There's a common feeling of uncertainty when talking about foreign prospects in today's basketball environment. Part of it is a local bitterness - some of the Philly media and the fans harbor bitterness for the team drafting someone they might not see play in a Sixers uniform until 2016. But there's also a sentiment of negativity just when evaluating a player's abilities overseas because of a lack of familiarity with the competition and how any skills will translate.
But in watching FC Barcelona's Mario Hezonja - a Croatian national teammate of your favorite toothless EuroSixer, forward Dario Saric - there isn't the same type of uncertainty we usually see in European prospects. Mario Hezonja already has quantifiable NBA-caliber skills and the talent necessary for a smooth transition to the NBA. You won't hear the "but he's 7-foot-1 and skinnier than Macaulay Culkin circa 2012!" anecdote your smart-ass friend shouts at you while your heart is lost in a heaping pile of Kristaps Porzingis' tape.
Hezonja is already a low-usage spot-up sniper and a secondary creator with tight handles and good vision who can defend his position. Hezonja has talent - it's just a question of unlocking it and seeing more of it. Thus far, the questions that surround his ability to succeed at the next level stem from a lack of playing time given to him by his team's head coach, Xavi Pascual. Unlike fellow top draft prospects Justise Winslow and Stanley Johnson, and like Kelly Oubre, Hezonja hasn't received consistent extended playing time:
Hezonja's playing time has fluctuated in both ACB and Euroleague play amid attitude concerns and a loaded Barcelona wing rotation. He's started 13 games, played 29 games off the bench in the team's rotation, and nine game in limited or garbage time minutes, plus 10 DNP's this season. Even given the additional games played in Europe, we have seen him play less than other wing prospects at the top of draft. But the ability shows when he plays.
Hezonja gets knocked for times when he doesn't move off the ball, and there's merit to that. Sometimes it's laziness, and sometimes it's a disconnect with his teammates.
But he has his fair share of impressive flashes, too, and they'll blow you away.
As shown here, he can be Klay Thompson-esque when active, turning the jets and launching off screens with great speed, but also with mind-boggling control.
Then, as if it's not enough that his happy feet create worlds of space for him, his shot is damn near un-blockable at 6-foot-8. His high, relatively quick stroke would already do damage against NBA competition.
He didn't hesitate to showcase that in his strongest performance of the season against La Bruixa D'or Manresa - he was 8-for-8 from deep in his team's 48-point shellacking of, albeit, the ACB's second-worst team.
So, he has great range, an NBA release and he can fill it up with his feet set under pressure. Those are recommended traits for any wing complementing a big drawing double-teams in the post. But unlike most standstill shooters in the league, he can create for himself, using his size to see over the defense and his outstanding vertical athleticism to finish at the rim.
The pick-and-roll comes from a November matchup with Olimpia Milano, which was played under bizarre circumstances. During the month of October, Hezonja played under ten minutes per game and picked up a DNP, but after a mid-November visit from his NBA agent, Arn Tellem, he was immediately thrown into the fire and definitely tried to overcompensate.
His move worked in the above progression, but this was part of a sequence of three straight pick-and-rolls he orchestrated, which UpsideMotor's Rafael Uehara referenced in his scouting report. Hezonja didn't look to pass on any of them, but the first two ended in especially bad decisions: an ill-advised contested pull-up and a dribble-drive into a crowded lane that ended in a questionable shooting foul call.
Hence, the questions of his maturity: can he tame himself and play within the flow of an NBA rotation? Will that come with age and experience?
Now, the Sixers seem to be building their program around a stout defense, primarily centered around rim protection and length on the wings. Hez's strengths don't necessarily come on defense, and he can get caught ball-watching, but with his physical upside, he has a good shot at defending twos at the next level.
If he can consistently tighten the gap and close out on shooters as he did here, he'll do just fine in a defensive system reliant on collapsing inside and recovering quickly to the perimeter with closeouts. He has trouble navigating screens, and that's apparent here, which will cause problems for him defending the pick-and-roll. But as the Sixers used to their advantage to hide MCW's wretched pick-and-roll defense, they have the favorable length and quickness from a lot of their bigs necessary to switch.
The biggest question surrounding Hezonja involves his me-first antics which kept him on the bench for long stretches. As DraftExpress's Jonathan Givony wrote in his 2013 scouting report, the "only question marks revolve around his attitude and whether that could stop him from achieving his extremely high potential".
"Attitude issues" is a scary phrase to throw around, but I'm not one to be deterred by a professional athlete being overly cocky or confident in his abilities. Because, well, most professional athletes are this way; it's just a matter of channeling it properly. If you hate basketball, like the dude whose No. 33 jersey is solemnly staring daggers at me on my wall (hint: not Craig Brackins), that's one thing. But someone who just needs to learn how to best utilize his abilities is exactly the type the Sixers' program could steer in the right direction.
Finding talent is sort of the whole point of this program they've put together, and Hezonja has talent. The talent/attitude risk-reward is tricky to navigate, but the Sixers have shown a willingness to take calculated risks if they upside of making that decision is, in their eyes, worth rolling the dice for.
Sure, maybe you get J.R. Smith - but maybe you get a foundational player with a polarizing, colorfully cocksure personality that Philly old heads seem to fall in love with. Heck, Andrew Bynum's knees were degenerating by the day, and he still took home an incentive-laden $12 million deal, all because someone was willing to gamble on the talent buried under all the knee cartilage in that petri dish.
We'll see if the Sixers are willing to make this type of gamble sooner rather than later. He's yet to declare for the Draft, as Barcelona is still playing in Euroleague playoffs, and his contract situation will have to be sorted out. Courtesy of Sportando's Orazio Cauchi, it seems Barcelona can extend his expiring contract by four more years up until 5/31, but he can reject it and opt for a $150K buyout instead. After that date, his NBA buyout would increase considerably, so keep an eye out for news on that front.
In the mean time, don't count him out if the Sixers happen to fall a couple spots in the lottery and miss out on some of the consensus top guys. Mario "wants to run over everybody," and that might include you.
*All video breakdown via Wesley Share*