Mario Hezonja had a lot of reasons for choosing to sign with the Portland Trail Blazers. But most of all, he’s here to prove he can play in the NBA and wants to carry on the legacy of one of his country’s greatest sports heroes.
Hezonja, from Croatia by way of the Orlando Magic and New York Knicks, met the media Wednesday morning at the team’s practice facility.
Taken as the fifth pick in the first round of the 2015 NBA draft, Hezonja’s career so far has been a disappointment. He’s played in 277 games through his four-year career, but started only 65 of them, averaging 7.3 points per game while shooting 41.7 percent from the field and 32.1 percent from three-point range.
“I haven’t put up anything yet,” he said. “But it’s fine, because I will. It’s kind of sad to say I couldn’t do what I (wanted to) do in Orlando and New York … For Orlando I couldn’t be myself because it was one season this and one season that. We were a young group not ready to win yet and then we had a lot of veterans. It was messy a little bit. But it is what it is – it’s the NBA.
“I just go out there to kill. It’s pretty simple. In this situation it will be manifested even more. It’s a Western Conference finals team. I think I’ve gotten better every year.”
He cited his relationship with Neil Olshey as a reason for coming to Portland, a team that chased him in free agency last year before he signed with the Knicks.
“I’ve known Neil since a long time ago,” he said. “He’s connected to my agent’s family. I was talking to them last year. Very familiar to the situation, very familiar with Dame and CJ and the coach.”
And he also has a very close relationship with Portland center Jusuf Nurkic, who lived in the building next to his in Zagreb.
“We lived door-to-door back home,” Hezonja said. “My building is right next to his. I can yell at him every day. He is probably closer to my father than I am because when I left he still played in Zagreb. My brother – there’s nothing more to say. He’s super, super close to me. He always told me about this city, about this team and we’re super close.”
Hezonja is going to wear No. 44 this season, a tribute to Croatian great and former Trail Blazer and Hall of Famer Drazen Petrovic, who wore that number in Portland. Drazen's brother, Aleksandar, coached Herzonja on their country’s national team.
“Obviously the greatest European player of all time,” Hezonja said. “It’s out of respect to him. The journey continues in his name right now. I’m glad I’m the leader of the journey right now. Carrying my entire country with it.”
Hezonja grew up playing point guard and still has a lot of those skills, even though coaches have shuffled him between the forward spots in the NBA.
“It’s weird even for me,” he said. “I was drafted at 6-6, 195 and now I’m 6-9, 240.”
But he still has passing skills that were modeled after Petrovic.
Petrovic came to the Trail Blazers in 1989 as a highly acclaimed star in Europe. And although he played 77 games for Portland that season, he did not start a single game and played only 12 and a half minutes a game. That wasn’t enough for Petrovic, who asked for a trade the following season and was shipped to New Jersey, where he became a star.
There was more to the story, of course. Portland was in the hunt for a championship, had Terry Porter and Clyde Drexler firmly installed as the starting guards and Danny Young as their backup. Petrovic, in his first season adjusting to the NBA, had some turnover trouble, too, and wasn’t going to get big minutes. The Blazers were well aware of Petrovic’s potential but couldn’t invest the playing time in him at that moment.
But in Croatia, the Blazers and Coach Rick Adelman were vilified for not giving Petrovic a chance. And that feeling lasted a long time. Is Hezonja aware of that?
“Yes, that’s the story back home,” said Hezonja, who wants to change that narrative. “I chose his number so I can have success.”