Knicks, Hezonja Take It One Game At A Time

The season has been about developing young draft picks and also trying to flip at least one reclamation project into a keeper. From Trey Burke to Noah Vonleh to Emmanuel Mudiay, the Knicks have a host of former lottery picks who are trying to establish themselves as NBA players.

There is also Mario Hezonja, a former fifth overall pick in Orlando, who continues to be somewhat of an enigma. He is athletic and fast, determined and driven and yet . . . what is he at this level?

Hezonja found himself out of the rotation before the Knicks left for their long road trip and when the team returned, he was back in the lineup. In fact, he finished the trip playing some of his best basketball of the season. It was just in time for Croatian Heritage Night at Madison Square Garden.

In the loss to the Pacers, he logged the most minutes of any Knicks player (30) and clearly was trying to build off whatever momentum he had on the West Coast. Hezonja finished with 10 points, 6 rebounds and 5 steals. He struggled shooting the basketball (4 for 12) and missed his first three three-pointers before he finally sunk one in the second half.

The Knicks held a 49-48 lead late in the first half and the score was tied at 52 with 2:13 left. The Pacers then ripped off a 12-0 run to end the half as the Knicks missed their final five shots of the second quarter and didn’t get a single offensive rebound. The deficit was 64-52 at the half and it grew to 20 in the third quarter.

Mudiay, who was scoreless in the first half, posted 13 points in the third to try to keep the Knicks in it, but the Pacers simply shredded the Knicks defense. Domantas Sabonis had 12 of his game-high 22 points in the third and Victor Oladipo added 9 points in the quarter.

Consistency might be the most challenging skill to master for most athletes; that ability to be reliable game to game. Knox, for instance, has had strong starts that fizzle out in the second half. Mudiay will go the entire half without scoring and then suddenly prove he can get to the rim any times he wants.

Hezonja, meanwhile, has a lot of physical tools but tends to be on emotional roller coasters from game-to-game, based on how he’s playing or if he’s making shots. The 23-year-old, at times, fancies himself to be a point-forward who wants to quarterback the offense. But if his shot isn’t falling, he won’t even look at the rim.

Clearly, there’s a lot going on in his mind while he plays and the Knicks are trying to quiet the noise.

“We’re just keeping it one game at a time with him and just trying to keep his head clear about what his job is and what we expect,” David Fizdale said of Hezonja. “Hopefully, we can keep him going in the right direction.”

Though the results aren’t entirely noticeable, Hezonja was recently raving about the work he has been putting in with the coaching staff.

“I wish they were my coaching staff in my rookie year,” he told reporters after practice this week. “We’d be talking a different story right now.”

There is still a half-season of work left with them before Hezonja, who signed a one-year deal, will become a free agent.

Notes:

– The Knicks were without center Enes Kanter, who had “flu-like symptoms” according to the team. This came two days after Kanter posted on social media (Twitter and Instagram) one of his “cheat days” in which he indulges in a fast food meal. This week’s spread included three Breakfast All-Day style burgers (with an egg on top of three beef patties), four regular burgers and a pile of fries. Seems like we found the source of Kanter’s “illness”. But Fizdale tried to downplay any connection. “Eat seven burgers? No way,” Fizdale said. “His body would reject that.” Kanter has posted these videos before and they never actually show him eating the entire meal. Just before and then after. Fizdale thinks it’s all for fun. “People sometimes like to take the ‘gram too seriously,” he said. There was a reported trade rumor involving Kanter, but it is believed to be a very preliminary scenario with nothing imminent. The trade deadline is Feb. 7.

– Along with Kanter’s absence, the Knicks were again without Frank Ntilikina (ankle) and Mitchell Robinson (groin). During the game, they lost Daymean Dotson (contused left calf) and Tim Hardaway Jr. (hamstring cramps). Ntilikina’s injury has kept him out a full week now. For Robinson, this is 11 straight games dealing with two different injuries.

– Domantas Sabonis has absolutely dominated the Knicks since his move to Indiana last season. Sabonis, who came with Oladipo from Oklahoma City in the Paul George trade, had 22 points and 15 rebounds in this game. Over the last two seasons with the Pacers, Sabonis is averaging 16.5 points and 11 rebounds on 61.1% shooting in six games against the Knicks. In three games this season against the Knicks, Sabonis is averaging 21.6 points and 12 rebounds. Sabonis, the son of the great Arvydas Sabonis, had a 30 point game on 12-of-12 shooting at the Garden on Halloween. So which second-generation NBA player had the most points in a game against the Knicks?

The Garden of Dreams Foundation helps kids facing obstacles in the Tri-State area, including Rangers fan Taylor Ryan who is battling a rare blood disorder called Langerhans cell histiocytosis.