Philadelphia 76ers: Making the case for Mario Hezonja

(Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
(Photo by Elsa/Getty Images) /

While Mario Hezonja is far from an elite player, if the New York Knicks make him available at the trade deadline, the Philadelphia 76ers should make a deal.

Mario Hezonja is a bust, or at least he was for the Orlando Magic.

Selected fifth overall in the 2015 NBA Draft, two picks after the Philadelphia 76ers made their own blunder by selecting Jahlil Okafor at number three, Hezonja’s time in Orlando was far from magical, as he only logged 41 starts in 219 contests under the watchful eyes of Scott Skiles (2015-2016), and Frank Vogel (2016-2018).

Splitting time between shooting guard and small forward, Hezonja never quite lived up to his pre-draft expectations, where some overzealous scouts called him Europe’s answer to Vince Carter, which ultimately led to the team declining to pick up his four-year option. With his rookie-scale deal cut short, Hezonja was allowed to walk in free agency following his best season as a pro in 2017-18, where he averaged 9.6 points, 3.7 rebounds, and 1.1 steals, however, the market was far from boisterous for the third-year winger.

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After failing to land a long-term, eight-figure deal, Hezonja opted to sign a one-year, $6.5 million deal to join David Fizdale and the rebuilding New York Knicks in a minutes-heavy opportunity to rehab his NBA career.

So far, the results have been mixed.

At times, like in the Philadelphia 76ers’ 108-105 win over the Knicks on Sunday, January 13th, Hezonja played surprisingly well, scoring nine points in 22 minutes of action while hauling in five rebounds and a pair of steals. But then ‘Super Mario’ would also go through periods like the back half of December, where he only sees the court for nine minutes over a five-game period, removed from Fizdale’s rotation due to inconsistent play.

That’s just the kind of player Hezonja is at this point; incredibly talented, but woefully inconsistent.

That, however, does not mean that he couldn’t be a productive auxiliary player for the Philadelphia 76ers. Far from it, in fact.

Dating all the way back to the pre-draft process, people have lauded Hezonja’s ability to score the rock from all over the court, even if his 3 point shooting percentage has been woeful as a pro, but so far, the defensive end of the court has been his strong suit. According to ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus, Hezonja is the 41st best defensive small forward in the league with a -.10 DRPM. While that’s not great, it’s noticeably better than his -2.78 ORPM, and higher than that of Furkan Korkmaz (-1.18), Marco Belinelli (-1.81), and Dario Saric (-0.84).

Because of his elite size for the position, standing 6-foot-8, 225 pounds with plus athleticism, Herzonja does a lot of the dirty work that helped to keep a team in the game, like crashing the glass, fighting for loose balls, and stealing the ball to procure extra possessions. In a lot of ways, Hezonja plays like a super-sized T.J. McConnell, an effort guy willing to do what he has to do to help his team win.

Furthermore, much like McConnell, Hezonja is a more than willing secondary playmaker; a part-time point forward with a solid handle and the ability to set up his teammates while searching for his own shot.

Players like McConnell and Hezonja can’t single-handedly will their team to a string of wins, as evident by their career win-loss records, but when surrounded by stars like, say Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Jimmy Butler, they without a doubt improve their product on the court night after night.

Hezonja could also provide value to the 76ers as an inside scorer, as his 3.0 shot attempts in 18 minutes of action a night within five-feet would still rank fourth on the team behind their Big 3. As previously highlighted here, here, and here, when the 3 ball isn’t falling, the Sixers’ offense stalls to a complete halt as the team only has a few players capable of driving to the hoop for an easy deuce. While Hezonja is far from a prolific scorer, he can dunk the ball with fervor and could provide a noticeable upgrade from the team’s current collection of catch and shoot-only scorers.

Will he ever develop into an All-Star caliber 3-and-D wingman or even a consistent starter? Probably not, but it’s abundantly clear that Hezonja is an upgrade over Korkmaz, who’s been absolutely dreadful at both ends of the court in 2019, and could help to push the Sixers in the right direction moving forward.

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With his current contract set to expire at the end of the season, but nary the production to garner a new, long-term contract, if the New York Knicks want to squeeze assets out of Mario Hezonja, probably a second round pick, and a player like Korkmaz or Justin Patton, the Philadelphia 76ers look like a perfect trade partner down the stretch.