Selected with the No. 5 overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, New York Knicks forward Mario Hezonja has started showing flashes of what he can do.
The 6-foot-8, 24-year-old will be a free agent this offseason and has played well to start the month of April. He had 29 points in a loss against the Orlando Magic followed by a 16-point, 16-rebound, 11-assist triple-double versus the Houston Rockets. Most recently, he recorded 30 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 three-pointers and 2 steals in a victory over the Washington Wizards.
As the season nears its end, the franchise will reportedly use him as their primary playmaker. Other young forwards Justise Winslow, Caris LeVert and Brandon Ingram have been used in similar roles, along with superstar point forwards like LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Blake Griffin.
Hezonja has an assist-to-turnover ratio (1.02) significantly worse than the league average rate (1.74) this season. His assist-to-usage rating ranks below average (46th percentile) among forwards while his pure point rating (-2.2) is third-worst on the Knicks, trailing just rookies Allonzo Trier and Kevin Knox.
Why, then, is the franchise rolling him out as a point guard for the final two games of the season when he has averaged just 1.5 assists per game? Perhaps his potential running the pick-and-roll is what most convinced coach David Fizdale. But his “vision and attentiveness” have been praised time and time again.
Before the season began, Mike Vorkunov noted this was a possible route for him to succeed on his new team (via The Athletic):
“More intriguing is how he would fit as a playmaker running the pick-and-roll. He didn’t do it often for Orlando last season — 11.6 percent of his possessions — but he showed potential”
When including passes this year, he has finished approximately one-third of his total offensive possessions as the ballhandler in a pick-and-roll offense. His teammates are averaging 1.15 points per possession following his passes on pick-and-roll actions. That ranks in the 76th percentile among all players, per Synergy Sports.
The frequency and efficiency numbers were both much lower when he was on the Orlando Magic, but he has thrived in this role in New York. Without extraordinarily impressive statistics as a shooter but an above average ability to finish at the rim, this might be where he fits best moving forward.
His roll men have connected on 16-for-24 (66.7 percent) attempts, which is second-best in the Eastern Conference among those who have had as many opportunities.
Hezonja has established chemistry with big men Mitchell Robinson and Noah Vonleh. Robinson is shooting 8-for-13 (61.5 percent) while Vonleh is shooting 14-for-21 (66.7 percent) on two-point attempts after passes from Hezonja, per NBA.com. For comparison, Vonleh has shot 49.1 percent on these attempts throughout his career.
In fact, the Knicks have a positive net rating when Hezonja and Vonleh are both on the court despite otherwise having the third-worst net rating in the league. If Hezonja can perform well in this role over the final couple games, it would go a long way in helping his free agency stock this summer.