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How Extension Season Signals NBA Trends

Distinct types of players in this year’s rookie extension class may help signal broader NBA trends going forward.

Ben Dowsett

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The August and September months are a slog for most NBA basketball fans, but they’re an important time for several important housekeeping items. Rosters are a key area of focus for front offices across the league, from possible cuts to training camp signees and guys on the bubble for the 15-man roster down the road. As Basketball Insiders’ Eric Pincus wrote recently, there are also a number of quietly important league deadlines looming around this time of year.

Most prominent among these is the rookie extension deadline of October 31, before which players entering their fourth year of a rookie-scale contract can negotiate with their incumbent teams regarding extensions that, if agreed upon, kick in to begin the 2017-18 season. If a player and team cannot reach an agreement before that Halloween date, the issue is effectively tabled and the player becomes a restricted free agent on July 1, 2017, with his incumbent team retaining matching rights on any outside offer sheet he signs.

The process is simple enough, but there are numerous variables at play that often make the execution a more complex affair. Teams can offer extra incentives to their very best players to keep them in town, which is why it’s extremely rare for a star-level player to change teams after his rookie deal, but many in the next tier down or below are playing a trickier game.

Locking a guy up before his final rookie-scale season keeps him completely away from the open market, a place where predatory competitors can tinker with poison-pill contracts that hurt a team’s position if they choose to match. Finalizing a deal early also offers the potential for a bargain contract if the player in question takes an unexpected leap in his fourth season.

On the other side of the coin, though, agreeing to a deal commits a team salary-wise regardless of the results in that fourth year. For deals signed with future development as part of the expectation, the risk of a bad contract down the line comes with the territory. Even if the superstars almost never go this route, a number of very talented guys have passed the deadline and hit restricted free agency in recent years.

Made up primarily of picks from the 2013 draft, the crop of extension-eligible players this fall represents a few distinct stylistic groupings: Rudy Gobert and Steven Adams highlight a strong group of “traditional” big men; Dennis Schroder and Michael Carter-Williams are two of several notable guards with numerous complementary skills but lack consistent jump-shooting; Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Otto Porter are among a number of emerging “3-and-D” specialists looking to cash in on the modern value of their role; and of course, as will be the case his whole career, Giannis Antetokounmpo gets his own special category.

Not all these players will receive deals before Halloween, and what’s signed – or not signed – could tell us a lot about how the league values these types of players as the NBA’s next crop of young talent move into their primes.

The Treetops

Primaries: Rudy Gobert, Steven Adams, Nerlens Noel, Gorgui Dieng, Mason Plumlee

Even the grandmothers of discerning hoops fans know the league is trending smaller, but several notable names are set to test that trend over the next couple months. Elite defense is still easiest with a dominant big guy manning the paint, and the best of them do enough other things to be among the most valuable commodities in the game despite a lack of shooting prowess.

Gobert and Adams are the headliners this fall, both undisputed defensive anchors who double as rim-running pick-and-roll threats on the other end of the floor. It’s tough to separate bouts of apparent stagnation from injury concerns after a stop-and-go third season where Gobert missed 21 games and couldn’t ever really find his rhythm. However, he’s cemented his reputation as one of the premier interior defenders in the game, with a few underappreciated supplementary skills to boot. Gobert could be nearly done developing at 24 years old, though – something the casual observer perhaps doesn’t consciously realize.

How the Utah Jazz will approach his situation will be telling, and could reflect a lesson learned a few years back. A difference of a few million dollars reportedly kept them from locking up Gordon Hayward in the summer of 2013, causing Utah to lose a year of Hayward’s services on the deal they eventually matched from the Charlotte Hornets. At the same time, Gobert’s extremely low cap hold next summer could leave open a big chunk of flexibility for additional upgrades – if the Frenchman is willing to play ball and voluntarily table his extension talks until mid-July, with the understanding that he wouldn’t ink a potentially harmful deal elsewhere in the meantime.

That’s a lot of risk, though. As noted by Dan Clayton on the latest Basketball Insiders podcast, that space under the cap the Jazz could conceivably save if they tabled Gobert’s talks might be significantly lessened or even eliminated anyway if the Jazz look to restructure Derrick Favors’ contract – something that makes so much sense that it’s been discussed by local outlets and our Eric Pincus for months. If that happens, a Gobert extension feels even more likely before the deadline.

There’s a similar calculus for Adams in Oklahoma City, where Sam Presti and crew have been silent to this point on extension talks for not only the big Kiwi, but also Victor Oladipo and Andre Roberson. Presti has typically acted early in these scenarios, and there’s a real chance the Thunder are playing the longer game here and hoping for trust – particularly from Adams.

After losing a ton of talent in Kevin Durant this summer, holding off on extensions and saving the cap space will allow OKC to take a real run at the free-agent market in their last chance to re-stock before Russell Westbrook hits unrestricted free agency in 2018. Adams might be the exception, especially if he’s willing to take a slight discount on his near-max value in exchange for security, but even in his case – and even with the understanding that he’s a core piece staying in Oklahoma City no matter what – a deal before the October 31 deadline seems like no sure thing.

For guys like Noel, Dieng and Plumlee, the final dollar figure is likely more interesting than the timing. Team roster situations could play a big role: Noel suddenly finds himself in a frontcourt cluster with multiple other lottery picks including No. 1 pick Ben Simmons, while Plumlee just watched seemingly every teammate (plus a new center in Festus Ezeli) get a huge raise and clog up Portland’s books ahead of his big extension summer. Dieng is the only one of the three with a relatively safe role, but it’s tough to gauge his value (and whether he’s worth locking up ahead of his fourth season) in a situation where he isn’t even the fourth-most valued young player on an up-and-coming team.

The way these guys are approached by their incumbent teams will be dictated in part by circumstance, but they could tell us something more. Are younger teams willing to pony up for big man talent even if it risks future flexibility, or will they test the perils of restricted free agency in hopes of finding more modern talent and (hopefully) still retaining their big later on?

No-J Handlers

Primaries: Dennis Schroder, Michael Carter-Williams, Victor Oladipo

An even smaller niche as the league modernizes is the talented ball-handler who does many things well but can’t shoot an accurate enough jumper, and several notable candidates for extensions dot the pool in this category as well.

Oladipo may fall into a similar category as Adams in Oklahoma City. With a huge summer already on the horizon next year, it’s tough to imagine Presti and Co. committing a big number to a guy who hasn’t even played a game in a Thunder uniform yet. Carter-Williams feels like even more of a lock to enter the 2016-17 season without an extension, especially considering the Bucks just brought in Matthew Dellavedova at the same position. And even if there’s money left for Carter-Williams after Antetokounmpo gets his expected max raise, it’s unlikely John Hammond and his brain trust will want to shell it out before seeing how things fit on the floor.

Schroder probably falls between those two skill-wise, but he’s a completely different ballgame. The Hawks signaled his inheritance of their starting point guard position when they traded away Jeff Teague before the draft; letting Schroder enter his final rookie-scale year without an extension in place would appear to run completely contrary to this line of thinking.

That doesn’t mean it’s a sure thing, of course. Schroder and his representation surely recognize this same reality, and could be pushing for a big payday. Will they be willing to play the game of chicken and refuse a fair market extension, demanding more or allowing Schroder to prove his own value as a starter? Like always, it’s a big risk – a career 32 percent three-point shooter at the point has a ceiling, and Schroder probably isn’t upping his current value next year unless that sees a real uptick. There would appear to be motivation on both sides to get a deal done before October 31.

These types are a dying breed in the NBA, and their eventual market could reflect that. Teams might be more willing to let restricted free agency dictate their value; in return for security, these players and their agents might become amenable to accepting less than what they feel they’re worth. What we hear and see on these names in the next couple months will be telling.

3-and-D Specialists

Primaries: Otto Porter, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Andre Roberson

Where traditional centers and non-shooting guards could have a plethora of talents but be left behind for lacking one or two vital skills, “3-and-D” wings are completely at the other end of the spectrum: Even if they’re pretty limited in many aspects of the game, the value of these kinds of players is exploding if both “3” and “D” are present in their skill set. Kent Bazemore, an athletic but limited swingman who does pretty little outside shooting threes and defending multiple spots on the perimeter, got a payday the same size as Dwight Howard this summer.

Exactly how far this concept can stretch will be tested by this extension season, and Porter might be the perfect case. At 23 and sporting a career 35 percent mark from deep, Porter barely qualifies in one half of the equation; many in Washington will tell you it’s a coin flip for the “D” part on a given night as well. Metrics may disagree on the latter half – ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus placed Porter in the upper tier of defenders at the small forward spot, and others have similar outputs. In either case, Porter isn’t doing a whole lot else on the court.

With the other two members of Washington’s starting perimeter eating up a combined $40 million or more every year moving forward (and reportedly feuding to some extent), whether these glue skills alone are enough to break out the checkbook yet again for Porter is an intriguing question. Porter and his representation know full well the value the league places on his primary functions, and could easily be willing to risk injury or slight regression to let him hit the market next summer if the Wizards are reticent to commit so much money to three guys.

It feels like a more tightly-run ship in Detroit currently, but that doesn’t make Caldwell-Pope’s impending extension eligibility any less complex. Barring a sizable salary-shedding move before July, a deal with KCP this fall would immediately stamp out any cap space the Pistons may have been hoping to use on the free agent market in 2017. If Stan Van Gundy is going to act now, it’s with a virtual certainty that this is his group for the future.

Van Gundy is a savvy executive, though. He already curried favor among his players by rewarding Andre Drummond with a deserved five-year max after Drummond did the franchise a solid and waited on his own rookie extension, allowing the Pistons to sign additional pieces alongside him. It’s tougher with a non-max guy like KCP, but look for the same approach here; Van Gundy can sell team loyalty after a successful 2016 summer, and might even be able to kill two birds by adding more talent next offseason before once again rewarding one of his guys for their patience. There’s still a lot of risk here though, and Caldwell-Pope’s agent, Rich Paul, is known for hard-nosed bargaining.

Further still, this is a distinct seller’s market. There are fewer capable “3-and-D” guys in the league than there are needs for such players. The summer of 2017 will introduce even more money into the equation, and guys like Porter and Caldwell-Pope simply have to look back at the contracts signed in the past few months to see what they might be in for. Their team situations could determine outcomes this fall, but just how far the league’s obsession with these two skills stretches will be interesting to track through next offseason.

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.

Matt John

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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.

Spencer Davies

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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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