(Super) Mario Hezonja: Cuban Linx or Fool’s Gold?

Half of us’ll try to make it, the other half’ll try to take it
So many fake half real freedom-build
Born to science my alliance analyzes
Wild surprises, keeping my eyes wide to this
The unfortunate, laying in mountains counting
With jewelry on, can it be the next team house the horn
Chill dun, just for real ones, light the lye up
I hate to have to tie the next guy up
Pay attention to 1010 WINS, Wu blends
Now I’m steering you to truth, buckle up
Now who’s a legend?

Raekwon – Rainy Dayz

Wondering why I posted these lyrics?  Well, maybe there’s no relevance, but maybe these words will stick in Mario Hezonja’s mind as he enters an important summer.

Up until last night’s absence due to an illness, he had a mini 3 game run that included a triple double, a 30 point effort, and a near-30 point effort. As my fellow teacher Mike D. mentioned in his piece, he showed offensive versatility that was rarely unleashed during his tenure with the Magic and gave fans an impression of a Super Mario. His play recently was so sick, but even he couldn’t escape the wrath of the flu.1

But is it a Cuban Link or Fool’s Gold?

Bettin’ bricks up at the Knicks game with Cubans from Biscayne

Ghostface Killah2

Look, evaluating this season is hard. For the first time in team history, the team came into the season without expectations to win. This did not happen when the team drafted Ewing. It did not happen during any season of the Isiah or Scott Layden era. The teams in the 60s and 70s were not as bad as we are now. From the moment Game 1 began in October, the only question was whether we’d win 15 games or 25 games. 30 wins would equate a championship this year.

The life cycle of a losing season is generally predictable. Sometime after the NBA Trade Deadline or NBA All Star Game, most teams in the doldrums immediately shift to development mode. The equation is simple: more minutes for young players and reclamation projects, less minutes for veterans. As the games don’t matter, the expectation of the games sink. Opposing teams, unless in playoff contention, often play down to their inferior competition. As a result, teams in developing mode often win unexpectedly against opponents that are more talented.3

In the Knicks’ 6 year playoff drought, the organization shifted into development mode at various inflection points. The 2013-14 Knicks competed through the end of March. The 2015-16 & 2016-17 Knicks began their shift in the early portion of March, although both teams featured a largely veteran roster. Last year’s Knicks shifted quickly after the Kristaps Porzingis injury in early February. The 2014-15 Knicks were an outlier and began the shift in early January after the JR Smith & Iman Shumpert trade.

As for the 2018-19 Knicks, the season was a wash beginning the evening of Game 1. Sure, we faced tough competition early on in the season, but wins and losses didn’t matter. The Knicks played with house money this season. Wins were not a necessity, but rather an unexpected benefit realized within the focus on player development. However, if development is the focus over the course of the season, can box scores truly evaluate performance, especially in games that don’t matter?

The Knicks historian says:

As Knicks history reminds us, Mario Hezonja’s performance is not unique by any stretch. Take the following player who had the following stat-line for the last 10 games of the 2006-07 season:

14.7 ppg, 6.3 rbs, 5.9 asts, 1.9 stls

If you guessed Mardy Collins, then you know your Knicks history. What people may not tell you is that those numbers were over 44.2 minutes/game. As expected, his sophomore season never achieved the highs he enjoyed in the end of his rookie campaign. His stat line mainly stagnated and even shot a paltry 32% from the field. He spent 2 more years in the NBA before jumping around overseas. He’s currently playing for Frank’s Ntilikina’s old team in France.

In recent years, Westchester Knicks alumni Langston Galloway & Trey Burke had their moments with the Knicks during development mode. Galloway’s scoring proficiency led him to the NBA All-Rookie 2nd team despite playing 1/2 the season. Burke only played 36 games, but average 12.8 ppg on a ridiculous 50% from the field, including an even more ridiculous 56.6% from long 2. And just as expected, neither player was able to maintain their torrid performance in the following season. Galloway could not remain proficient scoring off the bench and Burke was not able to shoot well from the mid range. After the 2015-16 season, Galloway signed a 2 year, $12 million contract with the Pelicans and subsequently signed a 3 year $21 million deal with the Pistons. While becoming a solid three point shooter, he has yet to replicate the spark he showed with us.

A better comparison to Hezonja’s situation was Derrick Williams. Like Hezonja himself, Williams hadn’t lived up to the hype of being the #2 overall pick, behind Kyrie Irving, in the 2011 NBA Draft. After playing for the Timberwolves & Kings, the Knicks signed him to a 2 year $10 million deal at the age of 24. Outside of getting robbed of $750k of jewelry partying, Williams had a somewhat solid season for the Knicks. He took advantage of his athletic ability but aggressively cutting to the basket. He had plenty of highlight dunks during the season. In his final 19 games of the 2015-16 season, Williams averaged nearly 12 ppg on 50% from the field and showed flashes of being a rotation bench player. Despite his performance with the Knicks, he only received a 1 year $5 million contract from the Heat and was waived before the trade deadline.

Which Mario do we have?

To be honest, the last few games felt more like Mario with a star or Mario with a P-Wing than anything. A temporary jolt that seems quite exciting until the star wears off or Mario crashes into a flying goomba.

Before having this nice stretch, the maddening aspects of Hezonja’s game cloud his potential. Despite his ability to drive into the paint and score, he’d settle for terrible shots and shot only 41.2% from the field so far. Despite his ability to shoot from three, he’s only shooting 27.8% from three, largely due to questionable shot selection. Add in the questionable decision making, the lackadaisical play on defense, and inconsistency throughout the season and you begin to know why Mario’s approaching his second bout of free agency.

This run is also nothing new either. For a 17 game stretch during the middle of the 2017-18 season, Hezonja averaged more than 14 points/game and 1.7 steals/game. He also had a similar statistical stretch4during the final 10 games during the season. The ability is there, but can he harness those skills consistently over a full season?

Furthermore, these runs (especially this season) both occurred during the stretch of the season where his teams were not competing for wins and were prioritizing development. Will Mario’s PG skills translate next season when games are more competitive and outcomes actually matter? If the team is on a winning mandate, can it afford to absorb some of Mario’s poor decision making? Patience is thin within the Knicks organization and fan base when there’s a goal to win games. Young & talented point guards such as Mark Jackson & Rod Strickland were replaced by veteran-laden guards that provided consistent production to help the team win.

Perhaps Raccoon Mario is what we’d dream for, but perhaps we’d be satisfied with Fire Mario or even just Super Mario.

The Future of Mario:

Despite Mario’s overall performance, he still remains an intriguing free agent target. Not one that’s the priority (obviously), but someone that can potentially fill a role with one of the lower exceptions. Mario made $6.5M this year with the non-taxpayer MLE. Because the Knicks enter free agency under the cap, the $6.5M turns into $4.5M. Hezonja is less likely to take a cut especially if a team can offer him a contract around $5-6M on a one year deal. At the same time, the idea of pairing Mario with veterans opens up the possibility of a pay cut to join a winning team.

I expect Mario to sign a one-year contract for about $6 million with another team to show he can replicate his performance. Based on recent history, many of our role players (Kyle O’Quinn, Michael Beasley, Derrick Williams, etc.) all settled for one year contracts at the same or lower value of their salary with the Knicks. None of the players mentioned lived up to their performance after leaving the Knicks. Let’s hope Mario changes his trajectory.