Mario Hezonja's improvement will make for interesting free agency

Mario Hezonja's improvement will make for interesting free agency


Mario Hezonja's improvement will make for interesting free agency

A 6-foot-8 positionless ball-handler who can slash, defend, knock down triples or pull-up jumpers as well as make timely passes, all at the age of 23, is an archetype every team covets.

Over the past 31 games, that’s precisely who the once-maligned Mario Hezonja has metamorphosed into.

In that span, the Orlando Magic swingman has averaged 13.0 points, 4.3 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.6 three-pointers while slashing healthy 47.7/37.4/81.1 shooting splits.

Only 17 players (with at least 10 games played) can match Hezonja’s nightly outputs in points, boards, dimes, takeaways and threes over that stretch; 11 of them were All-Stars this season, while the other six are Chris PaulBen SimmonsOtto PorterJrue HolidayKentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kris Dunn.

Needless to say, that’s not bad company to be in for the third-year player out of FC Barcelona.

As the sample size of Hezonja’s improved play continues to grow, the intrigue surrounding his impending unrestricted free agency likewise will gain some steam.

Because the Magic are under new management this season, having hired Jeff Weltman from the Toronto Raptors to be their president of basketball ops and John Hammond from the Milwaukee Bucks as their general manager, changes to the roster were an inevitability.

However, Orlando’s decision to decline their team option for 2018-19 on Hezonja could very well end up costing them the services of their exciting young wing.

Instead of having Hezonja under team control for another season at the reasonable price of $6.9 million – before having the option to make him a restricted free agent in the summer of 2019 – the most they can now offer the Croatian to stay in central Florida next year is his $5.2 million cap hold.

If another franchise is enticed by what Hezonja has shown over the latter half of 2017-18, they can acquire him at whatever price they see fit – and there’s nothing the Magic can do to stop it.

Though the thought of the former 2015 draft pick earning any sort of payday was laughable in the not-so-distant past (after all, Hezonja did average a meager 5.5 points per contest on 39.8 percent shooting over his first two seasons), it now doesn’t seem so unbelievable.

This year, according to Synergy Sports Tech, the Magic wing is producing 0.96 points per possession (PPP) as a scorer out of the pick-and-roll – a mark that places him in the 83rd percentile, ahead of the likes of Victor Oladipo and DeMar DeRozan (albeit on a far smaller sample size).

If given even a sliver of room by his screener, Hezonja can unleash his explosiveness and make it to the basket, where he finishes shots with 63.9 percent accuracy, a more accurate rate than Paul George.

Or, if defenders go under picks and dare him to shoot, Hezonja can instead use his pull-up jumper, which he converts with 44.4 percent accuracy, a tidier clip than the sharpshooting Bradley Beal.

There are two other play-types where the 2014 Liga ACB champion has been proficient in his third campaign: as a spot-up shooter and as a cutter.

In the former facet, Hezonja has created 1.11 PPP in 2017-18 – which puts him in the 77th percentile — and in the latter, he’s scoring 1.40 PPP – which lands him in the 76th percentile.

The modern NBA dictates that an effective off-ball player have the ability to knock down open jumpers as well as know when to cut to the basket, thus creating simple-but-deadly buckets. Hezonja can aptly do both, while having the added benefit of also being a beast operating out of the pick-and-roll.

What’s more, thanks to his quick feet and sturdy frame, he’s got defensive potential that has yet to be tapped to go with the intoxicating point-producing prowess.

All of that is to say: Hezonja’s next contract could be a good bit healthier than what was previously thought likely. The only thing that should comfort followers of the Magic is that there aren’t many teams in line to have cap space in the summer of 2018, meaning even a player with Hezonja’s promise may have a hard time securing even a decent-sized deal.

By the same token, however, the few organizations that will have money to spend are organizations currently going through a rebuild, like the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Dallas Mavericks.

Would they not be tempted by the notion of adding another piece to their respective young cores at a relatively team-friendly price? Something resembling a two-year deal in the $18-20 million range?

One thing to consider is future cap holds for landing top picks in the draft: $6.8 million for the top selection, $6.0 million for the second, $5.4 million for the third, and so on. So even the aforementioned rebuilding franchises – Chicago, Atlanta and Dallas – will have less money than what their future books show at the moment.

Regardless, potential suitors only have to outbid Orlando’s cap hold of $5.2 million. So even with the prospect of signing the top guys in the draft, seeing Hezonja agree to a short-term deal at around twice the annual average salary of the most the Magic can offer would not be remotely surprising.

Nevertheless, to earn a contract of even that modest size will require the Croatian to maintain at least a semblance of his current form.

If he reverts back to his previous levels of production, his options will dwindle this summer to the point a return to Orlando, or even to Europe, wouldn’t be out of the question. (The latter route shouldn’t be disregarded. Top-level teams overseas can offer a whole lot more than a minimum NBA salary, and if that’s all Hezonja is provided with, watch for European teams to try and get into the bidding.)

Another factor to consider is the health of Magic starters. Hezonja got the opportunity to shine when Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic had to sit for extended periods with different injuries. Now that they’re back and playing over 30 nightly minutes, the 23-year-old is seeing the floor a lot less than he did during his relative breakout.

Orlando may be savvy to keep Hezonja at under 20 minutes per contest to close the season and lessen his value a bit heading into his free agency, thus making the chances of him re-signing with the Magic on a one-year, $5.2 million, prove-it deal more likely.

Whatever does end up happening with Hezonja – the player who flippantly once said soccer deity Lionel Messi should go watch him play basketball sometime – it’s nice to see his play finally reach the level of hype he had coming into the league.

Going forward, consistency will be of the utmost importance for the self-assured wing – and ultimately will decide the size of his next contract.

You can find Frank Urbina on Twitter @frankurbina_.

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