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NBA Trade Deadline Watch: Northwest Division

With the deadline approaching, Ben Dowsett looks at the names to watch in the Northwest Division.

Ben Dowsett

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It’s early February, and in the NBA world, that means it’s deadline time. With just a few short weeks to go until the NBA’s trade deadline, any talks which are going to take place before the offseason will begin to intensify over these next several days.

The Northwest Division is a fascinating place to start when assessing where various teams might look as the deadline looms. The division is chock full of young teams, and with the possible exception of Minnesota, each group still has at least a puncher’s chance at the postseason (even the Wolves aren’t entirely out of it). Let’s break down each team in the division, in order of record, and see what their stock looks like headed into the deadline.


Utah Jazz (1st in Northwest, 33-19 record)

The Jazz have mostly equaled or surpassed decently high preseason expectations and sit atop the division. They also currently have a home playoff seed for the first time in over a half decade. They’re doing so with perhaps the deepest roster in the entire league – so deep, in fact, that it’s begun posing real questions about certain future elements, even as the Jazz have once again been hit hard by the injury bug.

Whether any of these major questions materializes into an active approach around the deadline remains to be seen, but given this team’s management and history, it feels unlikely.

Guys like Derrick Favors and Alec Burks have been whispered as potential trade pieces, but that’s mostly by media types; little has been substantiated publicly, and the Jazz are among the most conservative teams out there. Don’t rule them out for certain, though, as the big moves they have made in recent years have mostly come out of nowhere and won’t hit the rumor mill too far before they actually happen. But safe money on Utah is that they either make no moves, or simply look to offload one of their extra point guards for a small return.

Names to Watch:

Shelvin Mack: Mack was rumored as a potential fit in Cleveland as a backup, with the same report stating that he was “definitely available” from Utah. Mack’s contract expires at the end of the season, and inconsistent production this year has led to him barely seeing the court in recent weeks. If he’s moved, the return should be minimal.

Raul Neto: Same story, only Neto hasn’t been specifically rumored in any deals, and likely has even less value than Mack. Frankly, there might be a greater chance Neto is cut than traded, if the Jazz really need that spot.

Gordon Hayward: Hayward’s name only appears on this list because he’s a likely expiring contract, with a player option for next season he’ll certainly decline. But that’s the extent of it – Hayward will not be traded under any circumstances. The Jazz are confident he will re-sign in the offseason. Ditto for George Hill.

Jeff Withey: Withey is another expiring who might fetch the Jazz a very limited pick or some other consideration, but even though he’s mostly in DNP territory when both Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert are healthy, he’s been a valuable security blanket if one of those guys goes down – which has been often over the last 12 months. It seems likely his value to Utah is greater than what they could get in return before he hits the open market.

Oklahoma City Thunder (2nd in Northwest, 30-23 record)

The Thunder is one of the toughest teams to read come deadline time. They’d certainly like to improve on the wing, but whether they have the assets to get there is questionable, and one of their top rumored targets in Rudy Gay is now out for the year. Russell Wesbrook’s future in town hangs over any moves they might make.

They also have a few future first round picks tied up in some complicated pick swaps, which could make any deals that don’t sacrifice current rotation players hard to find. Their only young assets who seem able to fetch a real return are point guard Cameron Payne and big man Domantas Sabonis, but the former is the Westbrook successor should Russ ever leave, and the latter was a big part of the investment the Thunder made by trading away Serge Ibaka over the offseason. It’s tough to see the Thunder swinging big unless a team has major interest in a guy like Enes Kanter, which feels unlikely at his salary range and given his recent hand injury.

Names to Watch:

Anthony Morrow: Morrow is only on the fringes of the rotation, but he’s a cheap expiring contract who can shoot. Some contender always seems to find themselves in need of a guy like this, and with Alex Abrines and his own shooting prowess locked up long term, maybe the Thunder would entertain moving Morrow for a pittance, or as part of a larger package.

Joffrey Lauvergne: Lauvergne is a young, promising big whose restricted free agency is still ahead, but it’s difficult to know whether he has any real trade value.

Kyle Singler: Not a particularly attractive piece, but could be useful for salary matching, if it was needed.

Enes Kanter: Highly unlikely, but only on here because he would appear to be the only high-dollar contract the Thunder might be okay with separating from if the right return was on the table. Guys like Westbrook, Oladipo and Adams all are completely off the table.

Denver Nuggets (3rd in Northwest, 23-28 record)

If they’re so inclined, the Nuggets could likely be the most active team in the league around the deadline. They have the pieces to move in whichever direction they want: They could send some young assets and picks for an established player, go in the opposite direction and send one of several vets for a younger package, or pick some hybrid route.

Complicating matters somewhat is the West’s ridiculously weak race for the eight seed. In a normal year, this sort of record would make Denver’s decision easy: They could sell of one of their higher-priced veterans, get the young guys even more time on the court together and be happy with a good lottery pick.

But entering play on February 7, the Nuggets sit in the final West playoff seed. How will that impact their thinking? Will general manager Tim Connelly view this as a chance to accelerate his rebuild, or will he take the patient approach and prioritize development over the right to be massacred by the Warriors in round one? He could always stand pat and do very little – the Nuggets are in a great future position almost regardless of what they do, barring a disastrous move.

Names to Watch:

Wilson Chandler: Chandler has long been considered one of the most likely trade candidates, and he recently expressed at least some level of displeasure with his fluctuating role in Denver. He has another year left on his deal after this, plus a player option for 2018-19, meaning he’s more than just a rental. As a versatile swingman who can hit the three and play two-way ball, he’s one of the most likely individual names in the league to move before the deadline.

Kenneth Faried: Faried is another of the trifecta of Denver veterans who has been rumored as a trade piece for multiple years now. He still has two full years left on his deal after this one, and though he’s a moderate overpay at this point, there’s still room for his role in the league. To some degree, though, it feels like this move would already have been made if it was going to happen.

Danilo Gallinari: The third member of the Vet. Trade Rumors crew. Gallo only has this year left on his deal before a player option he seems likely to decline, so he’s a pure rental if anyone will pony up for him.

Jusuf Nurkic: As star youngster Nikola Jokic continues to light the world on fire, there’s less room for Nurkic in a crowded frontcourt. He’s young enough that he could still fetch a real return, or be part of a larger deal.

Will Barton: Same goes for Barton to some degree, who is less useful with guys like Gary Harris and Jamal Murray filling similar roles. He has another year on his deal after this one, so he could be more than a rental.

Portland Trail Blazers (4th in Northwest, 22-30 record)

The Blazers are another team with a ton of potential options. After spending a whole boatload of money over the offseason for a collection of parts that hasn’t really fit as well as one would have hoped, the Blazers are left with several guys who are theoretically close to fair value on their contracts. They could get involved in some fireworks.

Of their summer spending projects, it seems like only Evan Turner is truly un-moveable. Allen Crabbe is close, but with tons of years left for a relatively young guy, some team with space to fill (think 76ers) might take a shot at him for the right considerations. The Blazers have about six other guys who could fit into a hypothetical deal, and you have to figure they’re willing to listen to fair offers. These pieces haven’t quite fit, but the right shuffling of this deck might change fortunes.

And then, of course, there’s the potential for something that’s only been whispered to this point, and never with any connection to a real move: A true tear-down, a.k.a. a trade of either Damian Lillard or C.J. McCollum.

The pair is devastating offensively, but their defensive liabilities together have begun to make some wonder if this pairing can ever be a true contender given their huge combined salaries. Both would fetch a huge return in a trade, though these sorts of things rarely happen at the deadline – even if the Blazers were looking this route (highly unlikely, it’s just too early), it seems like we wouldn’t hear about it until the offseason. McCollum’s goofy salary under extension rules also makes a trade involving him tough to consummate without a third team involved.

Names to Watch:

The mid-tier glut: We won’t even separate them, because from a value standpoint, so many of these guys are relatively close together. Each of Crabbe, Meyers Leonard, Al-Farouq Aminu, Festus Ezeli (unlikely given injury status), Ed Davis, Noah Vonleh and Mason Plumlee could conceivably fetch some value from the right team. Each have years left on deals that range from fair to moderate overpays, and while the Blazers are over the cap currently, their flexibility makes tons of potential deals realistic. Don’t be surprised to see any of these guys move.

Minnesota Timberwolves (5th in Northwest, 19-33 record)

The Wolves were making their own charge at that sad West eight seed, but the wheels may have fallen off that train with the devastating news of Zach LaVine’s season-ending injury. The Wolves don’t really have anyone capable of duplicating his 19 points a night, nor the spacing he provides to a team that desperately needs it when Ricky Rubio is in the game.

Speaking of Rubio, he’s by far the most likely piece to move out of Minnesota. The Wolves don’t really appear poised for too many other big moves, unless a rebuild-accelerator like a Jimmy Butler became truly available, and even then, one of their best chips for such a deal, LaVine, now has a slightly more uncertain future. The Wolves could make a few other moves on the margins, but with LaVine done for the year and a high lottery slot seemingly well within reach, it seems most likely Minnesota lets the chips fall this year before re-assessing over the summer.

Names to Watch:

Ricky Rubio: The source of trade rumors for multiple seasons, Rubio now also has a true successor behind him in the form of Kris Dunn. The Wolves seem ready to hand the keys to Dunn for the future, and they’ll be willing to take a reasonable return for Rubio if one becomes available. It hasn’t yet, though, and he’s reportedly been on the market a long time.

Shabazz Muhammad: Muhammad was recently linked to Phoenix’s P.J. Tucker by Basketball Insiders’ Michael Scotto, and he still has enough team control and skill to perhaps interest a suitor. He’ll be a restricted free agent after this season.

Nikola Pekovic: Pek is out for the year and off most radars, but he does have another year on his deal left, and some team might try to buy super low on him. Unlikely, though.


With the race for the Western Conference’s eighth seed quite competitive, the Northwest Division might see a shakeup.

Stay tuned, as the 2017 NBA Trade Deadline is only 16 days away.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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NBA Daily: Russell Westbrook — Full Throttle

When Houston traded for Russell Westbrook last summer, they had to embrace him, warts and all. Matt John goes into what the Rockets have done to achieve just that and how their most recent deals could net them the most efficient Westbrook they could’ve hoped for.

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Russell Westbrook doesn’t care what you call him, whether a high-usage, low-efficiency chucker, an anti-spacer that clogs the lane, or an empty stat-chaser. To Westbrook, it’s all the same: noise, especially if you are focused on Basketball Betting.

And, no matter what you may think of him, nothing is stopping Westbrook from playing at his own pace: fast (to say the least).

Westbrook’s style is so lively, so twitchy, that it’s hard not to it in just about everything he does on the court. While it’s certainly contributed to many of his flaws, the aggression he’s played with, the bounce in his step, has helped him rack up the accolades and eye-popping stats that he has throughout his career.

As a basketball player, Westbrook is the quintessential perfect storm; a tornado of fire, accolades and counting stats.

But because his warts — his sans-Kevin Durant postseason success, his paltry shooting numbers (particularly this season) — are as obvious as his talent, nobody seemed enthralled when it was announced that Westbrook was set to rejoin James Harden, this time with the Houston Rockets. Dating back to Kevin Garnett and Shaquille O’Neal in 2010, there has arguably never been as little fanfare concerning two former MVPs joining forces.

There was one silver lining, however: in his new home, Westbrook would be surrounded by shooters. Better yet, shooters that would prove consistently reliable on the defensive end. In Houston, Westbrook wouldn’t have to be Mr. Do It All. But would it be enough?

No was the early, and loud, return. Through the season’s first two months, the Rockets were 23-11, a strong record, no doubt. But fans couldn’t help but wonder if Westbrook had helped, or hurt, their cause. By New Year’s Eve, Houston was plus-3.9 with Westbrook on the floor, but were somehow better — plus9.5 — with him off.

The Rockets may have managed with Westbrook, but he wasn’t making them better. Of course, in that time, Westbrook had carried his weight as Houston’s no. 2 — 24.2 points and 7.1 assists — but his efficiency was as bad as it had ever been, if not worse. His 43/23/80 splits, while also coughing the ball up 4.4 times a game, had Rockets fans in shambles, the 23 percent from three-point range especially glaring as Westbrook was taking nearly five a game.

Making matters worse, Chris Paul, whom Daryl Morey traded for Westbrook, was not-so-quietly having his healthiest, most productive season since 2016 with the upstart Oklahoma City Thunder. On top of Westbrook’s struggles, Paul’s resurgence made it seem as if Morey had made a terrible mistake.

But, Westbrook seemed to turn a corner in the new year. In January, he averaged 32.5 points on 52/25/76 splits, while the Rockets were plus-2.5 with him on the court and minus-0.9 with him off. While that was an improvement, Houston went 7-7, though Westbrook missed four of those games. Even if he was technically better, he still served as the scapegoat.

Something was holding both the Rockets and Westbrook back.

That something, in Westbook’s case, was the Rockets. Morey and Co. had asked Westbrook to play their style, which meant spot-up threes — not exactly Westbrook’s forte — and a slower pace. In essence, it was the complete antithesis of Westbrook. In time, it became clear that, if Morey’s experiment was ever going to work, Houston would have to adapt to Westbrook, not the other way around.

And, because Morey would do anything and everything in his power to win, the Rockets did just that. By trading Clint Capela, who, while a young, proven and still promising big, was a poor fit with Westbrook, for Robert Covington, Houston embraced small-ball and, in turn, embraced Westbrook’s ability and game to the fullest extent.

Relying on Covington, Danuel House Jr and PJ Tucker to hold their own against much bigger frontcourts will be an interesting sight come playoff time. And trading Capela — a young, high-upside and cost-controlled big — is certainly a gamble. But this version of the Rockets may arguably be the closest thing we ever see to the “perfect team” around Westbrook, and it may just be Houston’s best bet to win a title.

Now, the lane is completely free. Westbrook will be playing with shooters virtually non-stop. That means fewer threes on his part, driving to the basket with no one to get in his way, opening up more room for those shooters. And, while Westbrook’s perfect team does not equate to the perfect team period, it could equate to a deeper playoff run.

Since Houston’s shift, the returns have been promising. Post-Capela (his last appearance was Jan. 29), Houston has played six games and gone 4-2. And, minus their stinker against Phoenix, another game in which Westbrook did not play, each of those games has provided ample proof that an entire small-ball squad can be viable. Houston came out the victor against two of the best teams in the NBA this season, the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics, and another team with plenty of size, the New Orleans Pelicans.

The Rockets have also averaged 115.9 points per game, while Westbrook has led the team with 34 points per game and shot 51.5 percent from the field. So, in other words, he’s being efficient. Just don’t ask about his three-point shooting.

A “sample size” disclaimer will probably haunt the Rockets between now and the postseason, but the headline here is that thus far, it’s working. It’s not all because of Westbrook — through this stretch, Houston has been a plus-0.9 when Westbrook’s hit the bench — but he’s not hurting them as he did before.

In due time, we’ll see if Morey’s latest experimental maneuvering will pay off. But it’s clear that, if they go down, they’ll go down with Westbrook, rather than against him. They’ll be confident for sure, because, come the postseason, Westbrook will hit the court as he always has: full throttle.

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NBA Daily: Trade Deadline Gives Jerome Robinson Opportunity And Encouragement

After struggling to break into the Clippers’ stingy rotation, Jerome Robinson was part of a three-team trade last Thursday that landed him on the Washington Wizards. Drew Maresca explores the the new opportunity available to Robinson in Washington, D.C.

Drew Maresca

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Always one of the most entertaining times of the year, the trade deadline is an annual must-see event for basketball fans. But in addition to the excitement it brings, it can also introduce a headwind of confusion. Case in point: The three-team trade between the New York Knicks, Washington Wizards and Los Angeles Clippers.

After lots of posturing and deliberation, the Knicks agreed to trade Marcus Morris to the Clippers for Moe Harkless, an unprotected 2020 first-round pick and more.

But even with that structure decided upon, that aforementioned more remained undefined for longer than fans on either side would have liked. Even after the Landry Shamet and Montrezl Harrell rumors were debunked, there was still a lot of excitement in New York about potentially acquiring one or more of the following young talents: Terrance Mann, Mfiondu Kabengele or Jerome Robinson. All three had been rumored to be headed for the Big Apple at some point in the run-up to the deadline.

Just like the rest of us, Robinson watched as the trade continued to unfold.

“I knew that same day, that morning, that it could be the Knicks or the Wizards,” Robinson told Basketball Insiders. “At that point, I knew I was probably going to be out of [Los Angeles]. I didn’t know where to. But I eventually got a phone call and it was Washington.”

In short, Robinson is a 22-year-old former lottery pick — No. 13 overall back in 2018 — and a talented scorer that has struggled to acclimate and find consistent court time since he joined the league.

But it’s not entirely his fault.

At 6-foot-4, Robinson was chosen by a team with plenty of established shooting guards on the roster already. Immediately, Robinson was competing directly with established players like Avery Bradley and Lou Williams for the right to even step on the floor. And then there was Shamet too, another rookie that arrived in Los Angeles during the 2019 deadline and quickly gobbled up most of the remaining minutes.

As if the chances to develop weren’t hard enough to come by for Robinson, the Clippers’ successful offseason meant they would enter 2019-20 with legitimate championship aspirations. And with the team focused solely on reaching the NBA Finals, Robinson assumed he was in basketball purgatory — but the trade deadline brought along a new opportunity.

“I think [being traded] is a blessing in disguise,” Robinson told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a great opportunity to showcase what I can do. I just have to go do it.”

Robinson received less than 10 minutes per game during his rookie season and only got a minuscule bump up to 11.3 this season. Given aspirations and additions, the team couldn’t give Robinson the playing time he needed to find some much-needed footing. Former head coach Doc Rivers’ main criticism of Robinson was that he didn’t look for his own shot enough.

These days, however, Scott Brooks — the Wizards’ head coach — and Robinson, unsurprisingly, have already spoken about this and the message is the same one that Rivers previously preached: Look for your shot.

“Me and Scott talked a couple of days ago,” Robinson said. “After practice, chopped it up for 10 or 15 minutes. He told me he wants me to just be me and not hesitate.

“Coach thinks that’s something I’ve always been able to do, but that I’ve been hesitant with at times in Los Angeles,” Robinson continued. “I told him that was due more to some kind of circumstances.”

But Robinson is obviously excited to play with more freedom and learn from in-game experiences.

“That’s something I can do here, whereas [with the Clippers], if you have a bad game, it’s kind of next man up.”

But there’s no rush in Washington.

The Wizards are still in the early stages of a rebuild and won’t likely be contenders soon, so Robinson will have the opportunity to become the first guard off the bench for the Wizards. And that newly-found chance will be invaluable as it’ll finally allow for him to prove that he belongs in the NBA.

Drew Gooden, the Wizards’ announcer and a 14-year NBA veteran, also spoke with Basketball Insiders about the good fortune Robinson will have at his new home.

“The situation that the Washington Wizards are in as an organization, you just don’t know what’s going to happen this summer at all,” Gooden said. “But he can definitely play himself into a better situation through your playing and willingness to be in the organization.”

So far, so good for Robinson and the Wizards. Since the move, Robinson’s minutes have already increased to 18.3 minutes per game — but other challenges lie ahead for the sophomore, like learning an entirely new playbook.

“That can be difficult,” Ish Smith told Basketball Insiders. “Especially for him because he’s playing right away. A lot of times when I’ve been moved, I wasn’t playing. The good thing about here with coach Brooks is that it’s free-flowing.

“We play so unselfishly that it makes it easier to adjust to and there’s not a lot to think about.”

Further, Gooden spoke about what Robinson must do to continue improving.

“I think there’s only so much on-the-court work you can, or I could, do with guys,” Gooden told Basketball Insiders. “Then it becomes mentoring and the mental aspect and adjustments. Lots of people forget that. It’s not just knocking down shots — it’s ‘how can I get that shot consistently?’ [and] ‘how can I knock it down more consistently?’ That’s the mental part.

“And then the preparation leading up to the game is another skill a player must have,” Gooden continued. “And it’s hard to have that as a younger player. So if there’s an opportunity to talk to him and steer him in the right direction on or off the court, I’m up for it.”

Despite a slow start in the league, Robinson still has loads of tools that are valuable in the modern NBA landscape. And that’s why the Wizards and those close to the team are excited for Robinson to ramp up.

“What I’ve seen so far is that [Robinson] has a lot of pop to his game,” Gooden said. “I know that term’s used in baseball more, but it translates to the NBA game in that when he’s on the court, something’s going to happen.

“He’s not just running back and forth,” Gooden added. “He’s either scoring the ball, creating a hard foul or turnover, something’s going to happen. I’ve seen him play really hard and with a lot of energy so far.”

Over his 10 years playing professional basketball, Smith has seen his fair share of new opportunities too — and he’s ready to see what Robinson does next.

“His talent is there,” Smith told Basketball Insiders. “He just needs to adjust to things – different coaching, teammates, areas of the country. But so far, so good. And it’s our job to make him comfortable so that he can succeed.”

If Smith and co. handle all that and Robinson flourishes with the Wizards, the young prospect might ultimately fulfill his potential. So even though Robinson’s career didn’t kick off as expected with a franchise with fast-moving aspirations, there’s always a chance to grow and get better.

And with the knowledgable encouragement of those around him like Brooks, Smith and Gooden, it’s officially Robinson’s turn to make a name for himself in Washington.

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NBA Daily: Hawks See Another Level In De’Andre Hunter’s Future

Spencer Davies has a chat with Atlanta Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce and forward De’Andre Hunter to discuss the rookie’s first half of the season, his progression as a player and where his game might end up.

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With NBA All-Star weekend on the horizon, the city of Chicago is preparing itself for three days of nonstop entertainment. Before the bevy of contests and competitions, as well as the game itself, we’ll have one of the most anticipated Rising Stars matchups based on star-power alone.

It’s a shame — and probably unfair — that De’Andre Hunter won’t be participating, or in attendance at all.

After all, the Atlanta Hawks’ rookie has played 31.5 minutes per game over 51 starts, leading the 2019 draft class in both categories. He’s also taken and converted on the highest amount of catch-and-shoot threes among his peers. Despite the team having its fair share of issues in limiting opponent production, his individual defensive prowess has come up huge in key moments.

It’s that kind of impact that allows Hawks’ head coach Lloyd Pierce to count on him with such a heavy workload, one that even some veterans in this league aren’t tasked with.

“Well, his game is all about… I just trust that he’s going to do the right things,” Pierce told Basketball Insiders at a morning shootaround in Cleveland. “I trust that he’s going to be in the right spots. I trust that he’s about the team.

“He doesn’t bring the flash and the pizzazz that a lot of other guys do, or what you’re expecting of a No. 4 pick or whatever you call it. That’s not important to me. What’s important to me is, is he a championship player? Is he a championship-caliber player? Can he grow into being a guy that you can’t afford to have off the court because of all the things he brings? And a lot of those things don’t show up on the stat sheets.”

With Pierce showing his confidence by giving him all that playing time, Hunter says it means a lot.

“He has a lot of trust in me,” Hunter told Basketball Insiders. “He obviously believes in me as a player and the things I can do on the court, so to be in the game as a rookie in those close games against good teams, it’s a good feeling. Just happy to be out there and compete.”

There is plenty of eye-popping young talent around the Association, even right at home in this draft class. From the athletic Zion Williamson, who has finally taken the league by storm after sitting out essentially the first half of the season, to Ja Morant, the human highlight reel that has put the Memphis Grizzlies in surefire playoff positioning in the Western Conference, it’s easy to feel good about the league’s future.

But Hunter goes to a beat of a different drum – his own drum, if you will. He doesn’t have the ball in his hands all that often and, for that matter, he doesn’t need it to be. Hunter, effective beyond his years, has consistently made his mark atop Atlanta’s plus-minus and net rating ranks. While his numbers seem modest from a distance, it really goes further than what the eyes see in a box score.

The 22-year-old believes he’s been able to produce in such a way since he started playing the game.

“I’ve played with good players most of my life, so I wasn’t always going to have the ball. But just being an all-around player, that’s something I pride myself on,” Hunter said. “Not needing the ball, being able to get stops defensively, being a catch-and-shoot guy, being able to get other guys involved and things like that. I just try to be as versatile as possible because I feel like in the NBA today, that’s definitely what you need on the team.”

In the lower half of rookies with a 17.6 usage percentage, Hunter is still averaging 12.2 points per game. The majority of those come from corner triples, a place where — if he can master it — he feels will help him elongate his career. Pierce knew that would be a strength of Hunter’s just by watching the talented swingman at the University of Virginia, specifically, in the NCAA Championship game last April.

Hunter told Basketball Insiders that two assistants — Matt Hill and Chris Jent, once LeBron James’ personal shooting coach with the Cavaliers — have been helping him improve his positioning and mechanics.

“Just keeping my balance, getting both of my feet down, not drifting to the side, then keeping my follow-through,” Hunter said. “I feel like when I do that and when I’m ready to shoot before the ball even gets there, I feel like most of the time it goes in.”

Pierce expanded further upon that element of Hunter’s maturation, going as far as likening the 6-foot-7 forward’s potential to a two-time NBA Finals MVP.

“He’s also learning how to shoot off the move, he’s also learning how to shoot off the dribble, he’s also learning how to play with the basketball in his hands,” Pierce said.

“Learning some nuances, you watch a guy like Kawhi [Leonard] – who you compare [Hunter] to naturally with his size – start learning how to use that shoulder to shield off defenders before you get to your shot as opposed to just… those little things that he’ll learn and pick up will take his game to another level.”

Foreseeing a gradual rise with Hunter’s offensive game, Pierce is giddy over the possibilities if the rookie continues on the path he is on.

“The thing you say about Kawhi all the time is he’s always on balance, and that’s what we’re going to keep working on with ‘Dre,” Pierce told Basketball Insiders. “Just always on balance and get the shot you want because of learning those nuances.”

When asked about how far he’s come since being drafted, Hunter mentioned his playmaking and getting to the basket. However, recently, he’s been most proud of his newfound confidence to create for himself.

Although he was known for it coming out of college, Hunter’s picked up on a lot on defense, too. Better, he’s being more aggressive in getting around screens. In facing guys multiple times and through film study, he’s starting to counter tendencies that opposing teams and their players try to use against him.

“We don’t have to double team when he’s defending because he’s solid, and when things break down and he’s off the basketball, he’s in position to help. You keep him on the floor because of those reasons alone and not the numbers,” Pierce said.

“And he’s going to grow into an even elite team player, both offensively and defensively, high percentage, effective field goal percentage, high defensive ranking when he’s on the floor. That’s who he is, that’s what we’re grooming him to be and that’s what he’s kind of been from start to finish.”

The Hawks welcomed Hunter with open arms when he arrived. He joked that they haven’t made life too hard on him despite his first-year status in the league. Playing with All-Star starter Trae Young has been “a blessing.” But recently acquired veterans such as Clint Capela, Dewayne Dedmon and a highly-regarded Jeff Teague have also been essential from an advising standpoint.

None more important to him than the retirement-bound Vince Carter.

“He has a lot of stories, on and off the court,” Hunter told Basketball Insiders. “He teaches me a lot of small things on the court while I’m working out, before and after practice. Just a lot of experience, a lot of knowledge and they can just pass it on to the guys like me and Cam [Reddish] and Trae and [Kevin Huerter].”

Atlanta has split its last four games down the middle, but the fact of the matter is that the young group has mustered up just 15 wins on the season. Point-blank, Basketball Insiders posed a question to Hunter: Would this team be in a better position had it not been for John Collins’ 25-game suspension?

“I mean, easy answer is yes but, I mean, who knows,” Hunter told Basketball Insiders. “John definitely helps our team a lot. Kevin missed a lot of games, as well, so I mean having both of those guys definitely would’ve helped us.”

It’s hard to disagree with his answer. By the same token, on a positive note, Hunter saw minutes here and there at the four as a result. Ultimately, that experience will only further his progression and versatility as a player.

Just two games ago, Hunter had his welcome-to-the-NBA moment – but it wasn’t a singular instance. Rather, a 47-minute double-overtime thriller against the New York Knicks. He scored 19 points, registered nine rebounds and recorded a career-high five steals during a wild win.

Another testament to the rookie’s will. Another example of his durability. Another reason why Pierce has been so high on the future of De’Andre Hunter from day one.

“When you look at production and numbers, there’s ups and downs. But that’s expected,” Pierce told Basketball Insiders.

“I think he’s been solid from start to finish and I think he’s been solid on both sides of the basketball, so I’m encouraged by where he is. I’m more encouraged by what I think he can become.”

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