Who’s That Guy? Future Lottery Pick Mario Hezonja!Aykut Akici/EB via Getty Images
I have a theory. It isn’t rooted in anything scientific, but after dissecting a handful of YouTube highlights and scouting reports and remembering the checkered recent history of Europeans drafted in the top 10, I’m here to say that there is only one European superstar in this draft. And his name is not Kristaps. Let’s get started.
Who is he? Super Mario Hezonja!
What are his measurables? 6-foot-8, 200 pounds, 20 years old.
Stats? 7.7 ppg, 16.5 mpg, 46.2 percent shooting for FC Barcelona in Euroleague; 4.4 ppg, 45.1 percent, 13.9 mpg for Barcelona’s Spanish ACB team.
Where is he from? Dubrovnik, Croatia.
You might know him from: Seeing his name slotted near the top of just about every 2015 mock draft for the past 10 months.
How do you pronounce his name? I like to pronounce it like Ja Rule says “It’s murder” here. (HE-ZOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOONYAAAAAAAAAA.)
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His game in 15 words or fewer: Croatian Kobe. Croatian Klay Thompson. Croatian Jordan Crawford. One of these is right.
Is he a top-five pick? Unlikely. Top 10, probably. But not top five. For one thing, Kristaps Porzingis has been rocketing up draft boards thanks to his recent workout, and he’s stealing Mario’s buzz. For another, Barcelona is still finishing the playoffs in Europe, which will likely keep Hezonja from working out and interviewing with teams before the draft.
What are scouts saying? “I really love him,” one NBA scout told Chad Ford in April. “I love [Justise] Winslow, too, but I really think if this kid was in college we’d all be going crazy for him. He’s tough, he’s athletic, he shoots the s--- out of it. And the kid just knows how to play. He’s going to be really, really good in the NBA. He’s the first wing on my board.”
On the other hand, DraftExpress cautions:
Hezonja’s worst moments this season have come in situations where the intersection of his talent and confidence have led to him settling for difficult shots in the half court and looking to do too much with the ball in his hands … His body language is poor at times and he seems to get down on his teammates. … it will be fascinating to watch how his swagger, ego and unlimited self-confidence fit in on whichever team opts to draft him. His mentality could pay huge dividends if he reaches his lofty potential down the road, but what kind of growing pains will he experience early in his NBA career?
And an earlier scouting report notes: “Looked disconnected mentally from his teammates … Constantly talking to opponents.”
Where was he ranked before this year? At 16 years old, Hezonja was considered by some to be the best prospect in the world. Since then, he grew so much that he switched from point guard to shooting guard. He started living up to the hype at the 2011 Jordan Brand International game, and then joined the Euroleague version of an NBA playoff team, contributing off the bench for a stacked FC Barcelona roster.
Who else plays for FC Barcelona? Now 20, Hezonja has been stuck scrambling for backcourt minutes behind celebrated Euroleague lifers like Juan Carlos Navarro and Alex Abrines. (While we’re here, this Barcelona picture features Jacob Pullen of Kansas State fame, Joey Dorsey and Kostas Papanikolaou of Houston Rockets fame, Mario Hezonja of 2015 mock draft fame, and Bostjan Nachbar of NBA Summer League Hall of Fame fame. It’s a great picture.)
Where does Mario Hezonja think he should go in the draft?
And here is a Reddit thread featuring an endless reservoir of GIFs. And here he is throwing it between a guy’s legs on the way to a windmill.
What are his strengths? He’s got range and a quick release that can help NBA teams right away, and he can also shoot off the dribble. His defense is erratic, according to scouts, but that’s more a function of focus. He’s got the athleticism and instincts to be better down the line. He’s also constantly talking trash, but maybe that’s a strength only to me.
What are the risks here? Let’s go to Danny Chau for this one: “I was watching Kristaps tape and he played against Barcelona in late March. Hezonja had the ball at the top of the 3-point arc and had his center down low in the post in perfect position. Instead of passing it to him, Hezonja did a no-look, behind-the-back pass to a teammate at the wing, who then quickly passed it to the center, who got fouled. The center ran up to Hezonja and berated him and was held back, and when he wrested his arms from his teammates, he almost smacked the shit out of Hezonja. It was amazing.”
That anecdote, visualized:
He needs to get to the free throw line more, and like almost every wing in the draft, he’s got to improve his ballhandling. Still, he’s got all the tools to be a star. Henzonja’s biggest question mark is his biggest asset. By all accounts, he carries himself like the best player on the court, and that mentality works only if he’s actually the best player on the court. Can he be a role player in the NBA, or will his teammates try to fight him?
What’s the worst-case scenario? Imagine Bostjan Nachbar’s game with Kobe Bryant’s attitude.
What’s the best-case scenario? Imagine Klay Thompson’s game with Kobe Bryant’s attitude.
Why you should know him: Because this will be either a dream or a total disaster, and I’m not sure there’s much in between. It’s the best. As David Aldridge reported earlier this spring, after Zach LaVine’s dunk contest win in February, Hezonja went to practice the next day and attempted to re-create every dunk from the night before.
He didn’t get to play much in Spain. Even to some NBA teams, his lack of workouts make him a complete wild card. But that made me wonder: What if Henzonja’s being stuck on the bench in Barcelona had more to do with Europe’s seniority system than his own limits? What if he’s 20 years old, playing in the second-best professional league on earth, instead of college, and he’s the best-kept secret in the draft? Who was the last European guard who turned into a star? Aren’t we due? Could you imagine any better candidate to break the pattern than a cocky 6-foot-8 guard who was nicknamed “The Beast” growing up in Croatia?
“If I was in college I’d probably be the No. 1 pick,” Hezonja told Basketball Insiders in January. “I had an offer from Kentucky.”
Right now, most sites are projecting him to the Pistons at no. 8, in part because of his connections to Arn Tellem, the new vice-chairman of the franchise. Whether it’s Detroit or somewhere else, sliding in the draft will allow him to land in a better situation — less pressure to save everything on his own, and more chances to win early. These external factors are important to root for, because Hezonja is too ridiculous to not be great.
One GM told Ford in May: “He’s crazy. But I think it’s a good crazy. The type of crazy confidence that elite players need. If he can keep that competitiveness under control and be patient, he’s got a good shot to be one of the two or three best players in this draft in five years. He has that ‘it’ factor that several guys ahead of him don’t.”
Is there one quote that explains everything? “Respect? No, I never had respect to anybody on a basketball court,” Hezonja said in 2014. “I heard about: ‘If they smell blood, you get eaten.’ I’m not like that. I don’t care. Whether it’s a veteran or a young player standing in front of me I always have the same goal. I want to run over everybody.”
Who’s ready to watch him try to run over the NBA?