by Mike Walker
Basketball in the American National Basketball Association involves players—including stars of the sport—moving from team to team and teams’ fortunes often resting on the caliber of their current roster of players as much if not more than on their coaches or long-built reputations. Teams that had endless victories in one decade may be sparse in their games won the next, and a normal recourse to this situation is the recruitment of new, promising, talent coming out of the American college system and from overseas.
The Orlando Magic, a team that while rather young as the NBA goes has had an impressive record overall, though it has in recent years been a team fraught with challenges: a lack of more-senior, proven, talent in its athletes and also in its coaches and the departure of the team’s head coach Jacque Vaughn mid-season in early 2015 and his replacement with one of his assistant coaches, James Boreggo, for the rest of that season put many fans on the edges of their seats. Now, a new head coach—Scott Skiles—has been hired as the Fall 2015 season begins but it’s another man who has won the hearts of fans: the Magic’s 2015 draft pick, Croatian Mario Hezonja.
The twenty year-old shooting guard has already become a sensation to the Magic, being dubbed Super Mario for his size and skills, yet Mario himself no matter how humble is probably not surprised by the attention, given that since the onset of his career he has seemed on a trajectory for great things. Even by pro basketball standards, his young career has been exceptional: he garnered the Most Valuable Player award for the 2011 FIBA Europe Under-16 Championship and having played for FC Barcelona, one of the most-respected basketball programs in all of Europe.
Despite his youth, Hezonja shows a great deal of development and his physical skills and speed indicate a maturity beyond his age. We must remember that in America, in a system where the majority of players at the pro level develop first in the college system, at age twenty many players would still be in college playing for their universities’ teams. Therefore, to see someone who is only twenty walk on the court with the degree of confidence and general tactical skill in play-making Hezonja has demonstrated is truly impressive. Like all players, especially those in their rookie years in the NBA, Hezonja has weaknesses, too—his decision-making for one thing doesn’t seem to match his physical speed or ball-handling skills—but whatever Hezonja lacks he seems adept at developing and his speed in scoring in the meantime will keep his coaches and fans very happy with him.
I’ve seen Hezonja play for the Magic in two games thus far in the pre-season leading into the 2015-2016 NBA regular season, both at the Magic’s home court, the Amway Center in Orlando. In the first game against the Charlotte Hornets—a team with ample talent including Jeremy Lin and Cody Zeller—Hezonja displayed an unruffled courage and sense of timing and while the Magic lost that game to the Hornets, Hezonja’s role in scoring was evident and powerful. The fan response was no less encouraging: whenever he was on court, all eyes seemed to be on Super Mario, awaiting the zest in scoring that he promised to bring the Magic.
His addition to the team in this regard is crucial, because another fan-favorite and rookie player who has demonstrated great things already, Elfrid Payton, is downright incredible in ball-handling but his shooting still needs improvement. Hezonja’s ability to move quickly and score just as deftly will be a good match for Magic forward Tobias Harris and this fact became apparent in their game against the Hornets.
In the second game I attended the Magic played the Miami Heat—one of their great rivals and a team that in recent years has seen its share of outstanding players. Super Mario hit the court like lightning, moving with the break-away speed that first game promised of him and using his imposing frame—he’s 6 feet, 8 inches—well against opposing players. The Miami Heat, to their credit, function very well as a team and have a cohesive nature to their style of play somewhat absent from the Orlando Magic, which isn’t too surprising given the youth of the Magic’s squad in its abundance of young players still early in their careers to say nothing of the impact of the turnover of coaching staff over the past season.
Hezonja was able to really become the rock, the solid grounding of the Magic’s offense and also the core of its defense in bringing the ball back to where the Magic wanted it in play.
Those who have followed Hezonja’s career from its early days with KK Zagreb would recognize his style of play against the Miami Heat, because it is a style he developed even in his youngest teen years. Once at Zagreb, he was quick in refining that style and making his skills—backed by the tremendous power of his body—what they are today. It cannot be overstressed that Hezonja is a physical player: he instantly makes the game a very fast, active, and nearly combative one. It’s a style you can find in Croatia, on the concrete courts strewn through cities, and a style you also find in Croatian football. Hezonja didn’t invent this style, but he’s bringing it to American audiences and they’re delighted by it.
Hezonja brought forth a slam-dunk against Miami that was everything he has been touted as, all the determined speed and the ability to see a chance and take it out of nowhere. Any issues with decision-making were absent in that play as Hezonja simply laid down a dunk in so short a window of opportunity that if you’d blinked, you would have missed it. Miami’s defense was tight and that combined with their overall skill brought the game into overtime for a tense battle to see which team could break the tie and secure their victory. Both Miami and Orlando were able to score rapidly but in the end, it was Orlando that won, gaining a narrow margin of victory in good part thanks to Hezonja’s breath-taking moves bounding around the court.
Again, the Croatian roots were clear: that same combination of speed and power is something we see in a lot of the most-promising of today’s young generation of Croatian basketball players and also in other athletes: Alen Halilović certainly comes to mind with his sprint-speed drives with the ball across the midfield and swift, last-minute kicks on the back of a powerful thrust of speed to score a goal—this certainly comes out of the same Croatian sporting ethos.
Mario Hezonja certainly isn’t the first Croatian player to come to the NBA or the international stage of basketball, but he’s one who is making his name known very quickly in America and bringing well-deserved attention to not only Croatia but the style of play native to Croatia. His success—and if these early games are any indication—there will be a lot of it, should only make Croatia’s international stature as a first-rate seat of basketball all the stronger. The nickname Super Mario indeed seems very well-deserved.
Mike Walker is a reporter who covers football and basketball in Europe and the United States.