NEW ORLEANS — Through the first 15 games of the season, Mario Hezonja held the odd distinction of being the only player on the Knicks who had played in every game and hadn’t been shuffled into one of the incarnations of starting lineups devised by David Fizdale.
On Friday, that changed — not because he got a start, but because he never got off the bench. He patiently sat and waited, but his turn never came.
The move to the end of the bench came at an odd time for Hezonja as he prepares for Sunday night’s return to Orlando, where he spent the first three seasons of his career after being selected with the fifth overall pick by the Magic.
Even though the homecoming doesn’t have Hezonja returning as the conquering hero, he is not griping right now, content to try to find his place and earn his minutes.
“To be honest, I don’t know what that role is,” he said. “Just trying to find my own rhythm. As I said early in the season, by finding my own role, I’m not disrupting anything else. I’m not that type of a guy. Just go out there as I said, keep being aggressive and then try to involve myself more offensively and defensively as well. We’re so young, that’s going to get us going — a couple steals, blocks, all that stuff. It just motivates the team so much and gets us going offensively. Just got to do more — pay attention more to details and not rush things as I was before. As I said, it will come. I’m confident in myself more than anybody.”
He is not alone in arriving at the arena unsure of what to expect. The starting lineup repeatedly has been swapped out with little change in the results; the Knicks have lost 12 of their first 16, including the last four.
But it’s not just the starting lineup. Trey Burke started the first five games of the season and then was pulled from the lineup. He scored 24 points off the bench Friday but didn’t get off the bench at all in three of the four previous games. Enes Kanter went to the bench after playing only 15 minutes Friday and watched the game get away as New Orleans dominated in the paint. The usually talkative center left the locker room quickly after the game, then tweeted a series of periods.
The common denominator with Burke, Kanter and Hezonja: Like much of the roster, they come with expiring contracts and likely are not a part of the future for the Knicks, who are determined to clear cap space for the free-agent market next summer. Fizdale already has turned to a starting lineup that includes all three rookies on the roster — a move that likely helps the chances of securing a high lottery pick.
“Right now, that’s just where the rotation is at,” Fizdale said. “Trey didn’t play a couple of games ago and he’s scoring 24 for me [Friday]. So like I tell all of these guys, just stay ready. This thing is a revolving door. Everybody has a chance, an opportunity, to help our team. I think [Hezonja] will. He’s had a great attitude about everything.”
“He just said stay ready, and I will,” Hezonja said. “Trey was in the same situation. We’re not guys like that that’ll make problems out of it. We’ve just got to stay ready, keep practicing and be right back into it.
“[The Magic is] a big game for me. I’m not exaggerating it. I’m not making a big thing about it — just another NBA game. I was there for three years. It’s definitely a little different feeling. I’ve got to stay within my emotions and stay focused on my game and execute the game plan. So I’m not going to make a big deal out of it.”
Will he get the chance to play? He can’t say. “I don’t know,” Hezonja said. “I might not play until the end of the season. I might play next game. I don’t know. It’s NBA.”