The 6'8" Croatian, Mario Hezonja, has been one of the most hyped European prospects since Toni Kukoc was getting schooled by the Dream Team in the 1992 Olympics. Kukoc ended up with a very fine NBA career in an era that didn't value European prospects as much as the current NBA. Within the NBA fishbowl that is social media, Hezonja has received alot of attention ... particularly for someone who hasn't played much in his years with FC Barcelona.
Is the hype deserved?
The answer is a resounding yes, and a resounding maybe at the same time. Here is Denver Stiffs look at the enigmatic wing from Croatia. Does he have what Paul Pierce calls: it?
Downside/Weakness: Attitude, focus and decision making
I'm flipping the Strength and Weakness order for one very important reason. The main criticism of Hezonja is his attitude and focus, and that directly plays into his strengths. Let us, however, examine why Hezonja's attitude issues affect his weaknesses.
Without succumbing to cliche, it's rare to see a European prospect labeled as having an attitude problem to the extent that Hezonja has been. Culturally, basketball in Europe is a different animal than the NBA ... their approach to basketball is very similar to NCAA basketball at a professional level. More than an obvious talent gap, there is an intrinsic cultural difference to the approach with the game of basketball. Even if a player is either selfish or has an attitude problem it rarely manifests itself on game film.
Attitude: Hezonja's attitude can be a sticky wicket. From many different indications he is hard on his teammates for not performing up to a standard. He tends to sulk when he isn't playing well and the sulking leads to extremely poor decision making on both the offensive and defensive end. He will get frustrated when not being played and will demonstrate it in very obvious ways on the bench. A negative energy that can, at times, be overwhelming.
Decision making: The concerning thing, one assumes, for most NBA scouts is how it affects his decision making and approach to both his offensive game and his defensive focus. Both of which come into question when he is upset or frustrated. Hezonja tends to get lazy on defense when not focused. Additionally, he will try to force things, which leads to silly turnovers and sloppy three point shots. Additionally, with his limited minutes this season 60% of his shots came from beyond the arc. That's some Kyle Korver sh*t.
Additionally he needs to improve his off hand. Teams will force him left in the NBA, and in order to excel in the way he needs to at the next level he has to turn his "weak hand" into a strength.
Hezonja has a tendency to back out rather than attack. He can gain space with his athleticism, but does not yet trust his ability to penetrate in heavy traffic. The occasions where he does attack off the dribble he's shown himself to be somewhat adept, but does not (yet) totally trust his ability to weave.
To bring this complicated reflection of attitude into focus as it pertains to all the above weaknesses listed above, check out this game from this past season, Barcelona vs. Emporio Armani. Pay particular attention to Hezonja's spectacular highlights, his frustrated sounding halftime interview (in English) and his play in the second half:
You can see the spectacular dunks, the sweet shooting, the awesome drives .... coupled with the yelling at teammates, indifferent defense, and poor offensive decision making, and it all happens in one game. It's fascinating to watch, and you can absolutely see why that concerns scouts. All of which is linked to both his maturity and attitude. Does Hezonja have the ability to make his teammates better rather than berate them when they don't meet his standard? Can he be the rising tide that lifts all boats?
Upside/Strengths: Attitude, shooting and explosive drives
You saw that correctly. Attitude is listed as both a strength and a weakness for the enigmatic wing. What makes Hezonja such a risk is also what makes him one of the most intriguing prospects in the entire NBA Draft this year.
Attitude/Competitive drive: A couple people who follow the Euro Leagues and some NBA Scouts have all said something very similar about Hezonja. He not only wants to dunk, he wants to dunk ON you. He wants to let you know he dunked on you. He wants to tell you about that time he dunked on you in the last game too. Simply put one of the most competitive players entering into the 2015 NBA Draft. I've heard the words demanding, brash, arrogant, and competitive all used to describe Hezonja.
Hezonja's greatest weakness is one of his biggest advantages. That competitive drive and will are things that are hard to quantify, particularly when you are judging from just highlights. What does come across is that Hezonja likes to "take over" when he is in the game. He want's to be THAT guy. How will that sort of drive translate to the NBA? It seems that it can only help him.
Shooting: Hezonja shot 39.2% on the international three-point shot this last season. While it is marginally closer than the NBA three, it is still a good/great percentage for a long distance shot. While Hezonja does have a slow-ish wind to his shot, he does seem to be "square" to the basket and his actual stroke is pure.
Athleticism/drives: Simply put, Hezonja is explosive. While not a soaring leaper like Zach LaVine, Hezonja's ability is more violent and controlled and less about soaring. He has a decent wingspan and the ability to cover ground quickly. As I said above, he WANTS to dunk on you (a la Blake Griffin) and will sometimes go out of his way to show you he can. Pay close attention to play number 5 in the below highlights for an example:
Hezonja demands a clear out then explodes to the rim when he saw the matchup he liked. That's not something you see very often for a 19 year old.
Shooting: This one is tricky considering Hezonja's actual stats (listed above in the Draft express report) are a mixed bag when it comes to percentages other than the three point shot. Small sample size, obviously. However from the highlights below assembled by Artur Kowis ... you can see both the strengths and weaknesses of Hezonja's shooting approach.
One thing I love about Kowis' breakdowns is they show the flaws as well as the advantages. Misses and makes. What one does like about Hezonja is he is pure and square to the basket. One of the best things Melvin Hunt ever said about Danilo Gallinari was that no matter what crazy thing Gallo's body is doing, his hands and arms are always square to the basket. You see something very similar with Hezonja's approach to shooting as well. He doesn't seem to drift as much as most young players do. Having that good fundamental approach will serve him well in the modern three-obsessed NBA.
I won't spend too much time on this, but it seems that Hezonja has been somewhat let down by the internal politics of FC Barcelona than anything representative on the floor. It could be more than mere coincidence that once the NBA showed heavy interest, Hezonja's minutes dropped off the map. Understanding that Barcelona doesn't owe the NBA anything, you can see how this would be frustrating to a player who wants to set his résumé for the NBA. How much has this issue and the small sample size nature of Mario's play with FC Barcelona hurt his NBA Draft stock?
We won't know this question until mid-June, however.
Fit for the Nuggets
Denver Nuggets General Manager Tim Connelly mentioned on the Colorado Sports Guys Podcast that the Nuggets need an "Alpha Dog", be it through draft, free agency or trades. To me, Mario Hezonja fits the bill for classic competitive, "I don't give a ****!" alpha dog mentality that has been missing on the Nuggets for many, many years. A guy who will demand the ball and demand his teammates be excellent. Quite frankly, can you think of the last time the Nuggets possessed that kind of ... mentality?
I don't see a single player in this draft that has the right combination of skill, attitude, competitive drive that Hezonja seems to outwardly possess. If that kind of competitive nature can be channeled into something positive then the Nuggets may have something very special on their hands if they choose to draft him. As with any draft pick there is bust potential here, but also a tremendously high ceiling. The question is ... do the Nuggets feel the same way?
Either way, he kind of looks like Dave Franco. So ... you know. Hashtag this: