Mario Hezonja: Is Elite Shooter Confident… or Cocky?

Croatian shooting guard combines rare shooting and athleticism with huge question marks elsewhere. Is that too risky for the Sixers at No. 3?

Basketball writer Derek Bodner is covering the NBA draft for Philadelphia magazine at Sixers Draftland

As we continue our series profiling potential Sixers draft picks, we now take a look at Mario Hezonja, a 6′ 8″ Croatian shooting guard that played in the ACB in Spain.

Before getting into Hezonja’s strengths and weaknesses, it’s important to take a look at the ACB. It’s easy to look at Hezonja’s pedestrian stats and the 15 minutes per game he played and wonder what all the fuss is about. Keep in mind that the ACB is, by most accounts, the second best basketball league in the world, and Hezonja’s team, F.C. Barcelona, is one of the best teams in that league.

Hezonja has eight teammates who were drafted by NBA teams, including NBA veterans such as Bostjan Nachbar, Maciej Lampe and Juan Carlos Navarro. His team includes DeShaun Thomas, who is two years removed from dominating the Big Ten to the tune of 19.8 points per game at Ohio State.

Other former college stars, such as Luke Harangody, are scattered throughout the ACB, except instead of being 21- or 22-year-old boys they’re now 25- to 30-year-old men, having even more physical and mental maturity on top of what allowed them to dominate high-level college basketball.

And neither Thomas nor Harangody average double figure points per game in the ACB. Barcelona has nine players who average at least 15 minutes per game, but nobody who averages more than 24. Of those nine players, only Hezonja is under 21, and he just turned 20 in February.

The ACB is a deep, talented, veterans league. Hezonja, and Kristaps Porzingis as well, is in a very different situation than he would be if he were playing on a college team, against opponents his age and at his stage of player development.

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Key information

Age: 20 years old

Measurements: 6’8″, 200 pounds.

Stats: 5.8 points, 2.0 rebounds, 1.2 assists per game in 15.4 minutes. He shot 45.7% from the field and 37.9% from three point range.

Chance of being available at No. 3: Very good. There have been no real rumors to indicate Hezonja could go either to the Wolves at No. 1 or the Lakers at No. 2.

Why should you be interested?

There are times when watching young basketball players —whether at high school tournaments, college games or European leagues — when the NBA prospects jump out almost immediately. They’re usually the biggest, the most athletic and the most skilled.

Standing 6′ 8″ with range well out beyond the NBA three point line, and perhaps the most explosive athlete in the draft, Hezonja is one of those standouts.

If Hezonja were able to come stateside and compete at the NBA draft combine — Barcelona is still competing in the ACB playoffs, and Hezonja is unlikely to come over before Thursday’s draft — he likely would have been rated as one of the best athletes in the draft, regardless of position. Few shooting guards have his combination of size, lateral mobility, and elite explosiveness around the rim. For that reason alone, Hezonja would be a highly sought-after prospect.

But Hezonja is not just an athlete, as he possesses an intriguing skill set as well. Hezonja is one of the better shooters in the draft, connecting on 37.9% of his 153 three point attempts this season.

Two things need to be taken into account when looking at Hezonja’s three-point percentage that make it even more impressive than the (already good) 37.9% he connected on. First, the three-point line in both the ACB (his regional league) and the Euroleague (transnational league) extends out to 22.2 feet in some places, about halfway between the NCAA and NBA line. This not only made those shots more difficult than many of his college peers attempted, but it should make his adjustment to the NBA three-pointer easier than the adjustment college prospects will face.

Second, Hezonja was doing that against professional competition. Not only is that competition older and more experienced, but they’re teams that have played together year-in and year-out, practicing the same defensive sets and schemes that high-level college programs just don’t have the opportunity to do because of the roster turnover, and limited practice time, in the college game.

The combination of these two factors, along with how prominent the three-point shot was in Hezonja’s game (making up nearly 60% of his field goal attempts on the season) makes the efficiency that Hezonja was able to maintain very impressive.

A big reason Hezonja was able to get so many quality looks from distance was because of how proficient he is at shooting on the move, especially when running off of screens on the perimeter. The footwork, balance and quickness necessary to get these shots off is extremely rare, and it’s something that Hezonja already possesses coming into the league. Hezonja’s in almost constant motion on the court, forcing his defender to exert a lot of energy, and forcing help defenders to be on top of their game to slow him down and provide help when necessary. It’s one thing to be able to shoot when stationed in the corner, but to be able to shoot after coming off of a screen at full speed is a special skill.

Hezonja’s ability to maintain his balance off of a screen, get excellent elevation in his jump shot, and get the shot off so quickly means that defenders aren’t able to stray away from him very often. That spacing alone helps open up an offense, and would be a great addition next to a post scorer like Joel Embiid.

As previously mentioned, Hezonja’s an elite wing athlete, something he mainly showcases off the ball. Hezonja will be shown frequently on Sports Center next season, as he’s always a threat to throw down an alley-oop in emphatic fashion. Once again, his ability to move without the ball makes things difficult for a defense, as it penalizes players who roam off of their man in an effort to play the passing lanes or double down on another scorer.

Hezonja also has some defensive potential, as he can move his feet very well laterally when he’s engaged on that end of the court. He also has the athleticism to provide some help as a weak-side shot blocker.

Why shouldn’t you be interested?

Despite his shooting, athleticism and defensive potential, there are some concerns with Hezonja reaching his full potential:

  • Ball handling / shot creation
  • Inability to get to the free-throw line
  • Inconsistent effort defensively
  • Lack of contributions outside of scoring
  • Attitude(?)

Hezonja’s fairly weak ball handling is one of the biggest obstacles preventing him from unlocking his full potential at this point in his career. Hezonja has a very quick first step, something which could unlock a very good dribble-drive game down the line, but he’ll need to further refine his ball handling to do so. Even when Hezonja beats his man off the dribble, if he’s met with help defenders he struggles to change direction and get by the defense’s second level.

His ball handling is also a part of the reason for his low free-throw rate, as Hezonja attempted just 30 free throws on the season, including only 6 free throws in 470 minutes of ACB play. The free throw rate is slightly lower in the ACB and in the Euroleague than on most of the high-level college teams, but not so much as to justify Hezonja’s comically low free-throw rate.

PlayerFree throw rate (FTA/FGA)
Mario Hezonja (ACB/Euroleague combined)11.7%
Emmanuel Mudiay25.5%
D'Angelo Russell30.3%
Justise Winslow43.8%
Stanley Johnson45.6%

The low free-throw rate is likely a combination of his ball handling, the role he plays on Barcelona’s offense as an off-the-ball scorer, and settling for contested jump shots more often than he should.

Hezonja does have good defensive potential, and when he’s locked in on that end of the court he can already be a plus defender. The problem is, his effort comes and goes on defense. It seems to be frequently tied to his own involvement in Barcelona’s offense, and hopefully the inconsistency is something he grows out of, especially if he gets to a situation where playing time and offensive touches are more consistent.

Add up the low free-throw rate, the fact that he doesn’t create much for his teammates, low rebounding numbers, and inconsistent defensive effort and Hezonja can become one-dimensional. It’s a very important dimension, and one that he’s good at, but you would like for him to more consistently impact games in different ways.

Finally, Hezonja’s attitude can be described as either confident or cocky, depending on your disposition. He’s the type of guy who will believe he’s the best player on the court, almost no matter the situation.

Some will view that confidence as a positive, some a negative. Confidence is certainly necessary in a franchise player, and we’ll frequently jump on people for being timid or mentally soft. There is a line, though, and Hezonja can toe that line a little too closely at times, and it shows in some of the questionable shots that he takes.

Fit with the Sixers

Hezonja’s perimeter shooting, his ability to get that shot off quickly, and his ability to shoot on the move and coming off of a screen would all be great additions to the Sixers offense. His potential to be a two-way player and also be a factor scoring in transition would also fit in nicely with what the Sixers are doing.

Hezonja’s athleticism and perimeter shooting likely make him a relatively safe bet to become a valuable contributor and a likely No. 3 option on offense, and he would be a nice fit on the Sixers.

The Sixers are likely looking to aim a little higher than that with the third pick, however. Hezonja has the talent and upside to warrant a top-5 selection, but there are a lot of areas that Hezonja has to improve upon in order to unlock his lofty potential, and making major strides in all of them may make it somewhat unlikely that he ever reaches his full ability.

This all combines to make Hezonja an interesting case. While I think Hezonja will be a valuable player for a long time, and one with the potential to become great, I see his most likely scenario being a No. 3 type of offensive option, unless he improves his ball skills pretty dramatically. Because of that, he’d be an exciting selection at, say, the 5 to 7 picks in this draft, but he may not have the (probable) upside to be selected at No. 3 in a draft that features Karl-Anthony Towns, Jahlil Okafor and D’Angelo Russell at the top.

That being said, there’s a scarcity of dynamic wing players in the league who can impact a game on both ends of the court. Because of that scarcity, along with the depth of point guards in today’s NBA, Sam Hinkie and the Sixers might be more willing to take a gamble on a potentially elite wing player like Hezonja if they’re confident he can correct some of his deficiencies and maximize his vast potential.

Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.

Previously in Sixers Draftland:

Emmanuel Mudiay: The Point Guard With a Shooting Problem
• Kristaps Porzingis: International Man of Mystery
• NBA Mock Draft Roundup: Who the Experts Think the Sixers Will Take
D’Angelo Russell: The Guy Everyone Thinks the Sixers Are Drafting
Jahlil Okafor: One of the Best Low-Post Scorers We’ve Seen

D’Angelo Russell to Work Out for the Sixers After All
• Karl-Anthony Towns: The Big Man the Sixers Probably Want — and Likely Can’t Get
Does Joel Embiid’s Setback Change Sixers’ Draft Plans?
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