With one week until the 2015 NBA Draft, one prospect is slowly starting to enter the conversation for one of the top picks in the draft.
20-year-old Croatian wing player Mario Hezonja has been considered one of the best prospects all year long, but has now landed at No. 5 on ESPN’s Chad Ford’s mock draft and No. 6 on DraftExpress’ Jonathan Givony’s mock draft.
Like fellow European prospect Kristaps Porzingis, Hezonja is a bit of a mystery, perhaps even more so than Porzingis because Hezonja’s European team, FC Barcelona, is in the playoffs, so he hasn’t worked out for NBA teams.
In Ford’s first mock draft of the season in August 2014, he had Hezonja going 11th in the draft. To get to No. 5 shows the level of intrigue surrounding Hezonja in the NBA, especially for a player teams have hardly seen up close.
Hezonja is a six-foot-eight athletic specimen, quick and explosive, who can handle the ball, attack the rim, shoot three-pointers off the catch or dribble, and create his own shot. He’s talented, aggressive, self-confident, and has all of the tools to be a star and the NBA’s next great villain.
Playing on a stacked Barcelona team, Hezonja comes off the bench and sees limited minutes. Nonetheless, he knows his skill level and potential. Perhaps the best Hezonja anecdote comes from when he was asked if he would see Lionel Messi play while in Barcelona. Hezonja replied, “Let Messi come see me.”
This, from a player averaging 10 minutes per game!
He doesn’t lack for confidence. He told David Pick of Basketball Insiders, “If I was in college I’d probably be the No. 1 pick. I had an offer from Kentucky.”
It’s not entirely far off. In April a scout spoke to Ford about Hezonja and said, “I really love him. I love [Justise] Winslow, too, but I really think if this kid was in college we’d all be going crazy for him. He’s tough, he’s athletic, he shoots the s— out of it. And the kid just knows how to play. He’s going to be really, really good in the NBA.”
Hezonja’s game speaks to his attitude. He told a Croatian newspaper in 2014:
“Respect? No, I never had respect to anybody on a basketball court. I heard about: ‘If they smell blood, you get eaten.’ I’m not like that. I don’t care. Whether it’s a veteran or a young player standing in front of me I always have the same goal. I want to run over everybody.”
Hezonja’s primary mission on a basketball court, it seems, is demoralising opponents, often with big dunks:
He’ll hang on the rim for good measure:
And as SB Nation’s Kevin O’Connor notes, Hezonja broke one of the greatest unwritten rules in basketball: showboating when the game’s fate has been decided. He went through an opponent’s legs and threw down a windmill dunk, despite his team being up 19 with five seconds remaining:
Hezonja’s mentality can sometimes be a weakness, though. Givony scouted Hezonja and wrote:
As we’ve noted in previous reports one of the more significant ongoing concerns about Hezonja is his demeanour. His body language is poor at times and he seems to get down on his teammates. Though he’s become far less demonstrative than he appeared at the junior level, it will be fascinating to watch how his swagger, ego and unlimited self-confidence fit in on whichever team opts to draft him. His mentality could pay huge dividends if he reaches his lofty potential down the road, but what kind of growing pains will he experience early in his NBA career?
In an earlier scouting report, Givony noted Hezonja was “constantly talking to opponents.”
In Grantland’s profile of Hezonja, Danny Chau recalls watching a game in which Hezonja looked off an open teammate to throw a behind-the-back pass to somebody else. At the next whistle, the teammate had to be held back from fighting Hezonja.
A GM told Fold in May, “He’s crazy. But I think it’s a good crazy. The type of crazy confidence that elite players need. If he can keep that competitiveness under control and be patient, he’s got a good shot to be one of the two or three best players in this draft in five years.”
In a draft where the top players have often been described as high-character, mature prospects, Hezonja sounds like a harmless, fun, intriguing player. If Hezonja brings this attitude to the NBA and develops into the significant talent he possesses, everybody will be a winner because of it.
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