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Blazers' signing of Mario Hezonja is an intriguing low-risk, high-reward move

Four seasons ago, Hezonja was drafted fifth overall and was the second-rated wing in his draft class. Now he gets a chance to prove himself in Portland.
Credit: Kathy Willens
Mario Hezonja agreed to sign with the Portland Trail Blazers.

PORTLAND, Ore. — The Portland Trail Blazers announced the signing of former Top 5 pick Mario Hezonja to a minimum deal on Wednesday.

The contract is for two seasons, but the second season is a player option.

Hezonja, 24, is from Croatia. He was selected with the fifth overall pick in the 2015 NBA draft by the Orlando Magic. Last offseason, the Blazers were close to signing him but he opted to join the New York Knicks instead.

"Mario is a prodigiously talented player with a high ceiling and a bright future," Portland Trail Blazers president of basketball operations Neil Olshey said. "He will have a chance to contribute immediately while we work to accelerate his development."

VIDEO: Portland Trail Blazers introduce Mario Hezonja

Hezonja will wear No. 44 for the Trail Blazers.

Last season in New York, Hezonja averaged 8.8 points, 4.1 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.0 steal in 20.8 minutes per game. He shot 41.2% from the field and 27.6% from the 3-point line.

When Hezonja came into the league, he was billed as a sharp-shooting, do-it-all wing. He signed with Barcelona in 2012 as a 17-year-old and in his final season with the EuroLeague club, he averaged 16.5 points and shot 38.2% from 3.

He was ranked as the seventh overall player in the 2015 draft class by ESPN. Draft analyst Jay Bilas praised his athleticism, competitive spirit and perimeter shooting, adding that he is "athletic enough and competitive enough to be a very good defender in the NBA."

When asked to provide the downside for Hezonja, Bilas wrote, "Not sure there is a downside. The question is only how good, because he will not fail in the NBA."

VIDEO: Mario Hezonja full highlights vs Wizards (30 points)

Hezonja didn't live up to the high expectations of a Top 5 draft pick in Orlando, though, never averaging more than 9.6 points per game and never shooting better than 34.9% from 3.

Richie Adubato, the radio analyst for the Orlando Magic, told the New York Post last season that he believed with the right coaching and tutelage, Hezonja could still fulfill his potential.

"A coach has to get the most out of him," Adubato said. "[They've] got to spend a lot of time with him in the film room. ... That's something that would really help. He's got the talent and desire. I think he's going to be real good. I think it's going to take a couple of years."

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Hezonja has definitely had stretches where he's looked the part of a top draft selection. Two seasons ago in Orlando, he was moved into the starting lineup for eight games and responded by averaging 13.6 points, 4.8 rebounds, 1.4 steals and shooting 47.1% from the field and 39.5% from the 3-point line. The Magic were losing though, and Hezonja was moved back to the bench, where his production tailed off as his minutes decreased.

In fact, during his final season in Orlando, he proved effective as a starter. In 30 starts, he averaged 14.0 points, 5.6 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.4 steals in 30.4 minutes per game, shooting 46.0% from the field and 37.1% from 3. But as a reserve, his production plummeted, averaging just 6.7 points and shooting below 30% from the 3-point line in his 35 games off the bench, when he averaged just 16.6 minutes per game.

His splits weren't as pronounced last season in New York, because he was limited to about 20 minutes per game whether he was starting or coming off the bench. There was an interesting stretch late in the season, when out of necessity, the Knicks started Hezonja at point guard and let him run the team. During that three-game stretch — and a small sample-size disclaimer applies here — he averaged 25.0 points, 10.7 rebounds, 7.0 assists and 1.4 steals in 37 minutes per game.

At the very least, Hezonja has shown flashes of potential in his first four seasons in the league. And for a two-year minimum deal, this is an intriguing low-risk, high-reward signing for the Blazers.

What's next?

After re-signing sharp-shooting wing Rodney Hood and watching starting power forward Al-Farouq Aminu sign with the Orlando Magic, Portland has three remaining free agents.

Enes Kanter and Seth Curry are unrestricted free agents. The Blazers don't have Bird rights on either player, and having used the midlevel exception to sign Hood, the Blazers' options for retaining either Kanter or Curry are almost non-existent.

The Blazers offered Jake Layman a $1.9 million qualifying offer, making him a restricted free agent, so the Blazers will have the right to match any contract offer he signs with another team.

Portland currently has 13 players on its roster. If they retain Layman, that leaves one open spot that the Blazers can fill by signing another player, most likely a center, to a minimum contract. The Blazers could also make a trade before the season begins.


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Jared Cowley writes about the Trail Blazers and other topics for KGW.com. He's also the co-host of the 3-on-3 Blazers podcast (listen here). You can reach him on Twitter @jaredcowley.