Making the transition from Euroleague a year ago, Mario Hezonja was one of the most intriguing prospects entering the NBA at the age of 20.
The hype was real, but it wasn’t strictly about the numbers. It wasn’t about his ever-growing 6-foot-8, 218-pound frame or freakish athleticism or sharpshooting ability.
Instead, the spotlight was on an assertive response regarding a question about respect for his opponents in an interview with Sportando a couple of years back.
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.
As bold as a statement like that comes across, Hezonja would like to clear the air on the point he was really trying to get across.
“As usual, there was a mix of words that everybody tried to make a story, headlines or whatever,” Hezonja told Amico Hoops of the quote. “It’s about my confidence. I feel confident — practice, games, Olympics, international team, whatever.”
A trait that comes across to some as cocky or arrogant, but make no mistake about it — it’s a quality that is essential to possess.
And entering only his second year in the league, Hezonja has plenty of it.
“Of course it’s different here, but it’s different because it’s another country and the best league in the world, the best players,” the 21-year-old said. “I mean, I’m super confident each day, each game because I’m getting more calm and used to everything.
“Since last year was my first year here, I would say it was like more different. But this year is like everything’s coming more calmly. It’s easier.”
That sense of comfort will prove to be helpful in the upcoming season and vital to the success of the Orlando Magic, who underwent whole-sale changes over the summer.
Aside from hiring a brand new head coach in Frank Vogel, the most notable move the front office made was acquiring Serge Ibaka from the Thunder in exchange for rising star Victor Oladipo along with Ersan Ilyasova and rookie big man Domanatas Sabonis.
It was an especially surprising trade, considering Oladipo led the Magic in minutes and steals as the team’s second-best scorer per game.
With more of an opportunity there to take the reigns on offense, Hezonja is certain that he and Evan Fournier can fulfill that role.
“Definitely,” said Hezonja when asked if the duo can produce in that spot. “All of us younger guys—with Evan of course—we have to step up and prove why we’re here and why they reserved space for us.”
Having gone through it many times in Europe, the additions and subtractions are something Hezonja has dealt with before, and he understands it may take a while before things click.
“It’s not easy to adjust, but we’ll do our best,” he said. “There’s a great group of guys here, so we’ll make sure that our news guys adjust as possible.
“I mean, we might go through a little bit of difficult times, but we’ll find chemistry on the court. You know how it goes. We’ll help them a lot so they adjust quick.”
Like the team he plays for, Hezonja also kept busy over the offseason, participating in the Olympics in Rio as a member of the Croatian men’s basketball team. It was their first appearance in the games since 2008 in Beijing, as they didn’t qualify in 2012.
Croatia made its presence felt immediately by knocking off one of the Finals favorites, Spain, on the first day of group play. They finished 3-2 and qualified for the knockout stage where they lost an 86-83 contest to Serbia, who got to the Gold Medal game and lost to the United States.
Though his team didn’t deliver with a medal, the experience was something Hezonja will never forget.
“It was great,” he said. “After so many years Croatia is represented in the Olympics. It’s amazing for our people, for our basketball and the whole country. It was pretty amazing.”
Now with the Olympics and his rookie season behind him, Hezonja is embracing the task at hand in front of him — to get better.
“I’m looking forward to the challenges of the best players here because playing against the best, you’ve got to improve. I’m looking forward to improving, to be the best that I can be and be confident in those challenges against it.”