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Mario Hezonja, Knicks eager to begin preseason

The Knicks' biggest free-agent signing wants to earn a starting job.

Mario Hezonja of the New York Knicks fields

Mario Hezonja of the New York Knicks fields questions during the team's Media Day held at Madison Square Garden Training Center in Greenburgh, NY on Monday, Sept. 24, 2018. Photo Credit: James Escher

GREENBURGH, N.Y. – There’s been summer league and training camp and even an open practice at the Garden. Still there’s been no way to gauge what this Knicks team is going to be this season. That ends Monday in Washington when they play their first preseason game against the Wizards.

First-year coach David Fizdale said he’d be fine with more practices, but his players “are ready to go play against someone besides each other.”

“Training camp is one thing. Preseason is another. Then the real season starts and it’s a new world again,” said Mario Hezonja, the biggest free-agent acquisition in the club’s modest offseason. “It’s just going to help us a lot to see where everybody is and where we need to improve or tweak our game.”

Fizdale said he is still “dancing around with” a starting lineup for the game. Enes Kanter and Tim Hardaway Jr. figure to be in it. And as practice wrapped on Sunday, four other players wore the same blue jerseys as those two: Hezonja, Kevin Knox, Frank Ntilikina and Trey Burke.

Could it be that the starting five will come from among those six? Fizdale said only “I could throw anyone out there and they’d know their job.”

“I’m looking for just effort [and] connection,” he added. “Are we connected through the process and are we communicating in a way to solve problems? Because we’re going to screw up. I expect some things to go wrong. How do we handle it once it happens? That’s what I am looking for.”

No one may be more eager to grab one of those starting spots than the 6-8 Hezonja.

Orlando took him with the fifth pick in the 2015 draft, right after the Knicks took Kristaps Porzingis, but wasn’t impressed enough to pick up the option on his rookie contract. He had to be intrigued with the Knicks as a chance to earn a starting spot – as the team rebuilds – and on a big stage.

“My first game with a Knicks jersey on, it’s going to be a special feeling for me because now I am in a new situation and I just love the group, the situation, the coaching staff,” he said.

Hezonja started 14 of the Magic’s last 17 games last season and averaged 11.5 points and 5.2 rebounds. And he  clearly wants a starting spot now.

“You want to start and you want to play,” Hezonja said. “Starting and playing a major role in New York means something. Especially in front of our fans and in front of the entire world, it definitely means something.”

Notes & quotes: Courtney Lee, recovering from a neck strain, again missed practice on Sunday.

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