LAS VEGAS — For at least a year, Mario Hezonja said he began to feel the vibe from fans who encouraged him to go to New York to join the Knicks, and when he finally signed with them as a free agent on a one-year deal worth $6.5 million, his excitement was palpable. Hezonja posted a picture of himself on Twitter wearing a Knicks sweatshirt as a kid and wrote: “I want to be a part of it, New York, New York!”
That excitement hadn’t waned by the time he was introduced to media covering the Knicks Tuesday at Las Vegas Summer League.
“That shirt was the only apparel I ever had from any basketball team,” Hezonja said of his Knicks sweatshirt. “I was practicing in it, I was going to church in it, sleeping in it. This was the only team I knew. I got it when I was 14.”
The Knicks had competition from the Trail Blazers, Lakers and Thunder, but Hezonja knew where he was headed.
“It was the opportunity to be in front of the best fans in the world, the best arena in the world, the best everything,” Hezonja said.
Going to the Knicks also was an opportunity to reunite with general manager Scott Perry, who drafted Hezonja with the No. 5 pick in 2015 for the Magic, and Hezonja also was familiar with new coach David Fizdale, who he met during the draft workout process when Fizdale was with the Heat. He also has known Knicks star Kristaps Porzingis from when both played as youths in Spain. In that regard, Hezonja said the Knicks already felt like “family” to him.
But Perry’s presence was the key to his decision. “It means a lot,” Hezonja said. “He knew me through good and bad. He was the guy that drafted me, so he was always pulling me on the side and talking to me. It feels like I have a father in the front office that is always going to look out for me.”
Perry’s insight into Hezonja was a key factor in he and team president Steve Mills deciding to go after a player many regarded as something of a disappointment through his first three seasons. “He has shown some signs that he can be a very good player in this league,” Perry said. “I know he had an up-and down time in Orlando, but we really believe he’s trending in the right direction. He fits our group and our culture and our timeline with other younger players.”
Mills said the Knicks actually tried to trade for Hezonja in the past but Perry refused to deal him when he was in Orlando. “He fits with the youth on our team, and he can play multiple positions. We believe he can become a very good defensive player in addition to the other things he brings to the table.”
Although he struggled under former Magic coach Frank Vogel, Hezonja began to blossom when Vogel moved him to power forward and increased his playing time during the second half of last season. Overall, he averaged 9.6 points and 3.7 rebounds but shot a modest .337 percent from three-point range.
“It’s different playing 35 minutes or 15 minutes,” Hezonja said. “You have to be so perfect in the 15 to earn that 16th. But once you are into that role of playing 35, it just comes naturally to you.
“In the second half of the season, everything came naturally. Everything was super-confident, it was in the rhythm, everything was going with the flow. I will do my best to translate that to New York.”