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NBA Free Agency 2018: Mario Hezonja may have some untapped potential

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The oft-criticized Croation wing will be on the market and could be a good fit in Dallas.

Orlando Magic v Cleveland Cavaliers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

It’s understandable if every Mavericks fan is spending this week in a post-draft hangover. The injection of energy that Thursday night brought to the fan base has been palpable. But with free agency days away, Donnie Nelson, Mark Cuban, and Rick Carlisle get no time off. Draft night was step one in an effort to be competitive as soon as possible, but if the Mavericks have intentions of being taken seriously next season they know they must hit on several free agent moves.

Often, the focus is on all the big fish prowling the July waters. In reality those signings are few and far between. For bad teams looking to shortcut the rebuild process, hitting on mid-tier free agents that help bolster the depth of the roster becomes paramount. That’s why Mario Hezonja is the exact kind of player the Mavericks should be honing in on.

The Basics

Super Mario, a 23 year old, 6’8, 215 pound Croation wing, was drafted fifth in the 2015 NBA draft (taken ahead of guys like Myles Turner and Devin Booker) by the Orlando Magic. Having spent his first three seasons in Central Florida, Hezonja has mostly underwhelmed for the Magic — with career averages of seven points, three rebounds, and one assist in 18 minutes per game. As Magic ownership brought in a new front office regime last summer, led by former Milwaukee Bucks general manager John Hammond, the Magic might be pivoting in new directions. They opted to not pick up Hezonja’s fourth year option, making him an unrestricted free agent this summer.

Though Hezonja hasn’t played up to fifth pick expectations, he did see an uptick in production this season. In 22 minutes per game, Hezonja averaged 9.6 points, 3.7 rebounds, an assist and steal per game in the 2017-18 season (75 games played, 30 started). He shot 34 percent from three and flashed the playmaking ability that made him the intriguing international prospect he was three years ago.

Strengths

Hezonja’s greatest strength is his versatility. When he entered the league, after spending time playing for Barcelona in Liga ACB, Hezonja was seen as a fluid athlete with physical upside — projecting to the NBA as a big shooting guard with creation ability. Some of his scoring potential hasn’t come to fruition, but one could argue that stems from coaches (he’s played for Scott Skiles and Frank Vogel in Orlando) not utilizing his strengths and setting him up for success.

With an ability to play two through four on the court, he’s solid moving without the ball while being an off-the-dribble threat from the wing (he shoots better off the dribble than in catch and shoot situations). He has the size to shoot over the top of his defender and exploit mismatches inside the arc. When given more opportunity last season, Hezonja flashed some of his upside on both ends of the floor — from the end of January on, Hezonja averaged 13 points, 4.6 rebounds, two assists and 1.6 blocks in 27 minutes per game. Though he may be streaky as a scorer, Hezonja is capable to contribute in multiple areas, allowing him to still be useful when he isn’t going off.

Hezonja spent the majority of his time at small forward his first two seasons in Orlando, but split time at both forward spots last season; primarily playing at power forward. He’s a true positionless wing because of his offensive versatility, but also has the frame to guard from the perimeter down to the post. Though he may not be a deadly isolation defender, he’s active enough to contribute defensively.

Weaknesses

Much of Hezonja’s criticism is linked to his draft position — not uncommon for lottery picks that under-produce, and especially not uncommon for international lottery picks that under-produce. Hezonja is a perfect example of why critics surfaced for new Maverick Luka Dončić. Still, the knocks on Hezonja aren’t unfounded. His shooting stroke has been absent for long stretches in his three seasons; a career 33 percent three point shooter. And when he isn’t a shut down defender, some of his value is diminished.

As he found more success as a power forward last season in Orlando, it wouldn’t be surprising to see that trend continue in his next contract. On offense he’ll be able to exploit mismatches with forwards lacking athleticism. But if he does spend more time at the four, Hezonja will need to produce more as a rebounder. And with a near 1:1 assist-to-turnover ratio, he needs to learn to better take care of the ball.

Fit with the Mavericks

Similar to Mavericks’ restricted free agent Doug McDermott (who should be at the top of their re-sign list), Hezonja looks to be the kind of high IQ, team-oriented player that thrives in Dallas. Even with the addition of Luka Dončić, the Mavericks are hurting for wings off the bench. Hezonja would provide some extra versatility as a shooter and defender for the Mavs, with the ability to play alongside guys like Dončić, Harrison Barnes, or the aforementioned McDermott.

Being placed in a system where he shouldn’t be asked to create much for himself and others often helps players like Hezonja thrive. If he comes at an affordable price, he’s worth a flier for a two to three year deal. For the last seven summers, the Mavericks front office has hoarded cap space to lure big time free agents; neglecting the idea that without improving the depth of the roster, Dallas becomes a less enticing destination for premiere talent. Targeting a player like Hezonja would be investing in to the middle of the roster — with eyes toward hitting a home run a summer or two from now. That’s how the Mavericks can build toward long term success.