It’s all bets in on the young players this year for the Knickerbockers. There are plenty of youthful and talented players ready to either begin their professional careers or finally make their mark on the team, which has now earned the nickname, “Fiz’s kids”. So which of these young guys is the most likely to break out and impress executives all across the league? Is it Kevin Knox the rookie with seemingly all the potential in the world? Maybe Mitchell Robinson who overachieved in Summer League. Perhaps second-year point guard Frank Ntilikina?
I think it’s going to be new acquisition Mario Hezonja. The former 5th overall pick who came over from the Orlando Magic on a one-year deal has all the pressure on him to perform this year in the hopes of getting another deal either in New York or somewhere else. The down-low on him is that he’s underperformed, big-time, relative to the potential that he had entering as a rookie. In three years in the NBA he’s averaging a paltry 6.9 points, 2.8 rebounds, and 1.3 assists per game and only 9.6 points, 3.7 rebounds, and 1.4 assists as of last season. Plus, the fact that his former team was so unimpressed by his performances, that they declined the option year on his contract in October says a lot about what they were seeing in him. Yet that same decision may be what made him a golden buy for the Knicks.
He certainly did underperform early on in his career, but that’s not to say he underperformed in an ideal environment. Let’s not forget that the Magic are simply a bad team, having accumulated a record of 89-157 since Hezonja entered the league with them. That led to two different coaches being in charge through his first two seasons, far from a healthy environment to grow and develop in.
Despite the overall struggles of the team, Hezonja seemed to always be stuck behind the most stacked positions of his team’s roster. He’s had to compete for playing time with players like Victor Oladipo, Evan Fournier, Jonathon Simmons, Aaron Gordon, and Serge Ibaka. Not easy players to steal playing time from.
Consistent minutes may not be the only stumbling block in his career, but all signs point to them being the biggest culprit. When injuries finally forced him into the starting lineup last year he made an impression, averaging 16.4 points and over 5 rebounds over an 11 game period. In fact, in games he’s started in his career he’s averaged 12.9 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 2.2 assists in 30 minutes, while as a reserve he was at 5.5 points, 2.2 rebounds, and 1.0 assists in 15 minutes of play. Double the minutes of his reserve playing time and they’re still inferior to his starting numbers.
Not only that but his shooting efficiency, which had been one of his biggest weaknesses, also got on track. In his 30 starts last year he managed to shooting 46% overall and 37% from beyond the arc. This led to a true shooting percentage of 57%, which would have tied him for fourth best on the Knicks (behind only centers Enes Kanter, Kyle O’Quinn, and Will Hernangomez).
Take it from Hezonja’s own mouth if nothing else, “There’s a difference between 35 minutes and 15. You had to be so perfect in the 15. When it grew to 35, it comes naturally.”
To me, that speaks volumes about what was wrong with him. Sometimes it’s all about confidence and rhythm and with Porzingis out for most of the year, Hezonja will without a doubt be the starter at the four to start the season and be on the receiving end of plenty of minutes.
Add to all that the fact there is no real true number one scoring threat on this Knicks team, and Hezonja might be looking at the biggest scoring jump of his career. Already there are Magic fans raising an uproar over the decision by management to let him go back in October. Having seen his improvement over the second half of the season when he was finally playing likely would have changed their minds. Now their mistake is the Knicks success. If there was a player to bet on that would surpass all expectations this year for New York, it would have to be Hezonja.