IN SEARCH OF SUPER MARIO

Europe is where Mario Hezonja was born and raised, the melting pot that shaped the young Croatian into the man and player he is today.

Departing across the Atlantic last summer for a venture into the unknown, there were bound to moments when the degree of unfamiliarity sapped his soul.

The first round pick of the Orlando Magic has thrust himself headlong into the world of the NBA. And he has the bumps and bruises to show for the experience.

22 games in and the 20-year-old guard, despite being the best shooter on a team ranked 20th in field goal percentage, has not made the impact most forecast, earning just 12 minutes per night and falling – a virtual cameo for a fifth choice in the 2015 Draft – while recording a PER of 7.07, 19th overall in the rookie class.

Turnovers have been just one fault line with over one in five of his possessions fumbled away, sometimes a sign of over-confidence but frequently a lack of defensive nous.

But there are signs that Orlando – who will face the Toronto Raptors in London next month – are keeping faith in their Balkan recruit with an experimental run at point guard in Scott Skiles evolving line-up, a position he often slotted into during his occasional appearances last term for FC Barcelona.

“That’s my natural position that I’ve been playing the whole time in Croatia and a little bit in Barcelona, so I don’t have any problems with it,” he said. “I’m very thankful to coach for having that chance, but we’ve been practicing like that for a while now. I was not playing a lot at the one, so it was kind of strange for me at first, but no doubt we will work on it a lot.

“My experience in Barcelona helps me a lot at the moment, especially in these moments now, about how to step up and adjust myself in a team to these kind of things, not playing all the time. I mean, it sucks but I learned in Barcelona that we went through a lot of things like this, so I have learned how to reach into the game when things are not going our way at all.”

Notching a mere 4.2 points per night with a Magic crew that is a surprising 13-11 means Skiles will not lean on his recruit too much, not with the headache of managing a positional traffic jam that has already seen Victor Oladipo switched to a sixth man role and the backcourt reshuffled. Hezonja has had to find ways to cope with a rapid acclimation to the ruthless, results-driven business of the NBA.

“I talk to all of the guys here because everyone went through their own difficult times in their own way,” the Croat said. “But mostly I learned from myself at Barcelona, because I don’t believe anyone faced in this league what I faced in Barcelona, so I learned a lot from Europe. If I need some technical suggestions I talk to my team-mates but mostly I learned from my Barcelona experience.”

Others have stepped in to put arms round shoulders in moments of angst.

“I am very close with Elfrid (Payton). He helps me a lot, especially contact-wise because there is contact all over the floor in the NBA, and he tells me to stay strong and stay positive, things like that. But off the court, on the court, we are always together. There is always something to learn from a point guard brain like him who is locked in 24/7.

“It helps a lot to have a good friend on the team, but not only him, Aaron Gordon as well, and Devyn (Marble). I also learn a lot from those guys who have been with other teams, veterans like Nikola (Vucevic), Tobias (Harris) and Dewayne (Dedmon).”

He will keep pushing and being pushed. Challenge himself and be asked to do a little more every day. To elevate himself to a new level, far above what he experienced in Spain where most of his stint was spent in Barca’s LEB second string – or, of course, in two summers of action for Croatia at a World Cup and EuroBasket.

If proof were needed of the leaps and bounds required, it came last month on a trip to Cleveland when, albeit briefly, he found himself guarding LeBron James.

“He is such an all-round player,” Hezonja reflects. “He can do a lot of stuff. I was close to him and guarding him a lot and for a moment you think, oh, he’s not that special then all of a sudden he finds a way to score. That’s why he is so special. You have to work really hard to stop him.”

It was a night to work but also to observe, and learn.

“I was watching him all the time; I was watching the game, of course, but I had one eye on him and one eye on the game. I watched everything he does, from how he walks to what he does. I can certainly learn from him but also from that whole team. That is an NBA Finals team, you can learn something from everybody on that team, but him especially.”

The Orlando Magic host the Toronto Raptors at The O2 in London on January 14 as part of NBA Global Games London 2016. The game is available via NBA League Pass (www.nba.tv) .

Main pic: NBAE/Getty

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