NBA Prospect Watch: Mario Hezonja vs. Estudiantes – Dec. 21, 2014

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Mario Hezonja is a potential top-10 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, but Fede Van Lacke and Movistar Estudiantes exploited some of his weaknesses during their 102-96 victory over FC Barcelona on Sunday.

Estudiantes ran Hezonja through a gauntlet of screens, both on and off the ball. They set the tone early by running him off five picks in the first 20 seconds, and his night didn’t get any easier from there.

Van Lacke, a seasoned 6’2″ shooting guard, scored 25 points on the night, with 12 of them coming against Hezonja.

Van Lacke converted 5-of-6 field goals on possessions when Hezonja was his primary defender, and he knocked down a wide-open transition three after a bad Hezonja turnover. His dominance over the 6’8″ shooting guard was a key factor in Estu’s upset win.

The Numbers

Hezonja’s playing time has increased in recent weeks because of injuries to Brad Oleson, Juan Carlos Navarro and Alex Abrines. Here’s how Sunday’s game compares to his season averages in both ACB and Euroleague play.

ACB season averages: 12 games played, 13.9 minutes, 4.1 points, 71.4% 2FG, 31.6% 3FG, 50% FT, 1.9 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.3 blocks, 0.9 turnovers, 2.0 fouls committed, 0.3 fouls drawn

Euroleague season averages: 7 games played, 17.6 minutes, 8.1 points, 55.0% 2FG, 40.9% 3FG, 72.7% FT, 2.0 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.3 blocks, 1.4 turnovers, 2.1 fouls committed, 1.7 fouls drawn

Jornada 12: 26.2 minutes, 8 points, 100% 2FG (1/1), 50% 3FG (2/4), 3 rebounds, 1 assist, 0 steals, 0 blocks, 0 turnovers, 4 fouls committed, 1 fouls drawn

The Good

Hezonja’s only 2-point field goal came on Barcelona’s first offensive possession. After receiving a screen from Ante Tomic on left wing, Hezonja drove middle and banked in a contested leaner over 6’11” center Uros Slokar.

Hezonja mostly sat in the corner on offense, spacing the floor so Tomic and Marcelinho Huertas could work their pick-and-roll game. When Xavi Pascual did draw up a play for him, Hezonja made the most of his opportunity, hitting a step-back three over Javi Salgado.

Hezonja is a shoot-first guard, but he can also be a very good passer. In the first quarter, he leaked out after a made free throw and found Deshaun Thomas with a nice behind-the-back bounce pass.

Hezonja also has good vision in the half-court set. In the second quarter, he posted up the smaller Salgado on the baseline and hit a slashing Tomas Satoransky.

Defensively, this was a rough game for Hezonja, but he did have several strong plays.

In the first quarter, Justin Doellman picked up Van Lacke as he drove past Hezonja, who then dropped down to Doellman’s man in the post. He was able to steal Van Lacke’s pass and find Doellman, igniting the 3-on-2 fast break.

Hezonja also played good on-ball defense for the most part. The first time Van Lacke tried to break him down without a screen, Hezonja stayed low, slid his feet and forced a pass late in the shot clock.

Unfortunately for Barcelona, Huertas bit on Salgado’s pump-fake and he knocked down the buzzer-beater.

The Bad

Fede Van Lacke torched Hezonja on Sunday, curling off screens and pulling up for that smooth mid-range J while Mario trailed behind him.

On this play, Van Lacke starts with the ball on the right wing. After passing it to the top of the key, he runs Hezonja off two screens, then turns down the option for an on-ball screen, knowing he already has Hezonja beat.

On the next possession, Van Lacke starts on the right wing again. This time he runs Hezonja through three screens before knocking down the easy jumper.

Van Lacke did most of his damage moving without the ball, but he beat Hezonja off the dribble as well. On this third-quarter possession, Van Lacke starts at the top of the key, drives to his right around two screens and pulls up for the shot.

Later in the third, he beat Hezonja on a similar play, driving to his right and into the lane.

On this fourth-quarter possession, Hezonja (under the basket) plays some nice help defense, cutting off Slokar as he dives to the rim.

However, his recovery is poor. He stands too tall on his closeout and takes a bad angle, allowing the right-handed Van Lacke to drive around him and find Slokar for the bucket.

Here’s another half-good, half-bad defensive possession. Hezonja (top right of the screen) does a great job communicating with Deshaun Thomas and picks up Thomas’ man (Xavi Rabaseda) in transition.

But rather than finding and boxing out Rabaseda when the shot goes up, he traces the arc of the ball with his eyes. When he realizes he needs to put a body on his man, it’s too late. Rabaseda gets to the ball first, creating another possession for Estu.

Offensively, Hezonja was solid. His biggest mistake came in the second quarter, when he tried to replicate his behind-the-back pass. Rather than simply swinging it to the corner, he opts for the flashy play, which quickly turns into a wide-open three for Van Lacke.

Overall, these flaws are fixable, and shouldn’t affect his draft stock.

He didn’t get a ton of help from his big men on screens, and his defensive awareness will improve with time. However, these lapses will likely prevent him from playing big minutes in Barcelona’s more important games this season.

Teammate’s Reaction

After the game, I spoke with Deshaun Thomas about how Hezonja’s game will translate to the NBA.

“I mean, Mario is a great player,” Thomas said. “Great energy. He can play the 2, 3, he’s strong. He can knock down shots. He’ll be a good player at that next level because he’s versatile and the way he plays.”

Throughout the last few years, Hezonja has faced a lot of criticism for his body language, but Thomas said he enjoys sharing the court with him.

“He’s a good player to play with,” Thomas said. “He’s just one of those players that gets you hype every game because he’s so hype. He’s a good player and at that next level he will succeed. I got big faith in him.”

Twitter Noise

After the game, I had this quick conversation with Jonathan Givony of Draft Express, who was also in attendance:

Up Next

Hezonja’s next game is against first-place Real Madrid, the only ACB team that can match Barcelona’s depth and talent. Scouts will be hoping to see Hezonja earn extended minutes against a team loaded with former NBA players.

The game starts at 19:00 CET (1 p.m. ET) on Sunday, Dec. 28.

Austin Green runs from Madrid, Spain with the occasional help of his friends and colleagues.


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