Eye on the Draft: Mario Hezonja

Danny Ainge escaped the New England weather and spent his All-Star weekend in Spain, attending a Barcelona-Galatasaray Euroleague game to scout Barca’s best prospect, G/F Mario Hezonja.

Last year the Philadelphia 76ers took Croatian Dario Saric with the 12th pick overall. Now Hezonja looks to be the next in line out of Croatia to be a lottery pick in the NBA. Only 19 years young, he has a strong 6’8, 200 pound frame and good perimeter ball skills, making him a nightmare for opposing wings to defend.

What has scouts salivating over the Croatian is how he can hit his shots from just about anywhere on the court in a variety of ways. Feet set, off the dribble, contested, no matter how he has to get his shots off, his accuracy shouldn’t take a huge blow.

His long arms give him that extra amount of space needed to get his jumper free of defenders. For Hezonja, it's all about his shot selection. One of the many areas of his game he still needs to work on, but is improving.

Currently the teen plays just a limited role for his Barcelona team, so his numbers aren’t gaudy. But when it rains it pours for the youngster. Back on the first of the month, Hezonja set the Spanish ACB (AsociaciĆ³n de Clubs de Baloncesto) record for three-point makes without a miss, torching his opponents with 8-of-8 from deep.

Through 21 games in the ACB, he’s logged averages of 5.6 ppg, 2.1 rpg and has shot a blazing 60% from the field. Keep in mind this is a guard/forward who is coming off the bench getting limited shots (4.3) per game. Scouts have got to love that kind of efficiency.

Hezonja has no doubt where he ranks among potential 2015 draftees. Via David Pick of basketballinsiders.com:
If I was in college I’d probably be the No. 1 pick, I had an offer from Kentucky. I’m European and I need to work harder to break into the U.S market.

The fact that he's committed to get better and already doing well in a subsidiary role in Barcelona should only boost his draft stock come June.

Scouts would certainly like to see him starting and logging more minutes to truly get a read on whether he is ready for the jump to the NBA. But seeing him excel in a backup role, which he is more than likely to be forced to immediately accept once he does get to the pros, will be encouraging for teams looking to draft him late in the lottery.

There is one glaring problem Celtics fans may have with drafting Hezonja. Much like his fellow countryman Dario Saric, Hezonja is focused and committed to his development. This may mean he doesn’t enter the draft at all, or more likely, that he would be drafted and “stashed” overseas to gain an extra year experience before stepping into an NBA game.

For example, Saric is currently playing with the Anadolu Efes of the Turkish Basketball League.. (And you thought the New Orleans Pelicans was a bad team name.)

Saric signed a contract just before the NBA draft that will keep him in Turkey for at least two seasons. While playing for Anadolu Efes, the Sixers still control Saric's NBA rights. If Saric comes over before 3 years, he'll immediately fall under the NBA rookie contract scale. If he stays longer and then decides to jump seas, his NBA rights are still exclusively held by the Sixers, but he would no longer fall under the rookie scale regulations.

Hezonja seems destined for a similar destination if drafted in 2015. Jonathan Givony of Draftexpress.com points out Hezonja has displayed poor body language and an inability to grasp team concepts in his first two seasons coming off Barca’s bench.

Another interesting Hezonja quote from basketballinsiders.com:
I don’t know if I’ll enter the draft, I might, but who knows what pick I’ll be? Before I go to the NBA I want to become a leader and win with Barcelona.

Sounds to me like someone has explained to him how the rookie contract scale works..

Hezonja will need to improve how he plays off the ball quickly. That goes for both ends of the floor. While his shooting technique and ability are nearly flawless, he still looks lost trying to free himself up minus the basketball. The video above shows some of the progression he's made, but also some of the inexperience.

Defensive awareness and rotating into help defense when needed will be something NBA teams will also need to see more from him. But these are weaknesses that should probably be expected of a 19 year old international player just beginning his pro career.

There's a lot to like about Mario Hezonja. NBADraft.net went as far to say that "he probably is the best European prospect at his position since Drazen Petrovic and honestly has more potential." Those are some big shoes to fill.

He has the confidence. He's got the size. He's got the shot. Now he's just got to get his mind ready to play pro hoops. Would you be in favor of super Mario in green & white? And more importantly, would you be willing to wait a year to see your top 2015 pick in action?

Team Croatia photo - www.fiba.com Top photo - Jose Luis Surralles

follow Tob on twitter @muggsytobs