first four Olympic games. Aside from a 16-point effort against Argentina, the second-year guard has scored in the single digits and has seen his playing time fluctuate.

Also, Hezonja was benched during Croatia’s 90-76 loss to Nigeria Saturday after missing a three-point attempt in transition. He finished with five points and three assists while shooting 2-of-8 from the field.

Still, that doesn’t mean all hope is lost heading into the 2016-’17 season. Hezonja has shot over 50 percent from the three-point line and over 40 percent from the field in his first three games. He also scored a tournament-best 16 points when he took nine shot attempts.

So really, it’s hard to judge his Olympic performance considering he’s playing as the team’s third option. But at least his shooting percentage is high.

That’s what Magic fans are hoping to see from Hezonja in Year Two. He needs to have good shot selection and also see an expanded role.

Perhaps that’s something head coach Frank Vogel will focus on in his first season. Vogel is said to be “very high” on Hezonja and loves his confidence.

Vogel’s Pacers teams succeeded with strong scoring performances from the swingman positions. Both Danny Granger and Paul George emerged as franchise players in Vogel’s offense.

The upcoming season will be crucial for Hezonja’s career in Orlando. He needs to emerge as a consistent scoring threat for a Magic team that lacks a confident shooter.

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