The Amway Center was buzzing as the 2015 NBA Draft Began just after 7:30pm. The assembled crowd was more excited at the half-court shot attempts on their own court for $1,000 prize money than they were when the feed from Barclays Center in Brooklyn showing that the Minnesota Timberwolves selected Karl-Anthony Towns with the first pick. Even The Benchwarmers picked this one.
But soon after, things changed. The main scoreboard flashed that the Los Angeles Lakers pick was “in”, and shortly after NBA Commissioner Adam Silver was back on the screen ready to announce that the Lakers had selected, “…D’Angelo Russell.”
Every bobblehead in the world with a blog or a radio or television show had been spewing for weeks that the Lakers were selecting Jahlil Okafor. At least The Benchwarmers suggested the Lakers might trade down.
It just goes to show that like every other sure thing you see or hear about, just like every single nugget of conventional wisdom that points to the most obvious path – it didn’t actually happen that way. Seconds later in fact, Lakers’ GM Mitch Kupchak asked his newest player, “Did we surprise you a little bit?” The former Ohio State point guard responded, “Absolutely”.
Meanwhile, the buzz in Amway Center increased. The Philadelphia 76ers were up next and as sure as everyone was that the Lakers were picking Okafor nobody equally had a clue what the Sixers were thinking. But the pick was in, and it would be Okafor. A Magic fan in the arena tweeted a thank you to the Sixers, since most of their recent draft lottery picks end up eventually wearing Magic uniforms.
Up next, the New York Knicks. Inside the Amway Center, it was getting real. Silver was front and center delivering the selection The Benchwarmers predicted on air an hour before – Kristaps Porzingis. The Magic fans responded with confusion since every media outlet within 50 miles of Lake Eola had been telling them the tall, skinny kid from Latvia was going to be picked by the Magic. The Benchwarmers were not against nor Forzingis – it’s that we had already heard from credible sources in New York that the Knicks were locked in to picking him. Too bad all those other media types… ah nevermind.
So the Magic were on the clock. Justice Winslow was still on the board. So was Willy Cauley-Stein, The Benchwarmers choice. Silver was back up on the main scoreboard and…
Mario Hezonja was the Magic pick.
It was pretty quiet for a moment inside the Amway Center. The silence was even more pristine because the fan noise that previously was being piped over from Barclays Center was non-existent.
So like every gambler with a checkbook and a dream, had The Benchwarmers had run out of aces, one hand early? Not quite. Mario Hezonja was the “other” European player that basketball fans had never seen in person nor knew nothing about. That being said, there were some national media that felt the Magic were going to draft him. And more importantly, he’s been on the Magic radar. What seemed uncertain was whether or not Hezonja would be able to get out of his contract with Barcelona and actually play for the Magic anytime soon.
Magic GM Rob Hennigan addressed that concern stating, “We’re fully confident he’ll be with us next season.” Hezonja himself said he expects to be in Orlando within the next couple of days. The bad news is that Barcelona just finished their season, so Hezonja will need time to recover physically before anyone sees him going all-out on a NBA practice court.
That being said, Head Coach Scott Skiles is all in. Skiles didn’t know much about Hezonja at first but has reviewed the extensive video and other scouting materials the Magic have assembled. Asked whether Hezonja is a one-dimensional player Skiles said, “There’s no reason he can’t be a really great defender. Like every other young offensive-minded player he probably takes a play or two off on defense that he shouldn’t. But it’s nothing he can’t be taught.”
“We’ve done a lot of research on Mario,” Hennigan said. The Magic’s European scout lives near Barcelona so they’ve had an opportunity to see the young professional for a few years.
Hennigan added, “Mario has been engrained in a professional environment, playing against grown men for several years now. We see Mario as someone who can play with all of our guys.”
But Mario Hezonja is not going to be a savior, simply because the Magic do not need a Super Mario in 2015. The Magic just need him to be Mario Hezonja of Croatia via Barcelona, who is ready to pick up his game to play at the next level. And that is going to take a full season cycle at the very least. Hezonja is not going to score 40 points when the Magic take to the floor for their season opener in the Fall. Hezonja may not even play ten minutes in that game, and that’s OK.
Sometimes the best decisions are the ones not made. We will never know whether or not the Magic were prepared to pick Kristaps Porzingis at #5. Even if they tell us one way or another now sometime down the road. For now, Porzingis’ future success rides solely on Phil Jackson and the New York Knicks organization.