Over the past several years, I (like any self-respecting NBA fan) have watched as little Orlando basketball as possible. If the Magic were on my television it was because either a) they were playing the Knicks, or b) something in my life did not go as planned. So, when the Knicks used much of their Non-Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception to sign Mario Hezonja to a one-year, $6.5 million contract, I didn't really have an opinion.
Of course, I remembered the pre-draft parallels to J.R. Smith because that's not the sort of comparison you forget. The basis for it was Hezonja's combination of athleticism, shooting promise, and a swagger bordering on cockiness that can serve a player well in New York if harnessed properly. Hezonja's 6'8 frame coupled with his purported skillset seem ideal for a modern NBA offense. But, I also knew there had to be a reason that the Magic, bereft of talent and upside for roughly a decade now, declined his fourth-year option after using the fifth overall pick on him in 2015.
So, I set out to understand: What is Hezonja's game like and how will he fit in New York, particularly on offense? The table below shows how Hezonja used the majority of his offensive possessions last season and their corresponding efficiency, per NBA.com:
More than one-third of Hezonja's offensive possessions came from spot up attempts, meaning he was standing stationary on the perimeter and received a swing pass or kick-out, leading to a shot. And, on those attempts he averaged a respectable 1.05 points per possession, better than two-thirds of the league. Even among volume shooters, he was comfortably above average. In 2017-18, 84 players took at least 200 spot up attempts; of that group, Hezonja ranked 34th in effective field goal percentage at 55.4%. That would've made him the best high-volume spot up shooter on the Knicks last season, edging out Courtney Lee (54.6%) and far superior to Tim Hardaway Jr. (48.3%). Overall, the Knicks ranked 26th in frequency of spot up attempts and 25th in efficiency at 0.97 points per possession. So, Hezonja's presence will provide a nice outlet for primary ball-handlers, Frank Ntilikina, Trey Burke and Emmanual Mudiay as they look to drive and score or kick.
What may surprise most NBA fans is that Hezonja is deceptively large and was primarily used as a stretch-four last season. In the clips below, Hezonja shows his ability, as the nominal power forward, to spread the defense well beyond the three-point line a la Ryan Anderson:
Hezonja likes to spot up above the break around pick-and-rolls, dribble hand-offs, and post-ups to create space for his teammates. In fact, Mario shot better above the break (34.4% on 227 attempts) than he did from the corners (30% on just 40 attempts). Even more impressive, Hezonja shot nearly 39% on 188 three-point attempts between 25-29 feet, per NBA.com. He's one of those guys whose shot looks so pretty and effortless that you're surprised it doesn't go in more often.
If you're a Knicks fan, you may be thinking, "Great, we just picked up a less efficient Doug McDermott." Both players are predominantly spot up shooters and canny off-ball cutters, but that's where the similarities end: the key difference being Hezonja's ability to put the ball on the floor and create offense for himself. For McDermott, more than 90% of his field goals were assisted; Hezonja generated 33% of his buckets by himself. An interesting wrinkle of "spot up" plays on NBA.com is that they are not restricted to catch-and-shoot attempts. If a player spots up, catches a pass, and then drives, that still counts as a "spot up" per Synergy. In the play below, Hezonja is (essentially) spotting up around a Shelvin Mack/ Bismack Biyombo pick-and-roll:
When he catches the swing pass, he's already sprinting downhill towards the basket. When he makes quick decisions like this, his size, athleticism and craft around the basket make him difficult to stop. Another thing that surprised me when watching his film is how comfortable he is absorbing contact and finishing through defenders.
The way he creates offense for himself most frequently, though, is in transition.
Looking at the chart from before, you'll see that transition opportunities accounted for 19% of the possessions that Hezonja used. You'll also notice he ranked in just the 45th percentile in that category. But, the more encouraging number is that 19%, indicating that gets out and runs pretty frequently. As a team, New York only got out in transition for 13% of their possessions, ranking 23rd in the league. One reason Hezonja was able to push the ball so often was his absurdly high steal rate. Sure, Orlando's defense was substantially worse when he played, so maybe he was doing too much gambling, but he accounted for 30.7% of his team's steals while he was on the floor. Of the 202 players that averaged at least 20 minutes per game in 55 or more games last season, Only 10 players had a higher steal percentage than Hezonja. And, further separating him from McDermott, when Mario gets out in the open court, he can do this:
Another way Hezonja gets out in transition is via grab-and-go rebounds. He may not be the most instinctual or aggressive rebounder, but when he does secure a board, he often looks to push. This is one benefit of having him play the power forward role on defense - it puts him in better rebounding position than when he guards wings.
The next most frequent way he creates offense for himself is in the half court as a pick-and-roll ball handler. Last season he was again more efficient than two-thirds of the league on such plays, ranking in the 67th percentile. More often than I'd like, he settles for pull up mid-range jumpers coming off ball screens. However, he also has shown the ability to pull up from three, punish switches and snake screens to create more space:
After watching so many Hezonja highlights, I had to force myself to watch his misses and turnovers. He's the type of prospect who is positively tantalizing when you catch him on the right nights. Obviously, he has his flaws: inconsistent effort on defense, an extremely low assist rate, weak rebounding numbers, and at times a head-scratching shot selection to name a few. But, with the departure of Michael Beasley, the Knicks will need someone who can create for themselves and get buckets. Hezonja won't go about it in the same way as the jab stepping, isolation-heavy Beasley. Hezonja will look to push the ball in transition and get the Garden rocking with some highlight dunks.
The term "second draft" gets used by NBA analysts like Danny Leroux to describe when organizations roll the dice by acquiring lottery picks who didn't pan out on their first teams. The Knicks have been major players in the second draft market recently with their signings of Burke and Mudiay. Hezonja is another perfect example. He's coming from a volatile team that hasn't shown the ability to develop talent over the years. Meanwhile, Knicks new coach David Fizdale built his reputation by developing less talented players in Miami. Hezonja's success is far from guaranteed. It may not even be probable. But, it's a worthwhile gamble to acquire such a highly touted prospect who will not turn 24 until February of next year. At the very least, his ability to spot up from deep will allow room for the Knicks' young point guards to create offense and grow as players. At the very most? All Hezonja needs is a change of scenery to reach his sky-high potential.