Meet NBA Draft Prospect Mario Hezonja, Europe's Kobe Bryant Wannabe

David Pick@@IAmDPickInternational Hoops InsiderJune 23, 2015

Barcelona’s Mario Hezonja fires a shot during the Euroleague Final Four third place match between Barcelona and CSKA of Moscow, in Milan, Italy, Sunday, May 18, 2014. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
Luca Bruno/Associated Press

Mario Hezonja is the best player in the 2015 NBA draft, according to Mario Hezonja.

FC Barcelona's 20-year-old Croatian wing said he would've been the top overall pick had he accepted an offer to play for Kentucky last year.

"If I was in college, I'd probably be the No. 1 pick," the 6'8" Hezonja told me back in January.

Known abroad as "Super Mario," Hezonja is one of the most exciting names in the draft, dubbed as the best shooting guard out of Europe since Drazen Petrovic. His shooting stroke, handle and athleticism have routinely captured the imaginations of scouts and NBA teams all season long.

But what really separates Hezonja is an attitude eerily similar to the player who once wore Mario's No. 8.

"Since he was 10 years old, all Mario talked about was the Los Angeles Lakers," said Darko Kunce, director of the Croatian national teams and Hezonja's coach for almost a decade.

His Kobe idolatry caught on early, and Hezonja would eventually adopt his hero's persona.

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"Mario is the only kid in the draft who actually believes he can beat Kobe Bryant one-on-one," said Matej Mamic, a former pro baller and general manager for Croatian champions Cedevita Zagreb.

Hezonja, a projected top-10 draft pick, is currently playing in the Spanish ACB Finals against Real Madrid. If Barcelona is swept, which appears likely, Hezonja has secured a visa credential for the United States to attend the NBA draft, a source told Bleacher Report. (Hezonja's draft apparel is also on-call. An all-dark black Euro costume-fit Hugo Boss suit and tie—inspired by Jason Statham's look in the 2002 action film The Transporterhas been tailored for his once-in-a-lifetime occasion.)

Hejonza is projected to land somewhere in the 5-10 range. His beloved Lakers will have their choice of anyone not named Karl-Anthony Towns at the No. 2 spot, if they don't deal for DeMarcus Cousins, who they're rumored to be pursuing.

Hezonja's Work Ethic

NBA power agent Arn Tellem, in 2000.
NBA power agent Arn Tellem, in 2000.Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

It's no secret that Hezonja is racking up "did not plays" as a direct result of declaring for the NBA draft. He started the season registering minimal to no playing time, which forced his agent Arn Tellem to travel to Barcelona in November 2014 for a dialogue with president Josep Maria Bartomeu and general manager Joan Carles Raventos.

After Tellem's visit, Hezonja averaged 20-plus minutes per game in December, scoring in double figures in the Euroleague and the Spanish ACB. He morphed into a draft lottery selection.

His playing-time digits took a dive during the playoffs until head coach Xavi Pascual called upon Hezonja for the rescue. Hezonja scored eight points in six minutes to propel Barcelona over longtime No. 1-ranked Malaga in Game 5 of the semifinals of the ACB playoffs, ultimately saving Barcelona's season.

Tellem, a power agent who reps the Croatian star, held recent negotiations in Spain with front-office Barcelona officials to trim down Hezonja's NBA buyout, valued at €2 million, a source said. The Spanish club has shown flexibility to work toward reaching a lower escape clause, despite friction between the team and player.

Due to a shortage in game action and lack of opportunities, Hezonja developed a personal practice routine he goes through on a daily basis.

Word around Barcelona facilities is that Hezonja trains on his own with cones and chairs, while Oklahoma City Thunder draft-and-stash prospect Alex Abrines has a pair of rebounders and coaches at all times during sessions.

Off-the-court accounts of Hezonja are hard to come by. People who've worked with him describe him as a "basket-holic" who avoids clubbing, parties or social events.

"He is married to basketball. He was the youngest player ever to play in the top division in Croatia at age 13. His character is unbelievable. Mario approached everything in life like a challenge," Kunce said.

The Croatian Mamba?

DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 30: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers gets introduced before a game against the Denver Nuggets on December 30, 2014 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downlo
Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

Hezonja chose basketball as his destiny at the age of 10, and received a disciplined and mature upbringing.

"When Mario was a kid, I arranged with the school for him to work out from 08:00-10:00 before class," Kunce recalled. "We then trained again from 18:00-20:00. Every day that was his schedule. During the offseason last summer, he would call me each morning for training from 06:30-08:30.

"Mario sacrificed his childhood for his dream."

In truth, Hezonja isn't all unbridled ego. During the NBA interview process, Hezonja listed Rudy Fernandez and Sonny Weems as Europe's best players, leaving himself notably absent from the list (Hezonja interviewed with Detroit, Denver, Orlando, Miami and several others).

"Mario has developed a reputation of being cocky. But he is not. He is real confident and believes in himself. He is smart and wouldn't call himself the best overseas when he doesn't even start or get serious minutes," Mamic said.

Hezonja has been introduced to former NBA marksman Peja Stojakovic, who will serve as Hezonja's acting NBA mentor. But when approached with the possibility of nurturing Hezonja, Stojakovic initially declined.

"He is cocky. He isn't worth the investment."

Stojakovic traveled to Barcelona multiple times to see Hezonja and eventually changed his view.

"Mario is cocky, but it's a good cocky," Stojakovic said. "He needs that kind of swagger and mental toughness to survive in the NBA. Otherwise, the league would eat him."

Likeliest Landing Spots

NBA commissioner Adam Silver.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver.Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

"We would like a situation where Mario would get 25 minutes a game. What number he is picked doesn't matter; our focus is where he can play and win," Hezonja's father, Ronald, told Bleacher Report.

Hezonja's father broke down a few scenarios for B/R:

New York Knicks, No. 4: "New York would be fantastic under Phil Jackson, who is accomplished, and Derek Fisher, because he played with Kobe Bryant and knows what is required to win."

Orlando Magic, No. 5: "Orlando are serious and could be a good landing spot with Scott Skiles as coach and Victor Oladipo and Elfrid Payton as rising stars."

Denver Nuggets, No. 7: "Denver have been chasing Mario for the past two seasons and can take him as a wing. But we're looking for the right environment."

Detroit Pistons, No. 8: "Detroit would be great because Stan Van Gundy is a great coach."

Tellem, who is now consulting for the Detroit Pistons, would also be hard-pressed to pass on his soon-to-be former client.

Sacramento, which holds the No. 6 pick, is also open to landing the Croatian wingman.

In mid-December, following Stojakovic's jersey retirement ceremony in Sacramento, newly christened Kings official Vlade Divac and Senior Vice President of International Basketball Operations for the NBA Kim Bohuny were dining at a local restaurant.

Suddenly, highlights of Hezonja splashed over TV screens, prompting Divac to say he'd take the Croatian wing if Hezonja wants to come to Sacramento.

David Pick is a veteran pro basketball reporter covering overseas hoops and American players abroad since 2010. He covers international basketball for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand. You can follow David Pick on Twitter at @IAmDPick.