The reports about Mario Hezonja leading into the NBA Draft described an athletic player who stood out in the European game as a scorer off the bench in the ACB league in Spain.
He’d been playing pro in Croatia at the age of 14. The NBA seemed inevitable and yet when he got to Orlando as the fifth overall pick, he looked lost.
Hezonja was a player without a position who struggled in a traditional system that told him to play off the ball. To him, he was a scorer and a playmaker. But in his first three-plus seasons in the NBA, he didn’t look like he fit.
Then, out of desperation, with every point guard on the roster out with injury, David Fizdale gave him the ball.
“Back at home,” Hezonja said, “this was my natural position.”
Point-forward is the only way to describe it. Hezonja is a different man in this role. He’s engaged, directing traffic, competitive and, actually, quite good.
He followed up his first career triple-double in Houston with a career-high 30 points, including the go-ahead three-pointer with 44.8 seconds to go. Hezonja shot 12 for 21 from the field and was 3 for 6 from downtown. He added 6 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 steals in his 36 minutes of action.
There’s only two games left in the season, but Fizdale says he definitely wants to see more.
“Let’s keep looking at it and seeing where this takes him,” Fizdale said, “and see if that’s something that really is where he should be in the future.”
OK, so here comes some harsh reality, which must be added for proper perspective. The bulk of Hezonja’s triple-double against the Rockets came in the fourth quarter of a game the Knicks trailed by 42 points. He was doing it against Houston’s subs. The heroics in the comeback win over the Wizards was done with all-star Bradley Beal sitting out the final 18 minutes of the game and veteran Jeff Green sitting out the entire second half.
But that doesn’t mean Hezonja, who will be a free agent, isn’t showing something to consider for next season. Let’s begin with the fact that he spent this season in and out of the lineup and yet never once complained or turned on the coaching staff. In fact, he was the one guy who would get on Enes Kanter’s case when the center would go public with his displeasure in his reduced role.
He is often quick to credit the coaching staff for “putting me in that spot” as he said after this game. His enthusiasm for the game and his teammate’s success was genuine and you can tell by how many players returned that love to him. So we already know he’s a pro who is team-first and extremely coachable.
Let’s next remind you what we said at the top, Hezonja’s success in the Spanish ACB league — which many consider second only to the NBA as far as the most competitive pro basketball you will find in the world — was in a role where he came off the bench. As the Knicks look to upgrade their talent through free agency this summer and also add more talent with a top-5 lottery pick, they’re still going to need to fill out the roster and have a strong bench. Has Hezonja showed something to consider bringing him back?
He already told reporters that he’d be ready to sign if the Knicks wanted him back. Finances, of course, will dictate that, but maybe the Knicks found something in Hezonja.
“I’m just doing my job, training hard and preparing myself for games and not quitting,” Hezonja said. “None of us quit during the season.”
– Several players marveled after the game about how loud The Garden was down the stretch in the fourth quarter as the Knicks made plays to clinch a rare win. It made them wonder, much like Fizdale did, what it would be like if these games were about clinching the playoffs. “Yeah, I think about the days when we put it together,” Fizdale said, “how this place is gonna be.”
– Dennis Smith Jr. returned to the lineup despite a sore back just to give the Knicks some help at the point guard position. He came off the bench to play 25 minutes and put up 15 points and 5 assists. At one point he had a breakaway dunk and barely got it to the rim. When he landed, he winced a straightened up his back.
Later in the game, he dove for a loose ball on a defensive stop, which Fizdale pointed to afterward as an example of his commitment to the team despite playing hurt. “I don’t know how many teams at this point in the season have guys coming back playing hurt to help the team with a record like ours,” Fizdale said. “I think that says a lot about these young guys and the character they have.”
– Mitchell Robinson had 11 points and 11 rebounds with 3 blocked shots, which continued his streak of 2 or more blocks a game to 28. But he wasn’t the shot-blocking leader on this night. Luke Kornet recorded 4 blocks in the game to go along with his 17 points and 7 rebounds.
– Kevin Knox had 16 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists with a steal and a block in 32:16. Though he was 1 for 7 from three in this game, overall the 19-year-old seems to be finishing the season strong. Over the last 14 games, he’s averaging 16.5 points and 4.4 rebounds while shooting 43% from the field and 40.5% from three-point range. Also of note, he’s getting to the foul line for 4.7 FTAs per game in that span.
– The win ended a nine-game losing streak to the Wizards at The Garden. It was tied with the Rockets for the second-longest active home losing streak. The Cavs have won 10 straight at The Garden, but the Knicks won’t see them again until next season.
[Watch the Knicks Take On the Bulls Tuesday at 7:30 PM on MSG & MSG GO.]