Hezonja Makes The Most of His Return to Orlando

The inexact science of the NBA draft lottery was on display in Orlando, where the highest pick the Magic have made in four years — and second highest in the seven years since they last made the playoffs — was in the midst of his revenge game.

Mario Hezonja was the fifth overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. He was the third in a three-year span where Orlando picked Victor Oladipo (second overall) and Aaron Gordon (fourth). When you have three straight years of top-5 picks, you should be building something. Sure, the Magic are battling for a playoff berth this year, but only Gordon remains from that trio of top picks that — according to “The Process” — should set the foundation for a playoff era.

Oladipo, a frustrating flop in Orlando, was traded to Oklahoma City, where he took what he learned from Russell Westbrook (note the value of playing with veterans) and turned it into an arrival as an all-star in Indiana. Gordon was signed to a four-year, $80 million contract and is still developing into a good all-around player, but will he ever be a cornerstone star?

And then there’s Hezonja, who, at times, can look like he’s teeming with potential and at other times can look like a combination of irrational confidence and someone who is still learning the game. He’s an enigma, for certain. And on this night in Orlando, as he smiled at people he knew from his days with the Magic and even engaged in some fun with the team mascot, Hezonja showed all of it.

Mario Hezonja speaks with Rebecca Haarlow after scoring a career-high 29 points in his return to Orlando.

The 24-year-old Croatian had a career-high 29 points with 9 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 steals. After two DNP-CD’s, David Fizdale gave Hezonja the start (his 21st of the season) as he promised he would when they circled this date on the schedule.

Hezonja missed the team’s previous game at Orlando on Nov. 18 with food poisoning. So this was his only chance to play in front of the crowd that once hoped he’d be part of a new era in Magic basketball. He said he went to Fizdale and asked if he could play, but deep down he knew he didn’t have to ask.

“It would happen regardless,” Hezonja said, “because I know him. He’s like that.”

Hezonja was part of the emotional effort the Knicks players put forth back in November when Fizdale made his return to Memphis. The Knicks all said they won that game for Fiz. Hezonja was the first to give him a huge hug after the game.

Fizdale said he wanted Hezonja to show Orlando “you are a player and you’re going to be in this league a long time.”

David Fizdale holds his post-game press conference after the Knicks' 114-100 loss to the Magic.

Hezonja will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. After the Magic opted to move on from him last year, he turned down multi-year offers elsewhere to take a one-year $6.5 million deal with the Knicks. He could return with the Knicks once the dust settles in free agency and the Knicks need to fill out a roster, but that remains to be seen.

Hezonja entered the 2015 draft with a lot of hype because he’d been on the NBA radar since the age of 14. He dominated European basketball with a blend of athleticism and size. He was also a much better shooter there than once he got to the NBA, where there’s far less time and space to get off your shot. Hezonja doesn’t shoot the ball consistently well (41.5% for his career, 32.1% from three) to be a go-to scorer and yet doesn’t stay engaged enough when he doesn’t get the ball to be an effective glue-guy type. And when he gets frustrated with his shot or disillusioned with a lack of touches, he gets down and loses focus. He has the physical tools to be a good defender, but can be exposed, which also leads to some frustration and loss of focus.

Wally Szczerbiak and Alan Hahn head to the Wally Wall to break down two offensive possessions featuring Billy Garrett and Mario Hezonja.

Fizdale has been tough on him this season — most recently he yanked him from a game after not closing out on a three-point shot — but one thing Hezonja has proven is he’s coachable and cares about the team concept. He’s one of the most popular players in the locker room. It should also be noted that he was one of the only players who would scold Enes Kanter on the bench when Kanter was acting out about not starting and not playing.

Hezonja was engaged in this game from start to finish and it showed with how hard he played. But he also got himself into foul trouble, which led to a sixth foul late in the fourth quarter that didn’t allow him to finish the game. He was visibly upset about fouling out and during a timeout went over to discuss it with the referees.

The fans in Orlando met him with mostly cheers and Hezonja left with no hard feelings. The Magic needed this win and got it, to move into a tie for 7th in the East. They’re four games from clinching a playoff berth that Hezonja was supposed to be part of helping them reach.

“I’ll be the first fan of theirs to watch playoff basketball in this city,” he said, “so I hope they make it.”

NOTES:

Kevin Knox had 21 points on 7 of 13 shooting for his 11th 20+ scoring game of the season. Is the 19-year-old starting to figure some things out, at least on offense? Over the last 11 games, Knox is averaging 16 points and 4 rebounds, but more importantly, he’s shooting 44.3% from the field and 45% from three.

Kevin Knox speaks to Rebecca Haarlow after scoring 21 points in the Knicks' 114-100 loss to the Magic in Orlando.

Mitchell Robinson had his hands full with all-star Nikola Vucevic (29 points, 13 rebounds) and didn’t record a block through the first half. Robinson finished with 12 points, 9 rebounds, 3 steals and, yes, he recorded 2 blocks to keep his streak going. He has now recorded two blocks in 26 straight games, which is the second-longest by a rookie in NBA history. If he finishes the season with at least two blocks per game, his streak will reach 30. But that won’t come close to the NBA’s longest streak by a rookie, which is 45 straight games set by Manute Bol in 1985-86.

– Remember what we said about the need to find consistent three-point shooting in the previous blog? The Knicks followed up one of their best three-point nights of the season (18 against the Bulls) with one of their worst (6 for 27) in Orlando. They started the game 1 for 12. Now, it should be noted that the Magic have been one of the NBA’s best three-point defense teams since the All-Star break, so you’re facing a team that does a great job getting you off the line.

Emmanuel Mudiay struggled with his shot (3 for 13) but finished with his first double-double of the season with 13 points and a season-high 10 assists in 39:50. He had to log a heavy workload due to so many injuries in the backcourt.

– After two seasons in Westchester, Billy Garrett Jr. made his NBA debut for the Knicks. Garrett played 11:32 and had four points and two assists. His first NBA points came on a runner in the first quarter that bounced in and out and back in again. “OK,” he said when the shot went in, “I’m here.” Garrett said he was nervous, of course, walking into the arena but it helped when the locker room had several familiar faces of players — John Jenkins, for one — he played with in Westchester. But this call-up was unexpected. Garrett said he had already packed up his belongings and shipped them off to Chicago when he got the call to go to Orlando from Knicks Vice President of Player Development and G-League Operations Craig Robinson. Kadeem Allen’s concussion, along with injuries to guards Dennis Smith Jr. (sore back), Allonzo Trier (calf) and Frank Ntilikina (groin), left the Knicks very thin in the backcourt. So Garrett, who was undrafted out of DePaul, was next on the list. Ready or not, he had to go. Garrett said there are two large UPS boxes on their way back to DePaul, where he was supposed to meet them before his plans suddenly changed. But now he’s headed to Houston with an NBA contract for the rest of the season. He can afford to go shopping in Houston for some clothes, but those UPS boxes need to come back for the time being.

[Watch the Knicks Take On the Rockets Friday at 7:30 PM on MSG & MSG GO.]

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.