(First posted at RealGM)
POST-FIRST YEAR ASSESSMENT
- 1,413 minutes
- -0.1 pace-adjusted plus-minus
- 9.4 PER
Hezonja had the least impressive first year of the players drafted in the top five.
Concerns regarding off ball defense and ball stopping that had him nailed to the end of the bench at Barcelona also limited his playing time in Orlando. But one could argue the Magic didn’t provide him a clear path to success either.
Orlando has consistently struggled with continuation in the Rob Henigan era. It doesn’t follow a clear path for more than a single season. First the plan was to develop Victor Oladipo similarly to how Oklahoma City developed Russell Westbrook but then they really wanted Elfrid Payton a year later, suddenly Evan Fournier seemed like a keeper but then the chance to get Tobias Harris emerged, Aaron Gordon was going to be their Blake Griffin but now they’ll try to turn him into Paul George.
Hezonja got lost in the shuffle. Scott Skiles arrived and brought with him expectations that this team was, as of that point, playing for wins. The 20-year-old wasn’t ready to contribute to a team seeking wins at the Euroleague level and he wasn’t ready to contribute to one at the NBA level.
Maybe if Hezonja was part of a well-built team with a clear structure in place, with some understanding that some mistakes were par for the course, he could actually have had more of an impact right away. Hezonja can drill spot-up looks. He proved he can create against a scrambling defense and make tough shots against NBA-caliber competition. And he possesses the combination of size and athletic ability that should translate into at least decent individual defense when he is engaged.
The problem is Orlando was not that well-built, Skiles did not tolerate Hezonja getting caught ball-watching or struggling to navigate over picks, not all that many good looks were created for him and the looks he created for himself were too tough too often to assume they could be a reliable source of offense. As a consequence, he averaged fewer than 18 minutes per game on 79 appearances.
Hezonja remains a more interesting player in theory than in reality but his defenders still have a case if they argue he hasn’t yet been put in the best position to succeed; the principal aspect of that being having the chance to stay out on the court long enough.
And, amazingly, it’s unclear if next season will be the season that happens.
Skiles split because he felt like doing so and Frank Vogel was hired. That could have been an opportunity for the organization to restructure itself and reset its expectations. But then it traded Victor Oladipo and the 11th pick in the draft to Oklahoma City for Serge Ibaka.
That could have been fine. Orlando could have been building a three-man rotation of Ibaka, Gordon and Nikola Vucevic upfront, with the two athletic forwards making up for Vucevic’s terrible defense. They would finish games with Ibaka and Gordon. Vucevic would be annoyed but then they could let him go when the situation turned too exhausting to manage. His contract should not be that hard to trade.
But then Orlando made everything too confusing to understand by signing Bismack Biyombo. Vogel subsequently told Zach Lowe their plan is to play Gordon as a wing now. And all of a sudden Jeff Green is involved as well. There should be no expectations for Green at this point but I assume Orlando has some sort of plan for him, given they are paying him $15 million next season.
All of this suggests Hezonja is just kind of there now. Oladipo and Harris are gone but Fournier was retained and now Gordon is a wing, so those are probably the two starters. Green is probably going to end up playing because coaches always have to wait and see for themselves that he can’t play before they eventually give up on him and he’ll probably play as a wing because the frontcourt already might not have enough minutes available for Biyombo, Ibaka and Vucevic as it is.
Hezonja should get some of leftover minutes on the wing, considering Vogel doesn’t like to stagger lineups a whole lot, but it should be mentioned that not even this is by design, as the Magic actually traded for Jodie Meeks to be in consideration for minutes here but it turns out that he is still injured and it appears they didn’t know the full extent of it.
It seems evident there is no clear path for Hezonja to break out in Orlando, at least not next season. He’ll have to force his way into a larger role, probably by hitting tough shots at a greater rate than he’s proven able to do so by now.
Editor’s Note: Rafael Uehara is the managing editor of ‘Basketball Scouting’. More of his work can be found here or at RealGM, where he is a regular contributor. He can be followed on twitter as @rafael_uehara