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Mario Hezonja Has a Low Bar to Clear with the Trail Blazers

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Portland acquired Hezonja on the cheap. What can the team expect? To whom does he compare?

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers-Media Day Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers re-signed Rodney Hood, traded for Kent Bazemore, and signed Pau Gasol this summer. All three will fill the gaps between Portland’s excellent Damian Lillard/CJ McCollum backcourt and the center tandem of Hassan Whiteside and Jusuf Nurkic. Amid all the flash and flurry, Portland also made a less-heralded signing, plucking Croatian forward Mario Hezonja from free agency. How good is Hezonja expected to be? That’s the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.

Dave,

I’ve been able to contain myself for most of the summer, but no longer. Just gotta know! Is Mario Hezonja some version Jake Layman? For those of us who’ve already begun to get serious about working out rotation rosters, this is a sticking point. Do a guy a favor and pass a cold compress for my forehead!

Taylor

I think the best comparison for Hezonja is the one I made in yesterday’s Mailbag: he’s this year’s Nik Stauskas, just taller and playing a different position.

Stauskas, if you’ll recall, was a 25-year-old former lottery pick (drafted 8th overall in 2014 by the Sacramento Kings) who had bounced around the league a bit before the Blazers claimed him in free agency in the Summer of 2018. Though skilled, particularly at three-point shooting, the 6’6 shooting guard could never put together enough of a well-rounded game to earn court time. He settled for occasional flashes of brilliance amid months of pale performances. Stauskas hit rock bottom in 2017-18 just before signing with the Blazers. Portland was generally considered his last chance at relevance.

Hezonja is a 24.6-year-old former lottery pick (5th overall in 2015 to the Orlando Magic) whom the New York Knicks picked up in free agency after three undistinguished years on his rookie contract. The 6’8 forward got 20.8 minutes per game in New York last season, but his three-point percentage tanked to 27.6% and the Knicks let him depart after one year. He has potential as a scorer, but right now he’s basically a jump shooter who can’t shoot well, a decent rebounder in a league that doesn’t value same, a guy having trouble putting together a complete game. If he doesn’t work out with the Blazers, who knows where his next stop will be? If that sounds familiar, it should.

On the bright side, Stauskas put together a few memorable games for the Blazers early in 2018-19. Later he became instrumental in the trade that brought Rodney Hood to Portland. If the Blazers get either benefit from Hezonja, they’ll be ahead. The bar is pretty low.

Jake Layman is the opposite of Stauskas and Hezonja. He came into the league unheralded, as the 47th overall pick in 2016. He traded on athleticism rather than an all-around style, learning to backdoor cut and take open threes. His career arc ascended while Stauskas’ and Hezonja’s descended. Layman is now being mentioned as a hidden gem in Minnesota’s lineup. That’s a designation Hezonja is unlikely to earn.

That doesn’t mean Hezonja is a worse player, or a worse bet, than Layman. Jake just has to keep it going on a non-contender; Mario has to turn it around while playing for a team with deep playoff aspirations. Layman will have the easier task this year. Hezonja has better teammates and will play in a better system, though.

Just as they did with Stauskas, the Blazers will try to make the most out of Mario. He has plenty of guys to pass to. He’ll get more open looks in Portland than he did anywhere else. I expect him to rebound this year, looking better than he did in New York or Orlando.

Hezonja’s ultimate fate will likely be the same as Stauskas’ though. The chances of him becoming an important cog, or even as tantalizing as Layman turned out to be, seem small. Holding the fort in a weak forward corps and providing trade ballast if necessary are both within his grasp. Relevance will require something more than we’ve seen from him so far.

Keep those Mailbag questions coming to blazersub@gmail.com! The pace is picking up as the season approaches. Feel free to ask about anything that excites or intrigues you.

—Dave blazersub@gmail.com / @DaveDeckard / @Blazersedge