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Mario Hezonja - Future Sixer?

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Could Mario Hezonja be the player Hinkie selects with his highest 2015 draft pick?

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Last weekend, I wrote about the possibility of the Sixers picking Justise Winslow with one of their first picks. D’Angelo Russell and Mario Hezonja are the two players I find nearly as likely to be selected with the Sixers’ own pick. Today I’d like to focus on Hezonja.

A few months ago, Kirk Goldsberry wrote a piece for Grantland in which he argued that the time had come in which the quantification of coach’s impact was necessary. Citing Brian Shaw and Mike Budenholzer as examples, he argued that players either exceeded or failed to meet performance expectations based on how a coach’s system used them. In short, some coaches put players in positions in which it is more likely that they will succeed, while the opposite is true for other coaches.

To illustrate this, Goldsberry shows DeMarre Carroll’s improvement as a shooter from his time in Utah to his time in Atlanta. While we shouldn’t discount the personal work Carroll had to put in to improve, a jump of 11 percentage points (29% to 40% at the time of his writing) had to be due, in part, to the quality of the shots he took, which Goldsberry asserts is largely thanks to Budenholzer’s system.

As I read the column, I couldn’t help but think of our Sixers. I am relatively confident that Brett Brown is a coach who will help his players to get the highest quality shots, thus turning poorer players into stronger ones. But the more I reflected on it, the more I considered, specifically, the wonders he could work with Mario Hezonja.

Hezonja has been capturing the hearts and minds of Sixers’ fans for almost a year now. He has phenomenal size for a wing, at 6’8 (here he is next to Saric, for reference), and is one of the most exciting leapers in the draft. Hezonja’s greatest skill, is shooting, where he excels in both catch and shoot situations as well as off the dribble.

As a wing, Hezonja constantly lurks as an enormous off-the-ball threat. As Wesley mentioned several weeks ago, his footwork around screens is fantastic. I really like the Klay Thompson comparison for Hezonja for precisely that reason. He is someone that needs to be paid attention to at all times, whether he is on the ball or off it. As has often been discussed, his personal gravity will open up driving lanes for teammates and prevent easy doubles on Embiid or Noel in the post.

With the ball in his hands, he can do things like this.

What’s most exciting about Hezonja as a prospect, however, is that he can shoot off the dribble as well. Many spot-up shooters struggle to create their own shots, but Hezonja’s ball-handling skills allow him to create in the pick and roll. And if his defender goes under the screen, he does not hesitate to pull-up and shoot a 3. While his reputation paints him as a particularly selfish player, Hezonja has always looked like a willing passer to me—he rarely hijacks an offense and plays within its flow. His passing statistics back that up. At 3.1 assists per 40 minutes, he ranks among the best of the wing prospects in this draft.

His passing and general unselfishness are two reasons why I feel the JR Smith comparisons are unwarranted. The manifestation of Hezonja’s ego within his play also differs greatly from Smith. When Smith decides to score on a given possession, he pounds the ball and isolates against his defender. In essence, he can be a ball-stopper, trying to beat his guy one-on-one and frequently settling for contested jumpers instead.

Hezonja’s poor decision-making, meanwhile, has principally been on the pick and roll. These are plays specifically geared towards getting the ballhandler an advantage, and Hezonja has attempted to make use of that advantage. He certainly needs to improve on his spatial recognition, and perhaps should look for his teammates more frequently, but on the whole I see this criticism as being overly harsh of a 20-year-old kid playing against adults who have spent their whole careers learning PnR coverage.

To me, Hezonja’s playing style is much closer to Klay Thompson than it is to JR Smith.

One of the biggest reasons for that is Hezonja’s driving ability. Everyone has seen him throw down enormous dunks, but this is a  far more infrequent occurrence than his mixtapes would lead you to believe. In March, Derek Bodner posted some statistics comparing the finishing ability of the elite wings in the draft. I do not have access to SportVU, so I will use those same statistics. In halfcourt settings, the four best wing prospects had the following stats (accurate as of March 21):

Player

Rim FG%

% of FGA

Justise Winslow

55.1

42.5

Stanley Johnson

47.2

32.1

Kelly Oubre

53.2

33.9

Mario Hezonja

60.9

20.7

It is encouraging that Hezonja shoots such a high percentage when he gets to the rim, but the more pertinent number is how rarely that occurs. Some of that may be due to more selectivity on his part—if he shoots a fantastic percentage, some of that must be down to the quality of the shots. But only attempting 20% of his halfcourt field goals at the rim suggests that some of it is due to a skill deficit as well.

In fact, Hezonja rarely even attempts to get to the rack. Nearly 60% of his field goal attempts are from 3; for reference, 42% of Thompson’s were this year, and 49% of JJ Redick's were. He settles for far too many jumpers, and isn’t able to stress the defense in a North-South manner as meaningfully as he does with his gravity. It is encouraging that he doesn’t often force the issue, as it helps to avoid unnecessary turnovers, but assuming that he will achieve his potential as a slasher without hedging that stance seems like a step too far.

I would be remiss not to mention his defense, too. He has been inconsistent this year, and it may be a part of what has hampered his playing time at FCB. He isn’t always in a strong stance, and his effort wanes depending on situation. The good news is that none of his weaknesses are because of a physical inability to execute defensive principles. When dialed in, Hezonja’s defense has shown to be good, although not elite, and he certainly has the size and length to be an issue for opposing offenses. I don’t think it can be considered a true strength of his at the moment, but would also not call it a flag.

Still, whenever I think of Hezonja on this Sixers’ team, my thoughts always return to that Goldsberry article. I think he has a shot to be a very good player in most of the situations that he winds up in. But given the probability that Brett Brown would be able to turn one or two of his contested shots into open ones in each game, I think his ceiling would be raised in Philadelphia. Even the best shooters become better when their shots are wide open. Put Hezonja in a Sixers’ shirt, and we could be watching that scenario in real time over the next 5-10 years.

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