Croatian wing Mario Hezonja is one of the bigger wild cards projected to declare for the 2015 NBA draft.
As a teenager with Barcelona playing among pros in the Euroleague, Hezonja's fluctuating secondary role has made it tough to build a rhythm.
But he's absolutely captivating on days when he's able to lock in and find the zone. And right now, he's in the hottest zone he's been in since joining Barcelona's senior team in 2013. Hezonja is coming off of his third straight double-digit scoring game—the first time he's done that—including back-to-back 20-plus-point explosions that highlighted his sensational talent and upside.
He's now racked up 58 points over his last three outings after accumulating 57 total over his previous 10.
Given his limited opportunities, scouts aren't likely to put too much stock into his numbers in terms of production, but take a look at his stats, particularly his percentages in 2014-15:
|2014-15 Stats (averages)|
|Games||Minutes||Points||FG Pct.||Rebounds||Assists||3PT Pct.|
Considering he's only taken 10 shots or more in a game four times all year, scouts must weigh the small sample sizes of his ups versus his downs. And the ups he's flashed over this three-game stretch might represent the apex of his NBA sales pitch.
He just set a Spanish ACB record for three-point makes without a miss, having finished 8-of-8 from downtown in a blowout win over La Bruixa d'Or Manresa on February 1.
It was a spectacular showcase that featured everything from advanced shot-making ability and deep range to unbreakable confidence.
We're seeing signs of Hezonja's ball skills, particularly on the perimeter, catching up to his world-class athleticism and physical tools (6'8" size, strong frame). It's a blend that could fuel some pretty enticing mismatch potential for a projected 2-guard or small forward.
He has beautiful shooting mechanics and fluidity, as well as the size to release over his man and the balance to gather and rise off movement.
According to DraftExpress' Mike Schmitz, Hezonja is 10-of-16 (62.5 percent) on spot-up jumpers and 7-of-16 (43.7 percent) shooting off screens through 13 Euroleague games. He's become more comfortable and effective playing off the ball, which is noteworthy, given the criticism he's taken in the past for being too one-on-one oriented.
It's also encouraging when you take into account that the role he's playing now is what he'll be looking at as an NBA rookie. It should make for a smoother transition as a complementary weapon, while most prospects must adjust after being go-to options in their college lineups.
Hezonja followed his historic three-point display Thursday by scoring 22 points on 8-of-14 in a loss to Real Madrid, one of the premier clubs in Europe that dresses a number of former NBA pros and draft picks.
This time, it was Hezonja's versatility that jumped out.
He was used a number of times as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, which actually happens quite often (23.9 percent of his offense, according to Schmitz).
Hezonja showed off his passing instincts on a couple of hockey assists (passes that lead to the assist) through traffic to the screener. He even had the opportunity to work in isolation (a rarity, only six percent of his offense comes in isolation) on a few occasions after the defense switched. From there, Hezonja exhibited his scoring ability with a strong drive into a reverse layup and a pull-up three once his man went under the pick.
At one point in the third quarter, he separated from his man with a textbook step-back and effortlessly nailed a jumper around the arc:
His hot shooting continued. Hezonja drilled five more triples, including two he created himself and another two he converted running off screens.
While Hezonja's offensive game has started picking up, his defensive tools have shined as well. The fundamentals tend to flicker, but he's shown the ability to guard multiple positions, cover plenty of ground and make the special play.
For what it's worth, he's apparently bought into himself as an NBA star in the making. "If I was in college I'd probably be the No. 1 pick. I had an offer from Kentucky," Hezonja told Basketball Insiders' David Pick.
Of course, the only thing that matters is what scouts and general managers think of Hezonja, whose resume just isn't as decorated as most college players receiving featured roles. It makes him one of the trickier prospects to project and arguably one of the riskier to draft high.
The tall ceiling was always there—he'd established it back in 2011, when he broke onto the scene as an eye-opening junior player. But having spent most of his past two seasons warming Barcelona's bench, there's only so much he could do to build his NBA case.
Up until recently, we've seen his talent flashed sporadically in doses. This is the first time we've seen it result in any type of consistent volume production. And it's naturally helped strengthen his credibility as a promising two-way NBA prospect.
For Hezonja, these past few games represent a major step toward selling himself to evaluators and decision makers. Expect him to be right in the mix outside of the consensus top four: Duke's Jahlil Okafor, Ohio State's D'Angelo Russell, China's Emmanuel Mudiay and Kentucky's Karl-Anthony Towns.
- Providence sophomore Kris Dunn has been one of the better stories all year, considering he's averaging 15.1 points, six rebounds and 7.5 assists after back-to-back season-ending shoulder surgeries. Dunn has the look of an NBA point guard with 6'3" size, electric athleticism, a tight handle and strong facilitating instincts. His injury history, turnovers and shooting stroke are all concerns, but not talent. Dunn has suddenly become a potential 2015 first-round option to watch.
- Georgia State junior guard R.J. Hunter continues to struggle shooting the ball despite having made 100 triples as a sophomore. His stroke is as clean, quick and sharp as anyone's—it just hasn't fallen. He's made only 30.6 percent of his threes this year. However, Hunter already has 28 more assists than he had last season. He's added some versatility to his game, which could ultimately help save his draft stock during what's been a terribly inefficient year.
- Texas sophomore point guard Isaiah Taylor has quietly found a nice rhythm, averaging 19.4 points and 5.2 assists over his last five games. Taylor's jumper is still a bit messy, but he's made eight threes through 13 games after making only five through 35 as a freshman. He's an excellent athlete with lightning quickness and one of the best floater games in the business. Keep an eye on Taylor down the stretch.
- At this rate, I'm not sure how 14 lottery teams will be able to pass on Wisconsin senior and National Player of the Year candidate Frank Kaminsky. At 7'0", he's shooting 41.4 percent from downtown and averaging 17.5 points a game. He's even averaging nearly two more boards (8.1 from 6.3) than he did a year ago, and he's already surpassed last season's assist total. A bright, skilled big man who can shoot, pass and score in the post, Kaminsky is bound to trigger a lottery bite.
- After a slow start, UCLA senior 2-guard Norman Powell is officially back on track. He's scored at least 20 points in five of his last seven games. Powell's defensive prowess is what ultimately drives his appeal, but if he's able to sell teams on his scoring ability and jumper, the first round isn't so far-fetched.