Mario Hezonja

The Morning After: Everything you missed from the Trail Blazers loss in Denver

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The Morning After: Everything you missed from the Trail Blazers loss in Denver

The young Trail Blazers showed up in Denver on Thursday night.

Despite not having Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Hassan Whiteside, the Blazers' role players still put up a fight against the Denver Nuggets in Portland’s 2019 preseason finale.

Mario Hezonja had his second straight solid game. Just three seconds short of 28 minutes of action, Hezonja made 6 of his 11 shots from the floor, including 3-4 from the three-point line to finish with 18 points. He also had five rebounds and six assists.

But, it wasn’t enough as the Blazers fell to the Nuggets 110-104. Portland finishes the exhibition season with a 2-3 record.

Here is what you might have missed:

Quotables:

“Getting used to everyone around me, getting used to the system, getting used to the stuff that we run, getting used to the defense. It’s up and down – not just for me but for all the new guys. It’s normal. But we have great chemistry. We have a great team. It’s like a brotherhood. We’ve accomplished a lot of great things in a short amount of time. Now everything starts to go for real.” – Mario Hezonja on the Blazers preseason overall

“Mario played well both nights. Tonight, in the first quarter we had a big lineup out there and he was the point guard. We put in some sets where he could drive the ball and make some plays.” – Coach Terry Stotts on Mario Hezonja’s performance vs. the Nuggets

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Mario Hezonja helps Trail Blazers turn loss into a positive experience

Mario Hezonja helps Trail Blazers turn loss into a positive experience

DENVER – The Trail Blazers wrapped up their exhibition season Thursday night in a positive manner.

No, they didn’t win the game. But they played well – given they played without Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Hassan Whiteside – and didn’t suffer any further injuries. The Denver Nuggets won the contest 110-104 but that’s not important.

What matters is that the Trail Blazers continued to showcase solid play from contributors who will likely come off the bench when the season starts next week in the Moda Center against these same Nuggets.

Mario Hezonja had his second straight solid game. In three seconds short of 28 minutes, he made 6 of his 11 shots from the floor, including 3-4 from the three-point line, scored 18 points, had five rebounds and six assists.

“Getting used to everyone around me, getting used to the system, getting used to the stuff that we run, getting used to the defense,” he said, “It’s up and down – not just for me but for all the new guys. It’s normal. But we have great chemistry. We have a great team. It’s like a brotherhood. We’ve accomplished a lot of great things in a short amount of time.

“Now everything starts to go for real.”

Hezonja is going to be playing at several positions, as the team tries to take advantage of his versatility and athleticism.

“I’ve learned sets for like four spots on the court,” he said. “It was tough in the beginning but now I know where I’m going to be and I know what Coach Terry is asking of me, so now it’s going very good.”

Stotts said he’s been pleased with what he's seen from his team on this two-game road trip.

“The last two games have been good tuneups for us," he said. “Now we’ve got three or four practices to get ready for Denver again.

“Mario played well both nights. Tonight, in the first quarter we had a big lineup out there and he was the point guard. We put in some sets where he could drive the ball and make some plays.”

Skal Labissiere made all of his four shots from the floor and had five rebounds to go with 12 points.

Stotts turned the fourth quarter over to his non-roster players and they stayed close to the Nuggets for a while but couldn’t hang on. The big thing was Portland being able to handle the Denver starters in the first half without using three of their own starters.

But, of course, it didn’t count for anything. And that stuff is in the past. Beginning next week in Moda Center, everything is for real.

Trail Blazer Coach Terry Stotts after Utah win: "We really played well"

Trail Blazer Coach Terry Stotts after Utah win: "We really played well"

SALT LAKE CITY – As far as preseason games go, Wednesday night’s contest against the Utah Jazz was just about all the Trail Blazers could have asked for -- and more.
So many things went well, it’s hard to know where to start in what turned out to be a not-as-close-as-it-sounds 126-118 win over the Jazz.

Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum were terrific – in mid-season form -- against the Jazz backcourt of Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell. Lillard had 25 points with five rebounds and four assists and McCollum scored 28 while shooting 11-15  from the floor, including 5-7 from three.

“I felt good,” Lillard said. “Playing at altitude, we knew that was going to be a challenge. We came out in attack mode and played it like a real game. We challenged ourselves and our conditioning, trying to get into regular-season form and we just had a good run tonight. These are the kind of games you want to have at least one time going into the regular season.”

McCollum, continuing to show signs he’s going to be shooting more from long range, did a nice job of showcasing his varied offensive arsenal.

“This was going to be our last preseason game and so we wanted to get some good conditioning in with the altitude,” McCollum said. “Go compete. They’ve got some good guards and we wanted to see where we’re at.”

Zach Collins started at power forward and Hassan Whiteside started at center and the duo has a chance to be a matchup nightmare for a lot of teams. They are both aggressive rim protectors and Collins hit his first three-point field goal of the exhibition season and a handful of tough shots under duress inside. He finished 6-6 from the field.

“I love playing with Hassan,” Collins said, “We’re both rim protectors and he’s very good at it. Both of us being at the rim it’s going to be tough for other teams to score.”

Whiteside played well, getting 11 rebounds in 16 minutes but provided the only downer of the night when he reinjured his left ankle, spraining it again after leaving the game in the first half when he cut his right hand on the rim.

“I don’t think it’s serious,” said Whiteside, who sat out 10 days during the exhibition season after spraining it the first time. “First time I’ve ever had to go to the back twice in one game.”

Several rotation players had solid outings and Rodney Hood was reliable as the starting small forward. Mario Hezonja made five of his eight shots, including a couple of three-pointers, on the way to a dozen points, four rebounds and three assists. Kent Bazemore was solid at both ends and Anthony Tolliver got some significant time at center, forcing the Jazz to go to a smaller lineup.

Portland led 117-100 when Coach Terry Stotts pulled the last of the starters off the floor in the fourth quarter.

Stotts hasn’t been concerned with getting a win – this was his team’s first over an NBA team in the exhibition season – but he did want to see the group play better. And it did.

“We really played well,” Stotts said. “Offensively, the first half was fun to watch. We moved the ball, Dame and CJ were in a really good rhythm. All in all, it was the best game we’ve played so far.”

Stotts had praise for Whiteside, whom he said, “played well in both halves. He had an impact on the game. It was good to see for him.

“And I thought Zach, in particular, made two or three very impressive plays at the rim. He had two or three blocks that could have been scores and they really ignited us going the other way.”

Portland wraps up its exhibition schedule at Denver Thursday night but it’s anybody’s guess who will be on the floor for the Blazers. Stotts wouldn’t commit after the game about it, but he’s indicated he would not use his key players much – if at all.

Impact or not, what do the Trail Blazers see in Mario Hezonja?

Impact or not, what do the Trail Blazers see in Mario Hezonja?

The Portland Trail Blazers don't know what they have with Mario Hezonja just yet. The former No. 5 overall pick is a reclamation project, a low risk, medium reward type of player who might just be another of Neil Olshey’s diamonds in the rough.

Last season for the New York Knicks, Hezonja saw some improvement in his game. Whether that can continue with Portland, particularly considering the bevy of wing players the team now has, is a serious question. If Hezonja can’t get ample playing time, will the team culture and coaching staff be enough to coax him along his way?

In contrast to some of his teammates, Hezonja is surprisingly not a very good 3-point shooter. What he does bring to the table is a willingness to push the pace and drive the ball. He's also a very useful passer on the wing, something Portland's bench unit might end up needing over the course of this year.

All that being said, there is no doubt that Hezonja is still a prospect. Every roster needs minimum salary players, and Olshey was smart to pick up a guy with lots of potential and who at his very worst will simply warm the bench if he doesn’t work out.

Check out the full video breakdown above to see what Hezonja brings to the table, and why Portland has sneakily been excited about bringing him to Rip City for the past couple of seasons. 

How Mario Hezonja's point-guard skills have translated to feeling free in Portland

How Mario Hezonja's point-guard skills have translated to feeling free in Portland

The first half action of the Trail Blazers first action of the season was fast action.

Say that three times fast.  

A key piece in the Blazers getting out and running against the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday night was in thanks to Portland’s second unit, and more specifically to point-forward Mario Hezonja.

Hezonja along with Anthony Tolliver, Kent Bazemore, and Skal Labissiere, all kicked into another gear late in the first quarter.

“The first half with that group, when [Hezonja] was in there he really pushed the ball, good tempo, good pace,” Blazers head coach Terry Stotts said. “I think we lost a little bit of our pace in the second half. He’s good in the open court, pushing the tempo.”

Portland ended up dropping its first exhibition game, 105-94, but Blazers fans got a good glimpse of the speed and playmaking of Hezonja.

For the Trail Blazers floor general Damian Lillard, he compared Hezonja to former Blazer Evan Turner, but with a different flare.  

“He’s a playmaker. Just having the luxury of having somebody else that’s a really good playmaker, the same role as ET, but more up-tempo. He’s up-tempo, he’s downhill, and just a lot of times where the weak side falls asleep and they loosen up and the defense is wearing down he’s zipping those passes through the defense and he’s see that. So, I think that’s going to be really good for me and CJ [McCollum],” Lillard said.   

Simons, Bazemore, and Hezonja were all interchangeable to run point.

McCollum was not surprised in the least with Hezonja’s performance. 

“I think Mario was great. He’s been pushing the ball in transition all of September. He showed great vision, good size, finishing around the basket. We’ve seen. It’s more about you guys getting a chance to see him and really understanding what he can bring to this team,” McCollum said.

When he was asked about why Hezonja like to push the pace, he cracked a smile and said, “It comes from my heart.”

Hezonja, added, “If you have it why not use it,” on his ability to push the pace. 

Hezonja grew up playing point guard... until he started sprouting up and eventually moved from guard to forward.

He is just four years removed from holding down point guard duties when he played in Croatia and in Barcelona. 

The 24-year-old credits Coach Stotts and the Blazers coaching staff in being be able to play free.

“The first time they told me was if you do a mistake, just keep doing what you do,” Hezonja said.

“They just basically gave me the keys to the car,” Hezonja added. 

In 20 minutes of action, Hezonja finished with 12 points, six rebounds, and two assists, while also getting the crowd behind him.

Hezonja noted the team chemistry was instant, despite the Blazers bringing in seven new players.

“We had a lot of success in the first half executing…  The chemistry was awesome from day one,” Hezonja said.

Blazer fans might not all be chemistry majors, but one thing is certain for the Blazers: One part Hezonja with four parts of player speed around him equals good Blazer Basketball. 

Trail Blazers, Nuggets walk and foul their way through exhibition opener

Trail Blazers, Nuggets walk and foul their way through exhibition opener

If you like missed shots, fouls and turnovers, Tuesday night’s opening exhibition game in Memorial Coliseum was for you.

The Trail Blazers played host to the Denver Nuggets and paid homage to the old days of the NBA when players didn’t shoot well and got called for traveling once in a while.

The result was a 105-94 Denver win over Portland that was billed as a throwback game but should have been a throw-it-back game, the way you do with a fish that doesn’t measure up.

The Blazers shot 34.1 percent from the floor and missed 60 shots. They were 6 for 30 from three-point range and had 22 turnovers and 24 fouls. The Nuggets forced some of those turnovers and fouls but were just 9-29 from three while making 44.7 percent of their field goals overall. Denver had 29 fouls and 24 turnovers.

“It looked like a first exhibition game,” said Portland Coach Terry Stotts. “First half was not bad, the third quarter was pretty sloppy with turnovers. We didn’t shoot the ball well for most of the game. Kind of to be expected for the first exhibition game.”

A lot of those turnovers were traveling calls, a point of emphasis for the officials this season. “Points of emphasis” in the NBA usually means they make those calls in the exhibition games but once the season starts, things return to normal.

Some of the walking violations called in this game were almost invisible. It will be interesting to see if players named Lebron James, Kawhi Leonard and James Harden will be whistled for those violations.

“Point of emphasis,” CJ McCollum said. “We’ll see when the regular season starts. They call it early to get you used to it. Set a precedent. Like the ‘freedom-of-movement’ thing in past years.”

Stotts said, "They said they were going to look to clean up the travel, so we are going to have to adjust."

Stotts managed to get all 17 of his players who were wearing a uniform into the game, which was an achievement. Portland trailed by only 52-50 at the half but the game got away in the second half as the bench cleared.

Damian Lillard and McCollum played 15 minutes apiece in the first half and watched the rest of the game from the bench. They were only 5-15 from the field and 1-8 from three.

Some of the new Blazers made a good first impression, particularly if you ignore the shooting problems.

Kent Bazemore had a whopping seven steals and was all over the court, but he was just 1-7 from the floor. Mario Hezonja had a team-high 12 points to go with six rebounds and two assists but was a team-worst minus-10 for the game. Anfernee Simons had 10 points but was 3-11 from the field and Zach Collins had 10 while making 5 of 12.

Paul Millsap scored 14 points to lead the Nuggets, who rested their best player, Nikola Jokic.

Officially, the game was called a Memorial Coliseum sellout at 10,942.

“It was a good experience, Fan Fest and tonight,” Lillard said. “Hopefully, some of that magic rubs off on the team.”

Instant Analysis: 3 Quick Takeaways from the Blazers 1st Preseason Game

Instant Analysis: 3 Quick Takeaways from the Blazers 1st Preseason Game

Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts and the entire Blazers coaching staff set the tone for the night with their 70s inspired outfits.

It was an evening of pure nostalgia with Portland playing its first preseason game of the 2019-20 season in the Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum. 

The Blazers went deep into its bench with 17 players on the active roster seeing the floor. Portland got out to a slow start with Denver leading 27-22 after one quarter. Both Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum only saw action in the first half and then were shut down for the rest of the game. The Blazers backcourt played 15 minutes each. It wasn’t a great shooting night for the duo, but hey, it’s preseason. They combined for 12 points on 5-of-15 shooting.

Box Score: Nuggets 105, Trail Blazers 94 

Three Quick Takeaways:

A quick first look at Whiteside

With Hassan Whiteside tweaking his left ankle during the first week of training camp, Tuesday’s game action was most likely the most run Whiteside has had in the last couple of days. It was pretty apparent he was a little gassed, especially in the second quarter when he was a step behind when rotating on defense.  He played just 12 minutes.

Super Mario running the break, running the point

The Blazers' second unit of Anfernee Simons, Anthony Tolliver, Kent Bazemore, Mario Hezonja, and Skal Labissiere, turned up the heat late in the first quarter. The second unit got out and ran. More often than not the outlet pass would get zipped out to Hezonja. Between Ant, Super Mario, and Bazemore, the three carried the point guard duties.  

It was Hezonja who had Blazers fans extremely excited in the first half. It was as if there wasn’t anything Hezonja couldn’t do. He was running the point, running the break, finding his teammates either out in transition or in a set play. He was also getting out and running and finishing with dunks on the break. Hezonja was having fun and in turn, the fans were having even more fun.

Baze the spark plug

A team can always use a guy that comes off the bench to light a fire under the rest of the team. It looks like that guy for the Blazers could be Kent Bazemore. Diving for loose balls, getting out ahead of the pack and running, or any of the dirty work on the defensive end -- Bazemore is here for it all.   

Check back here throughout the night and tomorrow morning for interviews and videos with the players!

Trail Blazers wing Mario Hezonja ready to guard all positions

Trail Blazers wing Mario Hezonja ready to guard all positions

Over the last week of training camp, Portland as a team has discussed how there has been a shift in focus on the defensive end.

With Zach Collins and Hassan Whiteside set to anchor the front court in the starting lineup, the Blazers will have the freedom to be more aggressive on the perimeter, with the confidence that they will have help behind them.

Even though wing Mario Hezonja will mostly be coming off the bench this season, he is still ready to guard any position, and is confident he will be able to guard the best player on the opposing team.

He also believes by applying more pressure on the defensive end, it will free up the Blazers shooters to not have to exert themselves as much at that end of the floor.

“It’s big time,” Hezonja said of being a versatile defender. “It helps a lot of other players be in their roles. You know, they don’t have to do extra stuff. It helps them, especially for CJ [McCollum] and Dame [Lillard], Rodney [Hood], [Kent] Bazemore – all of our shooters. They don’t have to work as much, you know, because I’m yelling, I’m coming behind them.”

[REALTED]: Everything you need to know about new Trail Blazer Mario Hezonja… Off the court     

Blazers head coach Terry Stotts believes Hezonja will be able to be plugged into certain lineups depending on matchups.

“When teams talk about going small or spreading the floor or whatever, it’s more about how you defend that lineup rather than scoring… If were able to play Zach Collins or Skal [Labissiere], or whoever at four, and still defend the perimeter, then that’s a good lineup for us…. Vice versa if Mario is at the four, he has to guard a bigger player… So, it’s more about your defensive matchups,” Stotts said.

[REALTED]: Nurkic and Hezonja go way, way back

At 6’8”, 220 pounds, Hezonja has fully embraced his versatility to defend multiple positions.

“Now that I’m going to be in the role that I’m going to be in, I’ve got to guard everybody on the court. I’ve just got to talk to my teammates and, you know, establish my presence out there, so they know, they recognize my voice… Then I’m talking to them like where to be and all the switching,” Hezonja said.

“I’m guarding the best players on the opposite team. As I said, I will do anything possible to help this team win the championship, so whatever I’ve got to do, I’ll do it,” Hezonja added.

Is Coach Stotts convinced Hezonja will be able to guard more than the three and four positions?

“To be determined,” Stotts said. “I would expect if we’d be doing a lot of switching, he’d be expected to guard a variety of perimeter players for sure.”

How Mario Hezonja's admiration for Drazen Petrovic fuels his journey

How Mario Hezonja's admiration for Drazen Petrovic fuels his journey

Like all young basketball players growing up in Croatia, Mario Hezonja knew all about Drazen Petrovic, the ex-Trail Blazer who died in an auto accident at the age of 28 in June of 1993. After all, there are some big-time athletes from Hezonja's home country – and then there is Petrovic, who is still known as the Croatian Mozart, on another level from the rest for his skills on the court.

So when Hezonja signed to play for the Trail Blazers this season, he wanted to carry on Petrovic’s memory and perhaps set some things straight in Portland. Petrovic was a seasoned and renowned international star when he came to the Trail Blazers as an NBA rookie for the 1989-90 season. He did not get immediate playing time behind Clyde Drexler, Terry Porter and Danny Young and was disappointed. In the following season, after Danny Ainge was added as the team’s third guard off the bench, Petrovic wanted out and was traded to New Jersey, where, with regular playing time, he became an all-star.

Since that time, then-Portland Coach Rick Adelman was vilified in Croatia for not putting Petrovic in the starting lineup and the Trail Blazers were not a favorite team.

“When I realized that Portland could be an option for me, I knew that Drazen was drafted here but the team was stacked, or whatever the story was,” Hezonja said Tuesday after the Blazers’ first training-camp practice. “I talked to people back home and his brother, who was my coach, and Drazen never wanted to be on the bench, right? Regardless if there were better players than him.

“An amazing player and our best of all time. In Croatia, we don’t treat any of our athletes like we do Drazen, because he’s not with us anymore. He’s like a legend for us. I never had a thought of wearing my number here. Out of my heart, and the hearts of all Croatians, I decided to continue his journey and finish what he couldn’t.”

So this season, Hezonja will become the 13th player to wear No. 44 for the Trail Blazers.

And it could actually be Petrovic’s career in reverse.

While “Petro” never got a real chance to show what he could do in Portland, Hezonja might find his own personal salvation with the Trail Blazers, after a struggling start in Orlando and New York.

He arrived early in Portland and has been a regular at the team’s informal pre-camp workouts at its practice facility. And he’s been a big topic of conversation because of his speed, his movement, and his playmaking ability. It appears he may be a point-forward on the team's second unit, perhaps making that group more uptempo than the starting lineup.

“I can run,” said the 6-8, 225-pounder. “I can get out.”

And in Portland, he’s going to get a chance to run, make plays and do the things that made him the fifth pick in the 2015 draft.

“Where I’ve been before, you’re always bothered by something,” Hezonja said. “There was always so much negative. I am so happy coming to practice here. There is no negativity here. Other places, there was ‘Watch out for this guy – he’s weird.’ I don’t have that here. I have been here for the month and I can’t think of one bad detail. I don’t have a bad feeling about anything or anybody. The is the first time in many years when I’m happy – happy with what I’m doing, happy with where I’m at and happy with my teammates around me.

“We’re all here for one thing – to win a championship. But we don’t talk about that. It’s in our minds, our goal is to do that. But slowly. We don’t talk about it.

“The coach lets us do our own thing but we have to be on the same page.”

And for Hezonja, that will be page No. 44.

Warm championship dreams highlight Trail Blazers' chilly media day

Warm championship dreams highlight Trail Blazers' chilly media day

There was a different vibe to media day this season for the Portland Trail Blazers and it had nothing to do with a lot of new players on the roster this season.

Sure, different locale – this one was in Memorial Coliseum, rather than Moda Center. And yes, it's the same long day for players wherever it's held, what with basketballs to autograph, promos to read and pictures to pose for -- along with all the usual interviews.

But the coliseum meant the temperature inside the building was, to be kind, chilly. But just about every time I’ve been in the ancient arena these last several years, it’s been cold. But on the positive side, it appears a rehabilitation process has begun on the fountain, outside in front of the wall that honors veterans who died in service of their country.

Who knew? That thing hasn’t worked in many, many years and it would be nice if it did.

But back to the media day. What was different, for me, is that for the first time in decades, we heard players – veteran players, being honest, talking about their team being capable of competing for a championship.

There was a real optimism among the group that this is a very talented, experienced and hungry team, not satisfied with getting to the Western Conference finals last season.

On a nightly basis, Coach Terry Stotts is going to have his hands full this season trying to decide who plays and who sits. Most of this roster is made up of players who have been a part of a consistent playing rotation for an NBA team. This is a deep and versatile group.

Players, most of whom have been working out at the team’s practice facility, expressed surprise at the enthusiastic playmaking skills of new forward Mario Hezonja, are in general awe of seeing future Hall of Famer Pau Gasol in their locker room, the toughness of Kent Bazemore and the shooting ability of Anthony Tolliver.

It was a very different afternoon, speaking to a group of players who seem so certain they are going to be a part of something special.

And it was an unusual experience for me to be doing a show in the very same room of my all-time amazing news conference moment – that time that Mike Schuler, upon his introduction as the new Trail Blazer coach on May 28, 1986, slid over to what he thought was a waiting chair behind microphones and promptly fell to the floor on his backside.

Before he ever uttered a word as the new Portland coach.

It was that same exact moment I realized that the word “pratfall” was a perfect description for what happened and the incident allowed me to use the word for the first time in my life.

And, of course, all of Portland hopes this media gathering isn’t setting the stage for another big pratfall.