It’s Halloween so you know what that means. Time for some poorly crafted sports connections to wonderfully creepy works of fiction!
Today’s case is Mario Hezonja, whose game for the Knicks so far can be said to at times embody the good and the bad that Robert Louis Stevenson hinted may be in all of us, when he wrote Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Every great book has some redemption themes in it. Knicks GM, Scott Perry, the former Assistant General Manager of the Orlando Magic, may or may not have had that in mind this summer when he signed Mario to a one-year, $6.5 million deal. After all, he was an executive in the Magic’s front office that drafted the handsome Croatian 5th overall, just one spot behind Kristaps Porzingis in 2015.
Here was what NY Daily News’ Stefan Bondy wrote about that back in March:
“2015: Mario Hezonja (5th): Another mistake. Chosen right after Kristaps Porzingis, Hezonja could barely crack the rotation in his first two years and will likely leave Orlando this summer because the team declined to pick up his contract option.”
This will be a redemption story for both Hezonja and Perry if everything works out in New York. Mario played well enough last year to shed his less flattering nickname among disappointed Magic fans on Twitter and re-earned the “Super Mario” moniker he was drafted with when he bulked up from 190 pounds to, at one point, 230 pounds.
He’s settled into a healthy looking 215 pounds in New York. Now he has a chance to turn his career around and continue the tradition of late bloomers like Domantas Sabonis and Victor Oladipo, who improved significantly once they left the Magic and the lair of temptation and sin known as Downtown Orlando.
Hezonja is a player with a really large range of outcomes, isn’t he? On the one hand, if he sort of fizzles out, and a year from now you hear he’s on the Kings or playing for the Croatian Club Cibona, you wouldn’t be stunned. But if he blossoms and earns himself a contract as a stretch 4 for a title contender, like the one Ersan Ilyasova signed with the Bucks, or a larger one year prove it deal, you might find that pretty likely as well. Some truthers may even still be hopeful for an All-Star appearance one day.
I don’t know if he has a long-term future in New York, if Perry wants to showcase then trade him with others to help clear cap space to afford a superstar like Kevin Durant, or something else. But he’s here now so let’s break down his game so far.
We’ll start off with bad Mario, known by Nintendo fans as Wario. I know in the real book, Dr. Jekyll was the good guy and Mr. Hyde was the bad guy. But I was a Mario Kart guy so I wanted to go with the Mario vs. Wario angle, and in the NBA, ferocity is a good thing. All you need to know is that Dr. Wario is our villain and Mr. Hezonja will be our fearsome hero. But this is Knicks Film School and you’re not here for just words, so like the great New York sports anchor Warner Wolf says “Let’s go to the videotape.”
On this play above Wario turns the corner on a pick. He sees quite possibly the Heat’s two best defenders, Bam Adebayo and Josh Richardson, spying him, while the Heat sag off Allonzo Trier, Ron Baker, Damyean Dotson, and Noah Vonleh to protect the rim. Naturally Wario decides to cup it and try a running banking hook over Bam. It turns into a “Kobe assist” but yikes was that a poor read for the situation.
One of the things Magic fans know about Hezonja is that he can be a bit … ambitious. Here is some of what the Orlando Sentinel wrote last year from former teammate Shelvin Mack:
“He’s always trying to make spectacular plays instead of just making the simple play…. He’s a very confident player,” Mack added. “He thinks he’s hot as soon as he steps on the court, like everyone should do. But there’s a time and place [for that]. Trying to figure out the way to get the right shot and the best shot kind of sets the tone.”
He has not been shy since his arrival in The Big Apple:
Mario Hezonja is 12th in the NBA in field-goal attempts per 36 minutes (20.2).
notable players he's ahead of:
15. Joel Embiid (20.1)
16. LeBron James/Victor Oladipo (20)
18. Kevin Durant (19.9)
21. Donovan Mitchell (19.3)
what a time to be alive.
— Dan Favale (@danfavale) October 30, 2018
(Who does that remind you of? Maybe another former high lottery stretch-four “walking bucket” who recently heard a few tongue-in-cheek “MVBease” chants last year on 7th ave?)
But the much bigger challenge for Dr. Wario is the defense.
Above is a three play sequence where Dr. Wario draws Coach David Fizdale’s ire.
On the first, there are five Knicks back to guard four Celtics, and whether Terry Rozier was his man or not, he needed to read this situation better. Wide open 3.
In the second play above, a pick and roll is defended poorly. It’s also Vonleh’s fault for taking a ridiculous angle on Jayson Tatum’s drive and then jumping harmlessly, but you can see Fizdale signal the hook towards his bench for the both of them right there.
The third play is just gas on the fire. With subs already at the scorer’s table set to check in because of defensive lapses, Mario sneaks in one more brick and then one more space cadet play leaving Rozier to walk into another open three. Boom 41-31 Celts. A quick 8 points in a game they only lost by two! Watch all three plays again and this time keep your eye on the coach’s reaction to each.
Imagine a parent scolding a child for taking a cookie from the jar. The kid looks bashful but pushes the boundary and takes another! Then dad yells “that’s it Mr. you’re going to timeout right this minute!” And the kid slinks off bashfully towards the timeout… then pivots and bolts back to the jar and scarfs down a third cookie! DAD BLOWS HIS STACK!
Enes replaces Mario and Burke replaces Vonleh, and with 5:52 to go in the second, Dr. Wario was done playing for the rest of the night. Yeesh.
Our own resident Irish Knicks fan, Mr. Alex Collins, spotted another instance where Wario may be at fault again in a similar circumstance days later:
Look at Mario's "defense" on this play. He's meant to be on Jerebko btw 😂 pic.twitter.com/UNUBKkH1is
— Alex Collins ☘️ (@MrAlexCollins) October 27, 2018
In a reply I defended that maybe his man here was Andre Iguodala, who isn’t even in the picture yet. But I concede it feels like when the Knicks give up a head-scratching wide open three, it’s often when Dr. Wario is out there. Keep your eyes out for that.
Mr. Hezonja (our fierce hero)
A total credit to Mr. Hezonja’s character, just one game after being put on blast by Fiz, our hero responds with his best game of the young season in a tough road battle against the scorching hot Milwaukee Bucks. Here he drills the crunch time contested three:
Below he makes a crafty defensive play on future MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. Mr. Hezonja “pulls the chair” and pokes it away to ignite the break. If you make plays like this on guys like Freak into a drinking game you only get one shot a night so enjoy:
Hezonja steal from Giannis
— Knicks Film School (@KnickFilmSchool) October 23, 2018
Four plays in a row in the clip below. First: how do you attack a lethal Turkish charge-drawing machine like Ersan Ilyasova? Make him move his feet but don’t go into his chest for contact. Stopping on a dime for a baby-pull up is the way to go on this guy. Nice awareness and touch Mr. Hezonja! Let the clip play for a few more nice stop and pops, screen action, and another pull up. Great touch by the stretch four.
So does he have a favorite spot on the court?
Mario Hezonja was asked where is his sweet spot on the court: “Everywhere. Super Mario.”
— Stefan Bondy (@SBondyNYDN) September 24, 2018
God I wish I were that confident.
So after the Bucks game, below, Coach Fiz acknowledges that he was mad after the Boston game. Credit to both player and coach here. Coach was tough but fair. Player took it on the chin and came back stronger.
Fizdale didn’t know anything about the criticism of Hezonja on social media, but he was hard on Mario, himself, and was happy to see the way Hezonja responded
— Knicks Film School (@KnickFilmSchool) October 23, 2018
Knicks Twitter has begun to notice the chemistry developing among the second unit as well.
Second consecutive game that the bench unit of Hezonja, Trier, Vonleh, Dotson and Baker gave the Knicks a major spark.
They closed out the first quarter on. 14-0 run
— Tommy Beer (@TommyBeer) October 25, 2018
Like Mr. Hezonja’s hockey assists:
Hezonja ➡️ Ntilikina ➡️ Dotson 3⃣pic.twitter.com/xzqR67197D
— Soy Knickerbocker (@SoyKnicks) October 25, 2018
Funny, the reason Kevin Knox surged up draft boards late was reportedly how he looked as a ball-handler in pick and rolls during pre-draft workouts. Well not to be out done, subbing for Mr. Knox, Mr. Hezonja, below, threads the needle on a gorgeous pass for another hockey dime:
Great pass by Hezonja, extra pass by Vonleh, and Trier finishes it off pic.twitter.com/LXUDDwGZ1c
— Knicks Film School (@KnickFilmSchool) October 21, 2018
Beasley could score but he didn’t make tons of passes like that. Sparks flying off the bench in New York. And now some more defense!
This was a pretty cool defensive sequence from the Knicks.
Keep an eye on Hezonja in particular: pic.twitter.com/O6M9NviLCE
— Reid Goldsmith (@reidgoldsmith) October 27, 2018
Putting it all Together
From all the film I’ve been watching, my overall impression is that the defensive end needs work and there are some lateral limitations, but at least awareness has been the biggest flaw and that is probably coachable to a degree. He may not be a good isolation player now, but when he makes a quick shot or pass, plays the pick and roll or pick and pop game, or gets to run and be creative in transition, he’s at his best. And of course he can stroke it when he is disciplined enough to take good shots.
Oh, and in case you doubted the impact of these splash plays from our film review, here are some more interesting statistical trends to keep an eye on. Per Basketball-Reference Lineup Finder, apparently, Hezonja comes up in quite a few of the Knicks best performing lineups in terms of “points minus opponents points,” like netRTG. His name is included in the Knicks 1st, 3rd, 6th, 9th and 10th best performing lineups per that metric to date. Not bad!
In four player lineups, he shows out pretty well too. He’s in 3 of the top 6 four player lineups.
You can see the top lineups in this tweet below or in the links I attached above.
— Nate (@nate01020304) October 31, 2018
Obviously +/- lineups data is noisy this early on in the season and will fluctuate. And it’s very possible the Knicks second units are simply less outmatched than the starters because second units play against opposing second units. It’s a mouthful all to say these stats may not last. But the noise so far is music to Mario fan’s ears. Something to keep an eye on.
Overall, his netRTG is negative, but the Knicks are not a good team and that’s going to be a running theme for many of them this year. I’m excited to keep an eye on how he and his coach work to defeat his inner Wario and keep up the fierce, unselfish, and creative Super Mario play.
Hezonja has the tools to become one of the team’s most talented players if he can bring it all together. Of course, Scott Perry has heard that before, and if it had already happened, Perry and Mario may both still be resisting temptation down in Orlando.
Let’s check back in later to see how our redemption story goes.
Happy Halloween everyone, and let’s see some of yours, your kids’, and your pets’ best Knicks costumes. Make sure to follow @behindcurve on Twitter.