ORLANDO, Fla. — Mario Hezonja never got a chance to say goodbye to the Orlando fans. Now he can as this season is nearing its end Wednesday at Amway Center, where he toiled for three seasons as their shiny high lottery pick.
“This is a game I cannot miss,” Hezonja said after the morning shootaround. “It’s going to be good to be out there.”
In the first encounter in Magic City in November, Hezonja was a DNP-CD. The Knicks announced he had “food poisoning” after a bad meal in New Orleans, but Hezonja was in uniform and was lively on the bench.
Knicks coach David Fizdale made a promise to Hezonja in January that in their last game in Orlando in April, no matter what the situation, he would start him. That’s the kind of coach Fizdale is.
With five games left, the start guarantee has disrupted Fizdale’s new experimental arrangement of having the double-tower starting tandem of Luke Kornet and Mitchell Robinson.
Hezonja will occupy power forward while Kornet occupies a seat.
“The reception, I don’t give a damn,” Hezonja said of the Orlando crowd. “But I want to thank them for the first three years. We were like mostly down with many unfortunate circumstances that were happening in organization and the mess we were.
“All the times [they were] thinking of me. I still have a lot of messages, a lot of texts on my Twitter feed full of Magic fans. So I want to thank them for everything for their support. Now that I’m on another team, they’re still supporting me. It means a lot to me.”
It’s been a mostly inconsistent season for Hezonja, who has had some wonderful moments, including two superb appearances in the sweep of the Lakers, but not enough of them.
This will be Hezonja’s 21st start for the league-worst Knicks — the most memorable coming 17 days ago, when he blanketed LeBron James and blocked his shot in the final seconds. Hezonja was a DNP in the Knicks’ last game against Chicago, a rare victory.
“I told him earlier in the season, I said the last game we play against Orlando, no matter where you are in the rotation, I promise you I’ll start you,” Fizdale said. “Because he wants to come back here and play well and give it a shot. Why not?”
Asked if this is more due to the Knicks’ status of playing out the string, as opposed to fighting for a playoff berth as Orlando is, Fizdale said: “Yeah, in a season like this. If you’re really fighting for something, playoff seeding, I wouldn’t be doing things like that. These games count from our development standpoint and us growing. But if I have an opportunity to reward a guy or give a guy a chance to play major minutes against a team that he previously played for, then I want to do that for him.”
Hezonja never emerged as a key Orlando piece despite being the fifth pick overall in 2015 — one slot after Kristaps Porzingis. Knicks GM Scott Perry was part of the Magic managerial team that pegged him in that draft and surprisingly signed him with most of the Knicks’ mid-level exception last summer to a one-year, $6.5 million deal.
His chances of sticking next season appear slim, but Perry has a longtime fondness for the skilled combo forward, who is shooting 39.8 percent — 27.7 percent from 3-point land. He’s averaging 8.4 points.
Across his tumultuous time in a Magic uniform, Hezonja escaped boos.
“Never, never,” said Hezonja, who turned 24 on Feb. 25. “That’s why I truly appreciate their support. There was a lot of bad stuff happening over here. They were still supporting us and knew what was going on. I’m grateful for that. I’m really thankful.“