Mario Hezonja is the cockiest NBA Draft prospect in years

Mario Hezonja is the one who knocks. If you watched Breaking Bad, you’ll recall Walter White saying that to proclaim his dominance as a drug kingpin. Hezonja wouldn’t bat an eyelash to do the same and establish his supremacy as a basketball warlord.

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“Respect? No, I never had respect to anybody on a basketball court,” Hezonja told Sportando. “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.”

No quote sums up the 6’8 Croatian lottery prospect better. It is what gives him strength. It could also be what causes his downfall.

Mario Hezonja constantly talks trash to the opponent. He showboats after three-pointers. He hangs at the rim after dunks. And about those dunks: he absolutely never passes up the opportunity to do a windmill or a double clutch when he’s rumbling down the floor in transition.

Here’s Hezonja not stopping with his team up 19 points with five seconds left on the clock. He should just run out the clock, but no. Instead, he’d rather establish himself as the alpha and put an exclamation point on Barcelona’s playoff victory.

The Tuco Salamanca of basketball isn’t the type of player you want to mess with.

“He got fire in him. I like that. Sometimes he speaks when he’s not supposed to. But that’s good,” Barcelona center Maciej Lampe said in 2013. “I think he’s going to develop into a great player one day. He’s just to keep his head cold and keep on working every day and learning. I like him a lot as a player and a person. He’s definitely … how can I say this … he’s like a killer out there.”

Hezonja’s not afraid to do things that will make some fans love him and others loathe him. In that respect, he’s no different than Walter White.

However, he is currently averaging just 10 minutes per game as a reserve on Spanish power FC Barcelona due to the ludicrous hierarchy players like Ricky Rubio had to deal with overseas. Barcelona is set to take on Real Madrid in Game 1 of the ACB Finals on Friday, and scouts (and Barcelona fans) hope he will finally start seeing heavier minutes.

The showmanship, attitude and lack of playing time has a way of underselling Hezonja’s basketball skills. Hezonja is actually a damn good player, with the raw tools that will help him have a long career in the NBA as a star or role player. The sky is the limit for him. There’s a reason he will likely be among the first few names called in next Thursday’s draft.

He’s a deadeye shooter

There isn’t a more versatile shooter in this draft than Hezonja. He is capable of spotting up, pulling up off the dribble, stepping back or coming off a plethora of screens and using pristine footwork to gather into his shot. Given his size, those are elite skills.

You’d think Hezonja’s shooting prowess would receive more attention after the Golden State Warriors rained threes on their way to a title.

Hezonja does an excellent job of making a difficult play look easy. He turns to catch the ball, gets his feet set and then elevates into his shot. Appropriately, he dips the ball and uses a sweep and sway to generate more power since the shot was from way downtown. He’s ready to step onto an NBA floor and score from day one.

The 20-year-old Croatian knocked down over 37 percent of his threes the past two seasons despite forcing a handful of his attempts. Shot selection is a problem for him, but if he’s given a clearly defined role and a larger dose of minutes, that should improve. If it doesn’t, we’re still looking at a pure shooter that can catch fire any minute like the league’s great bench scorers.

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Potential as a slasher

Mario Hezonja has the ability to create offense for himself, though he has a lot of room to grow in this area. He’s a threat off the catch since defenders have to close out hard to run him off the line. He prefers attacking to his right, though he has done a better job of integrating his off hand this past year. He is capable of finishing strong at the rim in transition, but that also stands true in half-court situations. He’s explosive when he straight-line drives to the rim and he can finish with power.

He has a bad habit of taking off from too far away from the basket to finish properly. This is something that has plagued Jeff Green and other NBA players throughout their careers. It’s part of the reason why Hezonja has such a low free throw rate for someone his size.

Instead of taking one extra dribble and attacking the defender to try to draw a foul, Hezonja avoids contact entirely, takes off from far away from the hoop and chucks up a low-percentage shot. Defenders have taken advantage of Hezonja’s bad habits by stepping in front of him and drawing charges when he’s flying through the air for these wild layup attempts.

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.

Other skills need some work

One area Hezonja needs to improve is his footwork in pick-and-rolls and dribble handoffs. He has a tendency to shuffle his feet and palm the ball, which draws a whistle nearly every time in the ACB League. NBA referees likely won’t be nearly as strict enforcing the rules, since players are habitually allowed to tiptoe around and palm it, but improving his footwork will help him get to the basket that much quicker nonetheless.

Hezonja has shown flashes as a passer in the pick-and-roll, where he can fling it over the defense thanks to his height, but also deliver accurate pocket passes to the screening big man. He loves attempting Manu Ginobili style “sling passes” over the top of his body. Those get him in trouble at times, but they also put his good instincts and vision on display.

But the fact is that Hezonja is often a reluctant passer. He’ll try a flashy dish instead of making the simple play, or he’ll pull out and call an isolation set instead of continuing the play. Even worse, he has a tendency to force shots instead of kicking it out to an open teammate.

This could be a problem as he tries to integrate himself into a system.

His greatest gift is his greatest flaw

Hezonja‘s scorer’s mentality causes forced shots, but it’s also the biggest reason why he’s thrived. This makes for an interesting duality that plays out every game.

When he’s open hovering around the perimeter, he constantly nags at his teammates to pass him the ball. But while he may talk too much, he also delivers. Fans often call out players for being too passive on the court, but when a guy like Hezonja comes along — someone as hungry for buckets as he is for actual food — he’s criticized for being a ball hog. We often consider that mentality a “selfish” red flag.

There is some truth to that. Hezonja’s body language still isn’t ideal, though it has gotten better over the past year as he’s spent more time around Barcelona’s veterans.

Yet maybe Hezonja acts the way he does because he’s actually that good. Maybe he’s like a volcano waiting for his opportunity to explode. Anytime he gets the chance, he does something special. How differently would teams view him if he played in a feature role at Kansas, Kentucky or Duke instead of a smaller role overseas?

“Before practice he’s the first one in the gym. After practice, he’s the last one to leave,” said Joey Dorsey, a former teammate of Hezonja. “And I told him that’s what every NBA player does. Every great NBA players stays after and ask coaches questions, go over defensive schemes and stuff like that. If he does that and keeps working on his game, he can be really good.”

Hezonja can be a knucklehead with some of his decisions, but he doesn’t have a low basketball IQ like other gunners and he’s actually talented enough to make his antics forgivable. Most importantly, he works hard off the court and loves the game.

He has a polarizing personality that fans will always struggle to reconcile with his play. At worst, he could be a knockdown shooter in a limited role. But it’s his killer instinct that has teams dreaming he could end up being so much more than that.

Hezonja was asked earlier this year if he went to go see soccer legend Lionel Messi play for FC Barcelona. He responded: “Let Messi come to see me.” That quote sums him up.

Whether he’s a hero or a villain is up to you to decide.

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