Mario Hezonja drives to the basket against the Dallas Mavericks during the second half at Amway Center in Orlando.

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Schmeelk: Mario Hezonja Right Target For Knicks

John Schmeelk
July 02, 2018 - 9:57 am
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The Knicks' one potential move to make this summer was using their mid-level exception on a player on a one-year contract. They wasted no time, and on the first day of the free agent moratorium period reached an agreement with small forward Mario Hezonja on a one-year contract for $6.4 million dollars (first reported by Adrian Wojnarowski).

Why Mario Hezonja? He was drafted (5th overall) the same year as Kristaps Porzingis, and is only a free agent because the Magic declined his fourth year option. At 23-years-old, he finally started showing some of his offensive ability last year. Orlando declined his option before he began to break through. He is the exact type of young player with upside in a “buy low” situation the Knicks should have been pursuing.

These were his numbers in 2017:

22.1 minutes

9.6 points

44% FG

34% 3PT

82% FT

3.7 rebounds

1.4 assists

1.1 steals

1.1 turnovers

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You would like to see him be more efficient in his scoring, but his numbers aren’t terrible. Here is a comparison of Hezonja’s per 36 numbers compared to Tim Hardaway Jr. (26 years old) last year:

Player        G GS FG FGA FG% 3P 3PA 3P%  FT FTA FT% TRB AST STL BLK TOV PTS

Hardaway 57 54  6.9 16.3 0.421 2.5 7.8  0.317 2.8  3.4  0.816  4.3    3    1.2    0.2    1.8    19

Hezonja    75 30  5.9 13.4 0.442  2   5.8  0.337 1.9  2.3  0.819  6.1   2.3  1.8    0.7    1.9   15.7

There’s an argument to be made that Hezonja is the more desirable player in this comparison given his better efficiency and younger age. Regardless, it shows a player like Hezonja is worth rolling the dice on with a reasonable contract given his progress in his third season (it might also show how much the Knicks overpaid for Tim Hardaway Jr. but that’s a topic for a different article).

It doesn’t mean Hezonja doesn’t bring a lot of legitimate problems with him too. He has struggled mightily defensively (ranked 81st of 93 NBA SF’s in DRPM) despite good size (6’8, 200 pounds, 6’10 wingspan) and decent athleticism. The tools are there but he hasn’t been good on that end.

Offensively, his three point shooting has been poor with only a 33% career percentage. Some of it can be chalked up to his sometimes questionable shot selection, but he misses far too many open looks as well. He shot 40% from the three-point line in international play, so there’s reason to think this can improve without radical reconstruction of his shot.

Outside the numbers, Hezonja has flashed a decent basketball IQ and some passing skills. He hasn’t shown enough, however, to rely on him as a consistent playmaker. It’s one of the reasons he has struggled to establish himself in the NBA. His shot creation ability, which he showed potential with in Europe, has not translated to the more athletic and physical NBA game.

Hezonja’s two most important skills he needs to improve on are his shooting and his defense. Those two very basic skills have allowed a lot of NBA players to have successful careers for a long time. If he can continue to develop his playmaking, it would be a bonus. He will be a nice combo forward that will be a far better addition to the team than Michael Beasley would have been.

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There is potential there and the Knicks are in the exact right spot in their rebuild to bring in a former lottery pick that has skills to develop. They did the same thing with Emmanuel Mudiay last year, and even though the early returns were poor, it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t roll the dice another time. David Fizdale has stressed his program will rely heavily on player development, and that will be tested with Mario Hezonja.

Knicks fans shouldn’t get too excited, though, because it is only a one year deal. If Hezonja plays extremely well, they will have to pony up and pay him next season at the same time they are trying to find room for a maximum contract to add a superstar in the summer of 2019. It won’t be easy to do without jeopardizing the razor thin margin the Knicks have in clearing a maximum salary cap slot for someone like Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson or even Kawhi Leonard or Kevin Durant.

Even without Hezonja, the Knicks would have to either move Courtney Lee (which might now happen sooner or later) for an expiring contract, stretch Joakim Noah, or both if Porzingis signs his maximum extension before next summer. Including Hezonja’s cap hold or additional money in 2019 would put their ability to offer a max offer at serious risk. It would have been ideal to get Hezonja on a one year deal with a team option, but the competition for his services likely prevented that.

Hezonja is a good signing, but the contract’s length limits its long-term impact on the team winning something down the road. That said, it is always better to have another young player with skills with room to improve on the roster. More importantly, it is an excellent signal that Scott Perry is targeting the right kind of players during the Knicks rebuild. In his first big free agent move as Knicks General Manager, he certainly gets better than a passing grade.

Schmeelk’s Snippets

  • The Knicks resigned Luke Kornet to a one-year contract, which was wise given he can protect the rim and hit threes. The Knicks were in need of another big man with Joakim Noah’s status in question (and his injury history), Porzingis’ injury and Kyle O’Quinn unlikely to return. If he can improve his mobility on the perimeter defensively, Kornet can be a valuable player in the league.
  • Ian Begley of ESPN New York also reported the team is interested in bringing back Isaiah Hicks, who was on a two way contract last year. I didn’t see much from him last year that makes me think he is a useful NBA player, but perhaps the Knicks think differently. We’ll see.
  • Finally, the Knicks should be fervently looking for a landing spot for Courtney Lee. He is over thirty and could be useful on a winning team. The Knicks would need an expiring contract and perhaps a low level asset in return.

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