by Carl Berman/NetScouts Basketball
Mario Hezonja’s name has been on our radar at NetScouts Basketball since we saw him star in three youth basketball tournaments in Europe in 2011. Now the 6-8 Croatian is on NBA scouts’ short list of possible lottery selections in the 2015 NBA Draft.
Hezonja shined in 2011 at the Nike International Junior Tournament (NIJT) where he led his team to the title, averaging 21.0 points and 7.8 rebounds over four games. That same summer he led Croatia to the gold medal at the U16 European Championships in the Czech Republic with similar numbers of 20.0 points and 8.2 rebounds over nine contests. At that point Hezonja was on our rankings of U16 players who would likely be future NBA players. In the summer of 2012 he continued to impress at the U17 World Championships, scoring 20.8 points and grabbing 7.0 rebounds over eight games as Croatia garnered a bronze medal.
Hezonja then signed with Regal Barcelona, one of the top European clubs. In the 2012-13 season, he primarily played for Regal’s second team in LEB-Gold, where he averaged 14.8 points and had a high of 26 points. The past two seasons he stuck with the main team but has not seen much action. In ten games thus far this season in the top Spanish league, he’s only averaging 2.7 points in 10.9 minutes of action. He hasn’t scored more than six points in any game and in his last contest against Sevilla he logged 26 minutes, scoring only six points, missing all four of his three-pointers and generating zero assists.
His numbers are better in his five Euroleague contests. In those games he’s averaging 7.2 points in 13.8 minutes per game. He has come up with two good performances on consecutive games. He scored 13 points against Armani on 4-of-6 shooting and followed that up with 15 points against Turow on 6-of-10 from the floor.
There’s a lot to like about Hezonja. He has terrific size for a wing and is very athletic, up to NBA standards, unlike many European prospects. He’s quick, with a fast first step that gets him past defenders and has very good court vision. His shot is generally solid, with NBA range, but he does need more consistency. His athleticism, physical measurements and abilities could result in him being a lottery pick in the 2015 NBA Draft.
He has excellent jumping ability as well as excellent hand-eye coordination, making him someone to watch in transition as well as on passes at or near the basket. Hezonja can definitely be a scorer at the NBA level. He knows how to create his own shot and can operate effectively in one-on-one situations.
The downside of Hezonja appears to be his attitude. We tried to contact Hezonja to discuss his future on this side of the ocean but his coach at Barcelona, Xavi Pascual, does not want him to discuss his NBA Draft aspirations lest he lose focus on the Spanish League and Euroleague.
That’s likely a good move, as focus appears to be a problem for Hezonja at this point. His play has suffered the past two seasons as well, possibly as he may be thinking about his next career steps rather than helping his team win. He does appear to be unfocused at times on the court, has poor body language and seems to spend time talking to opponents rather than concentrating on playing within a team concept.
He needs to learn to score within the offense instead of relying too much on isolation opportunities. On defense, he needs to show more effort, particularly off the ball. In the youth competitions we’ve scouted, Hezonja has shown to be an excellent passer with good views of cutting teammates. However, he has not shown those skills lately, averaging just over one assist over his average of about 12 minutes on the court per game.
Hezonja clearly has some growing up to do. But that’s true of most 19-year-olds. He has played better lately and we’ll be interested to see if he can continue that for the rest of this season. While he has regressed somewhat on the court, there’s no denying his ability and potential. That ability and potential will likely be enough to make Hezonja a mid-lottery selection in the 2015 NBA Draft, assuming he puts his name on the board.
Carl Berman is Managing Partner of NetScouts Basketball, the largest basketball scouting service in the world.