Mario Hezonja has plenty to prove after signing with the Trail Blazers

Mario Hezonja has plenty to prove after signing with the Trail Blazers

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.”

Morning After: Everything you may have missed from the Blazers loss to the Bucks

Morning After: Everything you may have missed from the Blazers loss to the Bucks

Two teams on the opposite side of the standings clashed in Milwaukee, with the 11-3 Bucks welcoming the 5-10 Blazers. The result was something no one expected. 

Damian Lillard and Hassan Whiteside both sat this one out due to injuries, so Coach Terry Stotts went with Anthony Tolliver and Gary Trent Jr. to start in their place. 

If that wasn't surprising enough, Skal Labissiere came off the bench and put on a show. Skal scored 22 points, pulled down a team-high 12 rebounds and had five blocks to boot. 

His effort was infectious, and despite the seemingly insurmountable odds, the Blazers had it close late. 

The Bucks, led by a Giannis Antetokounmpo triple-double, secured the victory in the final minutes, but the Blazers made sure they had to sweat it out. 

Final score: Bucks 137 - Blazers 129

QUOTABLES:

Carmelo Anthony on how his body feels:

I feel good, man. I feel good. I don't think it should be a question anymore. I'm well-rested, man. I've been out for a year. I take care of my body, I take care and do what I have to do. I feel good. I'm going to feel good from here on out.

CJ McCollum on Skal Labissiere:

He was great. He was aggressive. He had 22 points, 12 rebounds and some blocked shots. He showed us what we all know he can do. We've seen it in practice. We've seen his skill. It's just about mentally locking in and understanding what he's capable of. 

Milwaukee Coach Budenholzer on Anthony's return to the NBA:

He's just an incredible talent, incredible scorer. He can just take over a game, make lots of tough baskets... One thing that is not talked about enough is how he can go and get his own misses. He was relentless at times on the offensive boards and just a physical force... He's been a part of a lot of great teams and has had a lot of success in the NBA.

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LATEST NEWS AND ANALYSIS: 

Instant Analysis: Trail Blazers hang around, but Bucks take advantage of Portland's small ball

Highlights: Blazers fought valiantly but come up short 

Skal & Trent: taking big advantage of big time minutes

Trail Blazers role players show up in Milwaukee 

Seldom-used Blazer players take advantage of 'golden opportunity' 

 

 

 

Blazers continue to play together, preach sticking together

Blazers continue to play together, preach sticking together

MILWAUKEE – With a depleted front-court, no Damian Lillard, and Portland still working to incorporate Carmelo Anthony into the mix, the Trail Blazers are focusing on one thing: staying together.

Portland held its own against the top team in the East on Thursday night, falling to the Bucks in the final minutes, 137-129.  

CJ McCollum led the way with 37 points, while Skal Labissiere and Gary Trent Jr. stepped up in a big way with a combined 35 points. 

But, it was what the Blazers said after Thursday night’s game that is going to be key moving forward this season.

“Just keep playing together, fighting together, you know, it’s just going to take all of us to get it done, so we understand that and tonight we kind of showcased what we're capable of doing, playing together despite of who is out. You know, Dame was out tonight, so we really had to stick together, and I think we had a great effort, so now we are just trying to convert those into wins,” Labissiere said postgame.

According to Trent Jr., “sticking together, weathering the storm and continue to get wins as best we can,” is the message the Blazers have shared as a team during this tough stretch of injuries and road games.

Portland is currently 2-9 in the month of November. As this current six-game road trip continues with game number five in Cleveland on Saturday night, the newest addition to the Blazers believes his team is learning to come together no matter who is on the floor.  

“We’re just fighting through it right now,” Melo said.  “Any given night so far we don’t know who is gonna be on the court. Guys just gotta be ready, and I thought tonight guys was really ready to go out there and compete and play hard and do what we gotta do to try to win this game on the road… These next two games are very important for us. I know it’s early, but it’s very, very important for us.”

The Trail Blazers will wrap-up the trip on Tuesday night in Chicago with the motto of sticking together. 

Seldom-used Blazer players take advantage of 'golden opportunity'

Seldom-used Blazer players take advantage of 'golden opportunity'

The Trail Blazers actually played one of their best games of this young season Thursday night in Milwaukee.

Of course, given all their injuries, it wasn’t enough against one of the best teams in the league, the 12-3 Bucks.

Portland was crushed on its defensive boards as Milwaukee snagged 18 offensive rebounds and turned them into 27 second-chance points to the Blazers’ 9 second-chance points and the Blazers lost 137-129. And with the depleted Portland front court, that was to be expected. The Blazers also made it tough on themselves with eight turnovers – not a high number, but they were of the open-court variety many times, allowing the Bucks to turn them into 19 points.

The interesting thing about that rebounding edge was that a lot of it didn’t come from the front line. But Milwaukee outscored Portland in the paint 64-38.

“They have a very active team,” Coach Terry Stotts said. “They had nine different guys get offensive rebounds. Their guards run around and they were active. Their starting center didn’t even get a rebound.”

Indeed, in 30 minutes, Brook Lopez didn’t get a single board. But he did hit a pair of long three-point field goals late in the game that helped snuff out a Trail Blazer comeback.

Portland stayed in the game with terrific three-point shooting and 32 assists, moving the ball unselfishly. CJ McCollum led Portland with 37 points (5-10 on threes), 10 assists, six rebounds and three blocked shots, keeping the offense organized and productive in the absence of Damian Lillard, still sidelined by back spasms.

 “I was really proud of the way we competed,” Stotts said. “The way we came back after we got down early was really impressive. We made some mistakes at the end, but overall, I like the way we played.”

Carmelo Anthony pitched in with 18 points, seven rebounds and four assists, hitting three of his five three-point shots. Skal Labissiere had a big night with 22 points, 12 rebounds and five blocked shots.

“Offensive rebounds, second-chance points,” said Anthony. “Those things we’ll get better at. This was definitely a better game than we had in New Orleans.”

The Blazers were 17-39 from three-point range and needed the long-range points to keep them in the game almost all the way to the end. And they outscored Milwaukee by a point in the fourth quarter while shooting 50 percent from the floor and holding the Bucks to 40 percent. Giannis Antetokounmpo had a triple-double for the Bucks but needed 27 shots to score his 24 points. “Our guys, as a unit, did a good job of not letting him get out in transition and the open court,” Anthony said.

Another big difference was the foul line, where Milwaukee went 21-26 and Portland was just 12-14.

But it was a good night – especially for some players who don’t usually get long playing time.

“I told the guys before the game, this is a golden opportunity for a lot of you guys to get more minutes and take advantage,” McCollum said. “I remember when I was in that position. It sucks when people get hurt, but when you don’t play, you relish the opportunity to get out there and get extended minutes.   I thought Gary (Trent) looked great, I thought Skal was ready, I thought Anthony Tolliver was great. Everybody contributed and showed what they have to offer -- which is what you would have expected.”

 

Dream come true: Skal Labissiere, Gary Trent Jr. come up big

Dream come true: Skal Labissiere, Gary Trent Jr. come up big

MILWAUKEE – Next man up: That’s been the Trail Blazers' mentality because it has to be with two of their seven-footers out with no set return dates, and now with Damian Lillard and Hassan Whiteside on the injured list Thursday.

The banged-up Blazers gave the 12-3 Milwaukee Bucks a run for their money though. Two of the Blazers' role players stepped up in a big way.

Even though it was a losing effort on Thursday night, Skal Labissiere looked like the player that the Trail Blazers had raved about during training camp.

The Trail Blazers backup center established himself as a go-to guy early against the Bucks. Whether it was hitting from deep, showing off his midrange game, or finishing at the rim, Labissiere was proving he can be a real offensive threat.  

Labissiere feels like his shot hasn’t been there this season, but he never lost his faith.

“I feel like I’ve been struggling a little bit since the beginning of the season, I haven’t been very consistent. For me… it’s my faith… Everybody has something. For me, it’s my faith, just trusting in God, and trusting in his work and what he’s doing through me. So, I went out there and just shot the ball and it went in,” Labissiere said with a smile.

Labissiere scored a season-high 22 points on 10-for-16 shooting. He also pulled down 12 rebounds. Thursday night marked his first double-double of the season and his seventh of his career.

“It’s going to take all of us. I was really happy for Gary [Trent Jr.]. He came in and really shot the ball really well… We played well together and I think that’s what it’s going to take moving forward,” Labissiere said.

Labissiere wasn’t the only one taking notice of Gary Trent Jr. Blazers head coach Terry Stotts had high-praise for the second-year player.

“I thought he did well. Obviously he had a good line offensively, but I thought defensively he was locked in on assignments and made some good defensive plays… Probably he’s best game as a pro,” Stotts said.

Trent Jr. made the most of his opportunity by starting the game a perfect 3-for-3 from long distance.  

The Blazers shooting guard finished with 13 points in 21 minutes of work after going 5-for-7 from the field and an efficient 3-for-4 from three-point range.

“[I] got into the flow,” Trent said. “[I] had a nice rhythm, my teammates was finding me, everybody was sharing the basketball, so when everybody is playing like that, you know, it was fun and it helps you be better.”

Trent was also excited to get the starting nod:

“It was a dream come true for me. I got the opportunity to start, I got to play with a childhood legend in Carmelo Anthony, so it’s a dream come true. I’m grateful for the opportunity, did the best I could, just continue to build off that and show consistency with that.”

Before Thursday night’s start Trent Jr. had played in eight games this season averaging just over seven minutes per game.

“I appreciate that opportunity, I appreciate the trust,” Trent said of Coach Stotts putting him in the starting lineup.

With the injury bug looking like it’s here to stay, Trent Jr. and Labissiere should expect to be the next men up for the foreseeable future.

Instant Analysis: Trail Blazers hang around, but Bucks take advantage of Portland's small ball

Instant Analysis: Trail Blazers hang around, but Bucks take advantage of Portland's small ball

MILWAUKEE – This would’ve been a big challenge even if the Trail Blazers were healthy.

Thursday night, the Blazers were without Hassan Whiteside (right hip) and Damian Lillard (back spasms) as Portland faced a tough test against the Bucks at Fiserv Forum.

Blazers head coach Terry Stotts went with Rodney Hood, Carmelo Anthony, CJ McCollum, Anthony Tolliver, and Gary Trent Jr. in the starting lineup with Tolliver starting on the reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.  

Former Trail Blazers Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez, and Pat Connaughton all had a positive impact for Milwaukee on Thursday night.

But, Portland hung around with the top ranked Eastern Conference team due to the Trail Blazers' hot shooting, particularly from long distance, and role players stepping up.

In the end, the Bucks proved why they are looked at as the team to beat out East. Milwaukee took advantage of the small Blazers lineup on the boards, out rebounding Portland by nearly 20.  

FINAL BOX SCORE: Bucks 137, Trail Blazers 129 

Here are three quick takeaways from Thursday’s loss:

1. Melo finds a rhythm

In just his second game since his return to the NBA, Carmelo Anthony looked to have found his groove offensively in 28 minutes of action. Melo went 6-of-15 from the field and an efficient 3-for-5 from long distance to finish with 18 points.

2. Skal and Trent Jr. step up in a big way

Was Skal Labissiere trying to prove to his coach that he should’ve started tonight? Maybe. Labissiere established himself as an offensive threat early against Milwaukee. Whether it was hitting the three-ball, a fadeaway, or finishing at the rim, Labissiere was showing off his offensive skills. He and CJ McCollum led the Blazers at halftime with 14 points each.

Gary Trent Jr. also made the most of his opportunity starting the game a perfect 3-for-3 from three-point range. His hot shooting and defensive pressure on the other end were a big help in keeping Portland in this one.

3. Focus on The Greek Freak

As Coach Stotts put it during his pregame interview, it would be a team effort in defending Giannis Antetokounmpo and it was just that. When the Blazers showed a double team, Antetokounmpo used his length to find his teammates. Portland held its ground, though, against The Greek Freak. But, of course, he still managed to get buckets. Eric Bledsoe also had his way with the Blazers guards both on the perimeter and taking them to the basket.

Up Next: Saturday the Trail Blazers visit the Cleveland Cavs for a 5:00pm (PT) tip-off. Saturday’s game will be the second to last contest on the Blazers’ current six-game road trip.

Be sure to check back throughout the night and tomorrow morning for analysis, articles, and videos from the players!

Pregame Notebook: Short-handed Blazers set to battle Bucks

Pregame Notebook: Short-handed Blazers set to battle Bucks

MILWAUKEE – The Trail Blazers will be without Hassan Whiteside (right hip tendinosis) and Damian Lillard (back spasms) as they face the 10-3 Bucks tonight at Fiserv Forum.

Point guard Anfernee Simons (left ankle sprain) has been upgraded from questionable to available.

Before the Trail Blazers and Bucks tip-off at 5:00p.m. tonight on NBC Sports Northwest and on the 'My Teams' App, both coaches gave their thoughts on tonight’s matchup and more during their pregame media availability.

Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer discussed what Carmelo Anthony has meant to the NBA throughout his career:

“He’s just an incredible talent, incredible scorer. He can just take over a game, make lots of tough baskets. He can make a lot of tough baskets. One of the things that is not talked about enough is how he can go and get his own misses. He was restless at times on the offensive boards and just a physical force.”

As for Blazers head coach Terry Stotts, he discussed what it will be like facing Giannis Antetokounmpo short-handed on bigs.

“He's one of the most unique players in the league... It's a team thing,” Stotts said when guarding The Greek Freak.

Antetokounmpo is averaging 30.5 points, 13.8 rebounds, and 6.0 assists per game so far this season.

HEAR FROM COACH STOTTS HERE:

Headstrong: Damian Lillard believes NBA Mental Health Policy is empowering players

Headstrong: Damian Lillard believes NBA Mental Health Policy is empowering players

The month of November is Men's Health Awareness Month. ‘The Movember Foundation’ uses November to bring awareness to various men’s physical and mental health issues, as well as support to those tackling prostate cancer, testicular cancer, mental health, and more.

Throughout this month, NBC Sports will be releasing numerous videos that feature sports superstars discussing the importance of mental health as well as how they approach the subject. Portland Trail Blazer All-Star Damian Lillard was one such athlete that participated in the nationwide project.

Lillard has already opened up about being under a microscope as an NBA star. He now shares his thoughts on how the league is doing its part in helping players with their mental health.

“I think it’s really important for the NBA to expand the support of mental health because we all go through different things… There’s a lot of things that take place in our lives off the court that can really affect us mentally,” Lillard said.

The Trail Blazers All-Star point guard continued, “We’re professionals. We’re prideful. A lot of us are stars, and we don’t want to show weakness because we’ve been raised that any time you need help or if you fall apart, that’s a weakness. People are kind of ashamed of it and have a lot of pride. So, I think the fact that the NBA has got a grip on it and is taking it serious, it makes guys more comfortable knowing that I’m not alone.”

In late March of last year, Lillard became a father to Dame Jr. He has mentioned on numerous occasions how his personal life has changed since becoming a father.

In the latest HeadStrong campaign, Lillard expressed his appreciation for his mental health coach, who he says is someone he often looks to for advice with issues that arise both on and off the court.

Lillard said his mental health coach is “constantly challenging me as a basketball player, as a person. Challenging my mind to continue to grow and it’s been super helpful… I think a lot of people could use somebody like that.”

You can hear more from Lillard in the full video above.

Blazers Shootaround Notebook: Injury updates, peeling back the playbook & more from Milwaukee

Blazers Shootaround Notebook: Injury updates, peeling back the playbook & more from Milwaukee

MILWAUKEE – It’s safe to say that the Portland Trail Blazers have been bitten by the injury bug this season.  

For tonight’s game against the Bucks, Anfernee Simons (left ankle sprain) and Hassan Whiteside (right hip tendinosis) are questionable, while Damian Lillard (back spasms) is out.

Simons went through shootaround this morning, but Whiteside did not.

Lillard, who has been dealing with back spasms and will miss his second consecutive contest tonight, said he is ‘hopeful’ to return to the court in the Blazers next game at Cleveland on Saturday.

Lillard has been receiving treatment on his back, and says he is trying everything he can do to loosen the muscles. He mentioned he has taken a lot of Epsom salt baths and has been wearing the heat/vibration wrap around his back.

“I’ve been having it on all day, walking around all day with it,” Lillard added of the heat pack.

The Blazers point guard has been dealing with back pain since the Sacramento game back on November 12th.

“It started out just agitated, a little bit irritated, and I think the fact that I just didn’t think much of it, so I just kept playing, and I didn’t tone it down or nothing like that -- I was still doing my shooting routine, I was still playing the same way, so it just kind of got worse each game and it got to the point where you gotta be smarter, instead of trying to be tough… Especially if it’s going to come down to our season."

Not only have the Blazers been dealing with injuries, but also the team is currently all about getting Carmelo Anthony acclimated as quickly as possible.

Lillard expressed how he thinks it will be easy to build chemistry with Melo.

“His understanding of being an NBA player for so long, and my understanding, and him being who he is, and me being who I am, it won’t take much. At this point, I think it’s just getting on the court together, and I think it’s kind of a good thing that his first few games I’m not out there so… there’s even more opportunity out there for him to get in rhythm and find himself,” Lillard said.

Blazers Coach Terry Stotts talked about what it has been like to peel back the playbook:

“It reminds me of the old CBA days where there was a lot of player turnover and you gotta kinda go back to square one with some of the offensive sets. The good thing is that Melo’s a veteran, he’s been around, he knows sets, he knows the game and so that transition makes it a lot easier.”

Coach Stotts also mentioned getting Anthony more acquainted with the playbook will be a ‘gradual’ process.

Melo expressed how team chemistry “doesn’t happen overnight.”

“I’m still picking up plays. I’m relying a lot on my experience and playing against Portland and the plays that they used to run, but it’s going to take some time to like really getting the time down. Playing with CJ [McCollum] now is very different as opposing to playing with CJ and Dame. So, it’s timing, it’s flow, it’s rhythm, it’s all of those things that if you’re not in basketball it’s very hard to understand that.”

Anthony also talked about how is body feels ‘great’ after his debut on Tuesday night.

You can watch the Blazers-Bucks game on NBC Sports Northwest, the Official Network of the Portland Trail Blazers and you can stream the game on our website or by downloading the MyTeams app.

Trail Blazers reflect on Gasol's time as a player, look to what he can do as a coach

Trail Blazers reflect on Gasol's time as a player, look to what he can do as a coach

MILWAUKEE – As the Blazers prepare for the Bucks, the team offered up their thoughts on the decision of Pau Gasol to no longer be a Portland Trail Blazer.

The Blazers waived Gasol on Wednesday so the 39-year-old can focus solely on his rehabilitation. He has been rehabbing his left foot since having surgery to repair a stress fracture last May.

“Nobody wanted to come back more than he did,” Blazers head coach Terry Stotts said after Thursday morning’s shootaround.

“He loves the game, and he wanted to be a part of that. That being said, we were counting on him being a part of the team this year and what a healthy Pau Gasol brings to a team was something we were looking forward to having, so in that context it was very disappointing,” Stotts said.  

The Trail Blazers current plan with Gasol will be to add him to the coaching staff. Coach Stotts hasn’t sat down and talked with Gasol yet, but said, “the hope is that [Pau] will be involved... Doing everything that a coach does except for maybe game plans… He’ll travel, sit behind the bench, so the hope is that as he is rehabbing… this will be a good year for him to stay involved with the game, as well.”

[RELATED]: Pow! The Pau Gasol Era in Portland ended before it even started 

Damian Lillard spoke with Gasol on Wednesday night after the announcement was made. The two talked about how unfortunate it was that Gasol wasn’t able to get on the court.

Gasol told Lillard that it’s disappointing his rehab hasn’t allowed him to move along like he thought and like he had hoped.

“Pau’s a great dude. He’s very present for somebody that wasn’t healthy so far this season. And I think his experience and what he knows as had an impact on our bigs… It’s unfortunate. We both acknowledged that I’m happy that he’s probably going to be around our team still because I think he can help us,” Lillard said.

[RELATED]: Social media reacts to Pau Gasol: Best wishes in your rehabilitation, Pau! 

CJ McCollum discussed what it has meant to have Gasol around the team already this season:

“[He's] a veteran leader who knows what it takes to win, what it takes to get a team together, and build that camaraderie and just a good guy to have. He’s always happy, he’s always go-lucky, and he tells a lot of great stories and gave us a lot of great advice.”

Gasol has not been on the Blazers’ current six-game road trip. 

The Trail Blazers return home next Tuesday after wrapping up the trip in Chicago on Monday night. Maybe then we will see Gasol in a new role with the team.