Both Chad Ford and Jonathan Givony currently have 18-year-old Mario Hezonja projected as a top 10 pick in the 2015 NBA draft as of now, and that’s after the Croatian swingman logged a grand total of 329 minutes for Barcelona last season. When Barça signed Hezonja to a seven-year deal two years ago, its plan was to have him practice with the top squad but play with the junior team in the second division of the Spanish league for at least a season (or maybe two). However, after rumors of some attitude problems in the lower ranks, Barça decided to have him around its veterans for the entirety of last season and as a result, Hezonja was stuck behind Juan Carlos Navarro, Brad Oleson, Kostas Papanikolaou and Alex Abrines in the rotation. This resulted in him having 403 fewer minutes to develop in comparison to the previous campaign.
Why then is he rated so highly?
Two things: his age, and the fact that he played so little that there was little clarification on which aspects of his game actually developed — or are even real. Much like Kristaps Porzingis, because he is so young every good play Hezonja makes, regardless of context, is then considered potential. He hits an open corner-three, and one can envision him as an eventual 40% three-point shooter. He makes a good pass out of the pick-and-roll in garbage time, and one can suggest he is the second coming of Ginóbili. He completely overwhelms some random guy with his athleticism in isolation defense, and one can speculate he could become Lance Stephenson two or three years down the line.
What we have of real evidence now is that Hezonja is a prolific athlete for his age. Against whatever level of competition, this has been absolutely true. Standing at 6’8 and 200 pounds, Hezonja has the prototypical size for an NBA wing. Already, he is a great transition player that sprints down the court in a flash and plays above the rim in the half-court as well, both when lobbed the ball or off the dribble, as he’s capable of leaping off the ground in a pinch.
Also, one other thing can be stated with certainty: he has a scorer’s mentality. Against the highest level, Hezonja is mostly an isolation player at this point. And he is a talented one, at that. He attacks closeouts with his speed on straight line drives and can create separation with his very sudden side-to-side dribbling moves with either hand. Unfortunately though, he still does a lot of catching and holding at this stage of his development. He often will take contested mid-range jump-shots off the dribble, which led to a very low 0.21 free throw attempt to field goal attempt ratio. That formula that is just not conducive to efficient offense in the modern era.
Hezonja is a capable gunner, both off the catch and off the bounce, but is still far from a pure shooter. He hit a satisfactory 37% of his 46 three-point attempts last season, but has only a decent motion and a slow release — especially if he receives the ball outside of his shooting pocket, as he’ll then bring the ball down and load up from his hip.
As one would expect from an 18-year-old, Hezonja is not a polished defender. Aware that he won’t ever see the court if he doesn’t play hard on that end (at least as long as Xavi Pascual is the coach), Hezonja put in effort in isolation defense; moving his feet, being physical and adequately contesting shots. He also leveraged his athleticism to contribute on the glass; grabbing 18.2% of opponents’ misses when he was on the floor, a high defensive rebounding rate for a wing. But he often got caught watching the ball on the weak-side, losing track of his man, and displayed no instincts whatsoever as a help defender.
Perhaps the most concerning aspect of Hezonja’s development is that there isn’t clear indication he will see more minutes next season, unless Barcelona ends up loaning him to another team. Barca just signed Wizards’ draftee Tomas Satoransky to play a meaningful role as a shot creator. It seems Papanikolaou is not going to sign with the Houston Rockets after somewhat advanced contract negotiations. Navarro is entering his age-35 season, and there are always concerns surrounding his health despite managing to log over 1,600 minutes last season. There is a possibility that they quit on Abrines, who hasn’t developed into much of anything. But since he isn’t expected to join the Thunder — and that there aren’t many suitors inquiring about his price — flat out giving up on him seems unlikely beause it wasn’t that long ago that they paid a decent amount to buy his rights from Unicaja Malaga.
As of now, Hezonja is in a sort of limbo. And that’s even true for the summer. He is not a part of the Croatian national team that is a competing on the FIBA European Championships U20 in Crete, which he should have been. It’s unclear why. He is on the preliminary list of the squad for World Cup of Basketball in Spain and may very well make the team but is unlikely to get much playing time in that setting.
Overall, Hezonja’s draft stock will be somewhat tied to the how much playing time he’s able to receive this year and this summer. And right now, it doesn’t look great.