Underachieving Knicks forward left wondering what his role is

ORLANDO – Mario Hezonja wasn’t in for the good moments Friday in New Orleans. He wasn’t in for the bad ones either.
“Super Mario’’, in fact, wasn’t in at all.

The struggling Knicks forward, who was their key free-agent signing, didn’t play for the first time this season in the 129-124 loss to the Pelicans. It’s bad timing for Hezonja to lose his rotation spot with his Orlando homecoming on tap Sunday.

Nothing has clicked yet for the Croatian who had his ups and downs with the Magic, too, as a 2015 lottery pick. Hezonja wasn’t warned about sitting out by coach David Fizdale, but he had an inkling.

“He just said, ‘Stay ready,’ ’’ Hezonja said. “Trey [Burke] was in the same situation. We’re not guys like that who will make problems out of it. Just stay ready and keep practicing and be right back into it.’’

However, as much as Hezonja accepted not playing in New Orleans, he probably won’t be as accommodating if it happens again Sunday. He still has his home in Orlando and many memories – not all of them bad.

“Of course, yeah, that’s a big game for me,’’ Hezonja said. “I’m not exaggerating it, but I was there for three years. It’s definitely a little different feeling. But I got to stay with my emotions and execute the game plan.’’

Though he gave Orlando fans some thrills with his open-court dunks, he also was a fifth pick that ultimately didn’t pan out. It’s doubtful there’s going to be a scoreboard tribute.

“I don’t know,’’ Hezonja said when asked about his reception. “I have a great friends out there and fans on my side. Do I expect anything like where I go to other arenas [in Europe]? No. I was playing at some of the craziest arenas in the world. They were throwing knives, coins at me. I’m ready for anything. I’m built that way.”

The Knicks have yet to see “Super Mario” – his self-proclaimed nickname. He’s been more erratic than super.

A week ago, before the Orlando game at the Garden that turned ugly for the Knicks (4-12), Fizdale praised Hezonja’s work ethic, but explained he too often “goes for the home run’’ and doesn’t make the easy play.

It sounded as if Fizdale was concerned about Hezonja’s basketball IQ. With all the starting-lineup tweaks, Fizdale has yet to promote Hezonja. The Knicks coach is set on starting his three rookies, Kevin Knox, Allonzo Trier and Mitchell Robinson.

Asked about Hezonja not playing against the Pelicans, Fizdale said, “That’s just how the rotation is where it’s at. Trey didn’t play [in two games] and he scored 24 for me tonight. I tell all the guys stay ready, it’s a revolving door. Everyone will get a chance to help our team. I think he will.’’

The Knicks signed Hezonja to a one-year deal, using their precious mid-level exception, with an eye on possibly inking him long-term. If Hezonja becomes a bust, it will not reflect well on general manager Scott Perry, who originally drafted him in Orlando and decided to double down despite those many mediocre days in a Magic uniform.

Hezonja is averaging 9.2 points, but shooting just 39 percent – 28-percent from 3-point range.

“What he was saying the other day, to get better [I] have to make smarter decisions on the court and be more aggressive on defense, not rush things,’’ Hezonja said. “It will come. We can talk about it all you want but it has to happen on the court. It will happen. I will get to that level.”

Hezonja is also confused where he fits in with the Knicks. Recently in Dallas, Hezonja scored 11 first-half points and then didn’t play in the second half.

“To be honest, I don’t know what the role is,’’ Hezonja said. “I’m finding my own role and not disrupting anything else.”

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