Inside Rookie Mario Hezonja’s Transition to Orlando and the NBA Lifestyle

(Photo by Fernando Medina/Orlando Magic) (Photo by Fernando Medina/Orlando Magic)

Magic rookie Mario Hezonja has only been living in the states for a few months, still trying to find his way 23 games into his NBA career, but he’s far from being the freshest face in the locker room.

The 20-year-old from Croatia, who previously played professionally in Barcelona, is not shy around his teammates, likes to joke with them and as if he’s one of the veterans, he calls some of them by their initials like “EP” or “AG” for Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon, respectively. Hezonja, who wears No. 23 after the great Michael Jordan, exudes a lot of confidence in his character and court performance, which was evident in his first summer league game in July when he swished the game-winning three-pointer.

A versatile scorer at 6’8″, Magic coach Scott Skiles now has Hezonja getting unique experience as the first point guard off the bench—and he’s been showing a natural ability to run the offense and an aggressive edge (like making up for any mistakes with extra effort on defense), crashing the glass well and knocking down his catch-and-shoots. In his last three games, he’s averaging 17.3 minutes and 9.3 points on 66.7 percent shooting.

“I thought he was good,” Skiles said after Monday night’s win over the Nets. “He’s just got to make the simple play. He gets the adrenaline flowing when he first checks in the game. We’ll stick with him, keep working with him, because we like the things he does.”

This week, Hezonja spoke with the NBPA on his transition to the league, including how he’s adjusting to the American basketball culture and lifestyle. His conversation with the NBPA is presented below in a first-person perspective and edited for clarity and length.

 

I can’t stop eating American food. I love it. In Europe, everything comes in small portions. But here, you can’t stop. The portions are huge. It’s crazy.

My favorite restaurants in Orlando are Hillstone, The Cheesecake Factory, BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse, and Kasa Restaurant & Bar. It’s a famous local restaurant; they have everything. Me and EP have been exploring different places together, and I like steakhouses and Italian restaurants. My favorite pregame meal is pasta and tomato sauce.

Me and EP have become really good friends. I’m his “rookie” and he’s been showing me around the city. I didn’t have a car during my first couple of months in Orlando—I do now—so EP would drive me around a lot and we would go sightseeing. So far so good, even though Orlando is strange for me. We have nothing even the same as there is in Barcelona. There are not too many things to do here, but I like it. I’m actually planning to visit some children at a local hospital at the end of the month.

When I was living in Barcelona, where I was playing for the FC basketball club, the experience taught me a lot of things, and they helped me adjust quickly here—understanding the professional life, just having your own schedule, your own rituals every day, knowing that your coaching staff and teammates come first. I brought that pro experience from Barcelona. I was also playing a lot of American music there. I’ve got to say my favorite rapper is Drake now.

ORLANDO, FL - NOVEMBER 16: Orlando Magic internal team autograph session on November 16, 2015 at Amway Center in Orlando, Florida. Mandatory Copyright Notice: ©2015 Fernando Medina/Orlando Magic

ORLANDO, FL – NOVEMBER 16: Orlando Magic internal team autograph session on November 16, 2015 at Amway Center in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Fernando Medina/Orlando Magic)

Now that I’m in the NBA, I don’t spend too much to be honest with you. To me, American currency is pretty much the same in Barcelona with the Euro, but I’m going to tell you what: it’s way different than Croatia because a dollar is maybe seven, eight coins of our Croatian Kuna money.

Besides really my car, I don’t look to buy a lot of things. I’m the same from before I was in the NBA; I won’t change. Money doesn’t change me. I never even played for the money to be honest. Of course, if I see something that I like I’m probably going to buy it, but I’m not used to spending so much when I shop.

I have some contacts that make clothes for me and I go to the shopping malls in Orlando. If I see something that costs $3—some shirt and I like it—I’m going to buy it. And I’ll make it look great, so I’m going to combine it with something I already have. That’s me. I don’t need $10,000 of clothes.


Our team has a ton of special handshakes, especially with EP and Victor Oladipo—AG, too. I have one with everybody; it’s special between us. I’m not going to repeat something that I do with them. Also, the handshakes are hard. If I do them with anyone, we’re going to mess up. It takes three days of practice.

EP is definitely helping me play point guard, telling me how to adjust more quickly to the position. I don’t know the last time I played point guard back in Barcelona. The one problem that I have with it now is it’s a little bit strange, because I was playing more of the 2, 3, 4 positions in Barcelona and when I started with the Magic.

But I’m really happy with point guard. I’m able to play multiple positions on the court. I’m not going to refuse point guard and I’m not going to reject the opportunity. I’m going to step into it; that’s me, that’s my character. I want to help my team, so playing any role just comes naturally for me.

(Photo by Fernando Medina/Orlando Magic)

In Europe, we use the 5 man basically for pick-and-rolls and pick-and-pops. But here, everybody is setting screens, everybody is moving, because everybody is so good. It’s another level, but it’s great. There are more options and basketball looks way more beautiful.

I was not used to all the NBA terms in summer league, but now I am. When you listen every day to the same thing, it’s just like your mother talking to you—it gets easier. I also have a really good memory of plays during a game. I even remember tweets about me from months ago. I keep track of everybody. And I study players. Like when I watch LeBron James, who’s a 6’8″ point guard like me, I’m looking at him all the time—everything he does, how he walks, everything.

I’m still learning special codes for screens defensively. We have deny, you’ve got to talk talk. We didn’t do that as much in Europe, but now I’m hearing everything so I’m all over the place on the court. I want to learn everything.

Just because I’m playing point guard, I’m good at more than one thing. I want to do everything—play both sides of the court, pick-and-rolls, pick-and-pops, work off two screens, whatever the option is. That’s me. I don’t want to limit my abilities.

 

Jared Zwerling is the Senior Multimedia Writer for the NBA Players Association, bringing an extensive basketball background from his time at the NBA, ESPN, CBS Sports, Sports Illustrated and most recently Bleacher Report. Follow Jared on Twitter and Instagram.

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2 Comments

  1. 1

    Hezonja currently lacks advanced ball handling to consistently get into the teeth of the defense, but he has improved by tightening up his crossover and inside-out dribble moves, so it’s not a long-term concern. His ability to change pace is also impressive for his age.

  2. 2

    It’ll be interesting to watch Mario develop. I’m not too sure Orlando will be the place to do it, but we’ll see. Great writeup!

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