LAS VEGAS — Mario Hezonja didn’t live up to the hope or hype in Orlando after being taken fifth in the 2015 NBA Draft. But the Knicks believe the way he ended last season is an indication of the player he can become.
The Knicks believe their coaches can bring even more out of the athletic 6-8 forward, whom they signed to a one-year, $6.5-million deal Friday. David Fizdale said it was “exciting to see” how he played the final six weeks of the season.
“You start to finally see what people were talking about with him,” he said. “It just shows you with these young guys, you just don’t know. It’s so easy for us to write a kid off when he’s had a couple of years, but any one of you, and me, when we were 18 to 21, were jerks. A lot of times what we do is we discard these players. This kid still has a lot of talent to show and a lot of things, and so you saw it at the end of the year. Although he had struggled, it finally started to pick up and he started to figure out who he was going to be in this league.”
The Knicks are trying to fill the roster with young, athletic players whom they can develop. With Kristaps Porzingis out indefinitely, they need additional scoring and believe Hezonja can fill some of that void.
The Knicks got Hezonja to take a one-year deal in keeping with their plan to have as much flexibility and cap space for next summer, when they hope to sign a marquee free agent from a class that will include Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler and Kemba Walker.
Knicks general manager Scott Perry, who was in the Orlando front office when Hezonja was taken, called him “an extremely talented, multi-dimensional player” in a statement and said the Knicks are “adding another young, athletic and driven player.”
Hezonja, who is from Croatia, certainly has something to prove after averaging 6.9 points in 219 games for Orlando. But when given an opportunity late last season, he averaged 12.6 points in his final 28 games. In Orlando’s last 10 games, he averaged 13.9 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.8 steals and shot 37.7 percent on three-pointers.
Fizdale attributed some of Hezonja’s struggles to having two coaches in three years. (Porzingis, who was taken one pick before Hezonja, is on his fourth coach with Fizdale.) But Fizdale said Hezonja is coming to the Knicks with “a clean slate” and will have every opportunity to prove he can be an effective player.
“We see a talent there,” Fizdale said. “He fits how I want to play with his athleticism and his ability to shoot and make plays off the dribble. We still think he has a lot of room to grow and develop. We feel like he’s definitely worth bringing in and seeing what we can turn him into.
“He’s got the right skill set for today’s NBA. He plays with a super-high motor. He’s a high flyer. He shoots the three-ball well. He handles the ball in transition. He’s really competitive defensively and he’s 6-8. I can play him a lot of different ways and [in] a lot of different spots. I really see a great opportunity for both of us with this situation.”
The Knicks also re-signed 7-1 backup center Luke Kornet. Kornet, who spent most of his time in the G League last season, inked a one-year, $1.6-million deal.
The Knicks have about $2.1 million remaining on the mid-level exception and are expected to use part of that money to sign second-round pick Mitchell Robinson.
O’Quinn a Pacer. Former Knicks backup center Kyle O’Quinn, who opted out of a contract that would have paid him $4.25 million next season, agreed to terms on a one-year, $4.5-million deal with the Pacers, a league source confirmed. The Queens product spent three years with the Knicks, averaging 6.1 points, 5.2 rebounds and 1.1 blocks.