After flaming out with the Magic, 23-year-old Mario Hezonja reunites with Scott Perry in New York, hoping to change his NBA narrative and reinvent his game.
Free agency has been as electric as we all had hoped it would be. LeBron shifted the landscape of the league Sunday, then DeMarcus Cousins nuked it on Monday. In the midst of the chaos the Knicks—who remain prudent with their cap discipline in hopes of a big 2019 summer—made a move of their own in Mario Hezonja. The signing didn’t quite shift the landscape of the league, conference, or even division, but it was a small victory. If the World Cup has taught us anything the past couple weeks, it’s that Croatians named Mario know how to score.
Scott Perry reportedly kicked off free agency with a call to the fifth overall selection from the 2015 draft. Perry was part of the Orlando Magic front office when they selected Hezonja immediately after Kristaps Porzingis and clearly sees something in the 23-year-old. Other teams must see something, too, as Hezonja was courted by the Kings, Grizzlies and Trail Blazers. The Croatian turned down multi-year offers from other suitors for a chance to play with Fizdale.
Start spreading the news…I want to be a part of it, New York,New York! Very excited to be joining the Knicks and play for coach Fizdale! A dream come true!! #betterhairdaysareahead pic.twitter.com/V7JfOUc9ob
— Mario Hezonja (@mariohezonja) July 2, 2018
On the surface, this signing fits into the same paradigm as Emmanuel Mudiay, Trey Burke, and to a lesser extent, Enes Kanter. The mission statement when Steve Mills took over was to take chances on lottery talent. However, one part that has not been covered enough is each of those players can walk at the end of 2019. This is mutually beneficial for the players (assuming they play well) as well as the team (assuming they can be major players during next summer’s free agency).
It’s understandable to view this deal as a head-scratcher assuming the Knicks’ position of irrelevancy in NBA free agency. Mario could flame out—in that case, no harm, no foul. However, if Hezonja could reinvent himself in the Big Apple, then the ‘Bockers could be losers of the Mario sweepstakes next summer when the swingman is back on the market. Despite all this, the Knicks still signed Hezonja due to one salivating idea: his potential.
Let me take you on a brief tangent on professional wrestling. In pro wrestling, a character can outweigh talent. A guy can have all the talent in the world, but packaged with a garbage character, and people won’t care. Take for example Cody Rhodes. On the talent side, he’s among the elite in the business. His character for WWE, Stardust, looked like a Guardians of the Galaxy reject. The result was booking purgatory, a wrestler no one gave a shit about and an eventual release from the company.
After his departure, he signed with Ring of Honor Wrestling where he underwent a character change. Rhodes remained a villain—what industry folks call “heel”—but now added a subtle edge to him as well as his real name. His reimagining was met with a skyrocket in popularity as well as a fresh new offer from WWE.
Hezonja, like Rhodes, has all the talent in the world. Unfortunately Orlando has more Mush in them than even James Dolan. They selected Hezonja on his microwave scoring ability yet the Magic played him inconsistently, to be kind. When Mario found playing time there was no plan for him. This is a reocurring theme for the Magic, most notably with Victor Oladipo and less notably with Kyle O’Quinn or Moe Harkless.
When you talk to Hezonja about what he needed most is rhythm:
“Pretty much the whole game is based on rhythm. When things slow down for you, it’s easier to play. It’s an easy game, but it’s hard to make it easy.”
The Magic made the game the furthest thing from easy. Last season, there would be stretches where he played around 15 minutes a game, then there were weeks where he would scrap together 10 minutes. To make matters even worse, Frank Vogel did not find a concrete role for him. He was essentially relief for whoever needed a break. He played a decent amount at the power forward last season, where he surrendered a whopping 71 percent to opponents on post ups.
After three years in NBA purgatory, you have to figure Hezonja wants minutes above all. It was likely a main selling point coming to New York, but according to Hezonja himself it was actually David Fizdale. According to reports, Hezonja was drawn to Coach Fizdale and the chance to carve out a major role.
Minutes will not be hard to find. Courtney Lee is as good as gone. Michael Beasley’s chances of returning are slim to nil. Fizdale is sure to throw as much shit to the wall and see what sticks. The only real competition Hezonja will have at the wing is Damyean Dotson and Kevin Knox. To make matters even better, it would not be surprising to see Knox see a lot of minutes at the four where his frame stands a better chance than Hezonja’s.
That gives Hezonja a golden opportunity to repackage himself into the prototypical 3-and-D wing while still adding his own flavor. Fizdale should refer to how Doug McDermott played last season as a starting point for his new wing. Despite his lackluster field goal and three-point percentage, Mario can shoot the ball and catch fire quickly.
Mario’s true shooting percentage (54.4 percent last season) paints a more accurate picture of his performance. As he said himself, it’s all about rhythm. Shooting in particular relies on finding a rhythm. Next season he will not only get enough court time he will also have the greenest of lights. Fizdale has been encouraging Kanter to shoot threes—so you can only imagine the smooth talking he will do to Hezonja.
Off the ball is where I believe it will all come together. It is no secret that when the ball is moving beautiful things happen. The Magic did not have a whole lot of versatile players on the floor at once, so that movement was minimal to say the least. Conversely, the ball won’t stick to one man with Frank and/or Trey running the show.
Hezonja demonstrated he can move effectively without the ball just as much as he can spot up from deep. Like Tim Hardaway Jr., it seems Mario is at his best in space. In addition to the nice vision shown in his Knicks Film School breakdown, he is also has some bungees on him. We saw last season that Frank, too, possesses great court vision and willing to find the open cutter.
As you see, there are enough reasons to talk yourself into a rebirth here. The Magic shackled Hezonja and now Fizdale has arrived to break those chains.
My only remaining question is this—can Mario’s personality fit in New York.
— Mario Hezonja (@mariohezonja) July 2, 2018
I think Mario is finally home.