Mario Hezonja

Can Mario Hezonja reach his potential in New York?

Out of the prospects carefully selected by the Orlando Magic in the 10 years leading into the 2018 draft spectacle, only Aaron Gordon (2014) and Jonathan Isaac (2017) remain a part of the team.

Be it through substandard form or simply not wanting to stick around, the rest are gone. Mario Hezonja added his name to the list of players that have bolted from Florida this summer, a list that includes an All-Star in Victor Oladipo and solid pieces like Courtney Lee and Domantas Sabonis.

The 23-year-old was a polarizing figure in his three seasons for the Magic, who often seemed (rightfully) underwhelmed with the production their former fifth pick was providing. They demonstrated their displeasure by declining the Croatian’s 2018-19 team option, allowing him to make his way to the Big Apple on a 1-year, $6.5 million deal.

With a dearth of young talent, Orlando may have been wise to try and hang on to Hezonja, but that’s in the past. Now, the Knicks – who have had trouble developing stars of their own – get a crack at molding the disappointing lottery pick into a stud.

He may have a below par player for the majority of his career,  but in the final knockings of his Magic career,  the 6-foot-8 wing showed some of the promise that fans had expected from day dot. Over the final 10 games of the season, Hezonja was finally let loose, averaging 13.9 points, 5.6 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.8 steals per game while shooting a very respectable 37.7 percent from behind the 3-point arc.

Take those numbers, and add in the elite-level 100.9 defensive rating that he was pumping out during that time frame, and it’s easy to see the very real 3-and-D upside that Hezonja possesses. That’s the version of him New York Knicks fans want to see.

When speaking with Stefan Bondy from Daily News, new Knicks head coach David Fizdale gave a ringing endorsement of his new man – despite his sub-par first three seasons.

“It’s so easy to write a kid off after a couple years. But any one of you and me when we were 18 to 21 were jerks. Let’s be real about that,” Fizdale said. “So a lot of times we discard these players and this kid still has a lot of things as he showed at the end of the year. Although he had struggled, it finally started to pick up.”

With a healthy Kristaps Porzinigis, a defensive stud in Frank Ntilikina and this year’s lottery pick Kevin Knox likely littering the starting line-up, Super Mario forecasts to replace Michael Beasley as New York’s bench gunner. If New York opts to go small and start Knox at the power forward position, Hezonja may just find himself in the starting unit come opening night.

A starting role might be exactly what Hezonja needs. He was given minimal opportunities in Orlando, starting just 41 out of a possible 219 outings. 30 of those appearances came in 2017-18, and he looked like a whole other player when he was given the starting nod. The 23-year-old averaged 14 points, 5.6 rebounds and 2.2 assists in the first five, which should give Knicks fans great hope about his future.

The best part for New York general manager Scott Perry is that even if Super Mario isn’t quite as super as they expected, they can simply let him walk next summer when his deal expires. If Hezonja does slash through that ‘bust’ label, the Knicks will be in pole position to re-sign him. Win-win.

 “No judgment. I’m not going to look back at your past for any negatives. I want to start from scratch and develop you and play you … That’s all he was asking for was a fresh start and being a place where he was valued and people cared about him. I think it’s going to be a good relationship.” Fizdale told Daily News

With a run of form behind him, a coach who has his back and a big role to fill, Mario Hezonja looks like he is on track for his best season yet. Spike Lee is going to like this kid.

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