How does the newly signed Mario Hezonja fit on the Portland Trail Blazers?
If you could take away one thing from Neil Olshey’s tenure as the Portland Trail Blazers general manager, it is his affinity for finding diamonds in the rough. Over his time with Portland and previously, the Clippers, Olshey has loved to find players that were previously overlooked.
Players such as Moe Harkless, Shabazz Napier, Seth Curry, and Jusuf Nurkic have all essentially resurrected their careers with Portland. Olshey specifically likes to target high draft picks who for one reason or another, has not found the success of his draft pick.
This description fits new Trail Blazer Mario Hezonja perfectly. Once the 5th overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft by the Orlando Magic, Hezonja was never able to translate his sky high potential into consistent, substantial production for the Magic and later the New York Knicks.
The hope is that the third time will be the charm for the Croatian forward who was childhood friends with Nurkic growing up. But in order for fans to understand if he is succeeding, they first must understand his strengths and weaknesses as a player.
Hezonja is a big forward, something that the Blazers are lacking on their roster. After overhauling their roster over the offseason, Portland transitioned from a forward heavy team to a guard and big heavy team. That makes the roster more diverse and a better fit offensively, but the defense is projected to take a small step down.
The Western Conference is loaded with big forwards. While players such as LeBron James, Paul George, (and to a lesser extent) Bojan Bogdanovic, Danilo Gallinari, Luka Doncic, and Draymond Green cannot be stopped, it is almost imperative for opposing teams to have the requisite size to try to somewhat contain them.
In a limited role, Hezonja can be that guy. At 6-foot-8 and 240 pounds, he is a very good athlete with a powerful frame. Defensively, he can potentially match up against shooting guards through power forwards. He knows how to move quickly and not get moved through.
Originally entering the league as a point forward, Hezonja has shown flashes of that playmaking skill in the league. He will likely not be as proficient as Evan Turner in this manner, but he could be useful in a pinch.
With the Blazers looking to make more noise in the playoffs, they need players who can step up when it counts the most. Say what you want about Hezonja’s lackluster performance thus far in his NBA career, but he gets excited to play in big matchups. Just look at his dunk on Giannis Antetokounmpo and game winning block on LeBron. He definitely does not lack confidence.
Obviously, Hezonja’s skillset is very diverse and seems to be that of a productive NBA player. But there is a reason why he was signed to a minimum contract. He has never been able to turn his talent into production. It could be partially blamed on his two previous stops being the Magic, who at the time were run poorly, and the Knicks, who, you know…
But Hezonja has to be accountable for some of his failures. The perception around the league (fans, teams, and media) is that Hezonja thinks of himself as a much better player than he actually is, and turns sour when he is relegated to lesser roles. There is hope for change, as Portland is a nice fit for him organizationally, and Hezonja referenced the need to change during his introductory press conference.
Hezonja has never seemed to put in the requisite effort on defense. He often gets lost off ball, and has not had the focus required to be a positive defender. However, because it is more of an effort issue, there is hope for Hezonja to get back on track in Portland. Terry Stotts demands defense from his rotation players, and if Hezonja continues to provide suboptimal effort on that end, he will once again be booted out of the rotation.
Despite being labeled as a point forward, Hezonja’s decision making is not the most trustworthy. With an almost 1:1 assist to turnover ratio last season, for every good idea that he has, it comes with a bad play. Most of this can stem to trying to do a little too much, and in a limited role as the fourth or fifth ball handler behind Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Anfernee Simons, and maybe even Rodney Hood, he could succeed.
The biggest concern for Hezonja is his shooting, or lack of it. Coming into the draft, he was billed as an elite shooter. Clearly, that has not been the case, as Hezonja has never cleared 35% from behind the arc in the NBA.
While he is not likely to suddenly transform into that elite shooter, a couple of factors may propel him into a marksman similar to Al-Farouq Aminu and Harkless. Portland now has much better floor spacing on their team, which will lead to more open shots for Hezonja. Additionally, Olshey loves to harp on the increased shot quality Lillard and McCollum create for their teammates.
Fans should not expect much from Hezonja. While he does have undeniable talent, there are many players similar to him.
Coach Terry Stotts’ system has always seemed to bring the best out of players. If he hits, he can be a solid 9th or 10th man in the rotation. If not, his cheap contract makes it easier to swallow, making it a low risk, high reward move.