It didn’t take long for Mario Hezonja to win over Rip City.
Portland from 1 to 10 so far: Food 11, Weather 11, Life 11, Basketball 12.— Mario Hezonja (@mariohezonja) September 19, 2019
For a player whose career has largely disappointed, this is a good start to a new beginning.
In Portland, Hezonja, 24, hopes to rekindle some of the flame that made him a fire No. 5 overall pick back in 2015. He aims to do right by countryman and fallen #ForeverTrailBlazer Drazen Petrovic. He wants to show he’s more than the occasional viral highlight—as cool as they may be.
Just ask LeBron James.
Or Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Entering his fifth season, Hezonja has a lot to prove. He has the luxury of low expectations, but from what we seem to know about him (admittedly not a lot), he’s using that—and his fresh start—to find himself in Rip City.
Expecting a top-five pick to emerge after signing a minimum contract is setting the kid up for failure, but forgetting what made him a high selection in the first place is doing his talent and ceiling a disservice.
That ceiling may not now reach the height it once did, but the Magic-turned-Knick-turned-Blazer has a real chance to use 2019-20 as his own personal comeback campaign.
Hezonja sold his soul to the devil in July 2018. We’re not beating around the bush here.
For what it’s worth, you can’t blame a guy looking for a stage, some skrilla and a shot at greener pastures. But signing a deal with the Dolan went about as expected—he got to start at times, went viral others, built a small cult following…and was forgotten and left for dead when his contract was done.
Truth is, Hezojna’s year in the Big Apple goes historically down in one way: as a pawn in the colossally failed chess game that was James Dolan’s Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and—because why not, James—Zion Williamson pursuit.
Hezonja was, essentially, a young flier who helped retain cap flexibility. Now, he is looking to fit in with one of the best locker-room cultures the league has to offer—and showcase his skills for a winner while he’s at it.
What He Brings To The Table
In 2018-19, Hezonja closed out the final month posting an average of 18.8 points, 8.5 rebounds and 6.3 assists, all while shooting 50.9 percent from the field (despite just 26.7 percent from deep) in 33.3 minutes per contest (4).
If Hezonja can bring even half of that to Portland, he’ll be as well received on the court as he’s already been in the Twittersphere.
Since joining the NBA, Hezonja has grown three inches and gained 45 pounds (of presumably good muscle), per Dwight Jaynes of NBC Sports Northwest. And in case you’re wondering, that’s not just a fun fact about one of Portland’s offseason additions.
The Trail Blazers’ new wing has the body (6’9”, 240 pounds, per Jaynes’ story) to play on the outside, as well as the skills and the mindset to run point. He didn’t grow up a 3 or 4; he was a guard who controlled the ball, came off curls and shot the rock, and later grew into who we know today.
It’s fair to ponder whether Hezonja’s growth spurt could explain his shooting decline. His rookie season, he knocked down 34.9 percent from deep, and then it immediately fell to 29.9 percent the next year. After that, his long ball rose to 33.7 percent as an NBA junior, but in his throw-away senior run with the Knicks, he fell back down to 27.6 percent.
The question is whether his growing body did him dirty or if his trainers and coaches miscast him along the way.
Photo Credit: Associated Press, Seth Wenig
Terry Stotts has famously said (poorly paraphrasing): Guys learn to shoot in Portland. That was part-way true for Al-Farouq Aminu, and even more (less?) part-way true for Evan Turner.
Now, Hezonja gives Portland a wing who can spell the fresh-faced Anfernee Simons at either backup 1 or 2 throughout the year while providing a much more NBA-typical frame, not to mention defensive instincts not yet in Simons’ repertoire.
Hezi (trademark pending) can also play the wing, although don’t expect his jumper to be revolutionary, even under Stotts. If it’s a general threat to defenses, which it should be in the Blazers’ system, it will do just fine.
What To Expect In 2019-20
Hezonja, despite his versatility across positions, hasn’t earned solid-backup status at any spot on the roster. At least, not to begin the year.
The short-guy-turned-tall-guy could earn perma-backup small forward duty behind Rodney Hood by the time the season comes to a close, but Kent Bazemore likely holds that spot despite also holding backup-2 duties behind CJ McCollum. (A staggered wing rotation will do that when you are relying on Simons to be your primary backup point and almost always keeping Dame or CJ live.)
Expect Hezonja’s season to mimic much of last’s. The starting-lineup presence won’t be there, barring significant team injury, but the spurts of excellence and viral moments will. He’s too good for them not too.
Our @BryantKnox takes a look at the impact Hassan Whiteside will make to the @trailblazers . How do you think he will play this season? #ripcity #blazers https://t.co/bOodtraoM8 pic.twitter.com/QoQbsQd0zB— Oregon Sports News (@oregonsportnews) September 12, 2019
OSN’s Bryant Knox previews the 2019-20 season for Hassan Whiteside.
On the other hand, his shot could still struggle. He could be a step slow against the league’s elite perimeter athletes. Frankly, he could look like a minimum-contract pickup, which he quite literally is.
The good news is that Hezonja’s ceiling—while, again, not as high as it once was—is higher than most realize. He’s still just 24 years old. He has a chance to play point guard through power forward this upcoming season, and he (finally) has a chance to play with drive-and-kick guards unlike anyone he’s seen in his pro career.
For Hezonja, he could very well fall into Nik Stauskas-status, dropping out of the rotation after an untimely dry streak. After all, there are minutes to be had this season and a number of candidates to take them.
Unlike Stauskas, Hezonja’s run in ViralLand from recent past just might result in a real-life career to boot.
Expect the Blazers to explore their options plenty at each position early in the season. And expect Hezi to nab one spot or another.
OSN’S Jared Wright and Bryant Knox will be previewing the entire 2019-20 Portland Trail Blazers Roster. Find previous player previews here: