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R.J. Hunter Dealing with Rejection

It’s not often a first-rounder is cut after one season, but R.J. Hunter was. Now, he’s starting his next chapter in Chicago.

Joel Brigham

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Even though everybody knew the Boston Celtics were going to have to cut one of their 16 guaranteed deals ahead of the NBA season, it’s still a little surprising that it ended up being 2015 first-round draft pick R.J. Hunter.

Just a few weeks ago, the Celtics were in a situation where they essentially had to decide between James Young (also a former first-round draft pick) or Hunter, and toward the end of the preseason it certainly seemed as though it would be Hunter making the team. After a strong showing in the final preseason game against New York in which he scored 17 points, he showed precisely why he was worth the first-round pick expended to bring him aboard. But he was let go anyway, on his 23rd birthday of all days.

“I was getting taped and I knew it was the day of the [roster trimming] deadline, so I knew I was either going to find out whether I made it before or after practice,” Hunter told Basketball Insiders. “Danny [Ainge] comes down and he calls me over and we walk upstairs. It felt a lot like that Donald Trump show, ‘The Apprentice.’ He calls me up and the doors shut harder than the doors have ever been shut before, and I just kind of knew it. He was like, ‘We’re going to let you go.’ Afterward, I just had to go because a lot of emotions were coming out at the time, and I just had to get myself out of there.”

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of having your boss call you into their office. Hunter admitted his stomach dropped and a trickle of cold sweat ran down his back when he made eye contact with Ainge that day. He joked that it felt a lot like being called down to the principal’s office in grade school.

The cut actually came as something of a surprise to Hunter, as his agent had intimated to him several times that it wasn’t likely it would be him on the chopping block.

“At first [my agent] didn’t think there was any chance that I’d be cut,” Hunter said. “He had a couple of talks with Danny because him and Danny are really good friends but then he was like, ‘It kind of is coming down to you and James.’ It made the camp difficult because it was like every day was a constant battle, and sometimes you’re playing not knowing that you’re even going to be on the team.

“It was good that I got to see the business side early, though, because I definitely thought it was a sweeter league, and it hit me early that it’s not.”

It absolutely is not, but Hunter got a taste of how harsh the league can be when he just barely snuck into the first round of the 2015 NBA Draft. There were plenty of mock drafts that had him going much higher than No. 28, and that disappointment was Hunter’s first experience with the cold, harsh reality of the business of the NBA.

“The draft was up and down because I thought I was going to go earlier, but when it did happen it was obviously just a rush of emotion,” Hunter said. “I was trying to think positive. The first thing I thought of was Brad Stevens because obviously being from Indianapolis I knew him, he knew my dad, and I knew his family. So I thought that was going to be pretty cool. I remember watching the Celtics in the playoffs and I remember seeing Marcus Smart playing as a rookie, so I thought he played a lot of their rookies. It was a good feeling at first. A lot of things are going your way so you’re young and you’re thinking like, ‘Why not? Maybe you can start for this team.’”

Hunter didn’t start, though. He only played in 36 games and averaged fewer than nine minutes per game. It wasn’t a banner rookie campaign, but he still feels like he learned a lot.

“You learn a lot in your first year, especially playing for a crazy town like Boston,” Hunter said.” You kind of learn how to handle yourself around the public and how to stay low-key because all eyes are on you, even if you go to Walgreen’s. So I just kind of had to do that and really hone in on my craft. Brad is really big on details, so I think that’s really helped me let the bigger picture be the bigger picture, but taking care of the details in between that.”

Now, of course, he’s a member of the Chicago Bulls. First-rounders from a year ago have plenty of time to get their act together, and at the very least they’re inexpensive. Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg hasn’t been able to figure out how to use Hunter yet considering he missed Chicago’s entire camp, but he seems optimistic about what he may bring to the team.

“I think he’s a guy who can make shots and a guy that can do even more than that as well with his ability to put the ball on the floor,” Hoiberg said of Hunter. “He’s shown that he can pass the ball too, so for him right now, it’s keeping himself ready and wait for that opportunity.”

Hunter is okay waiting. He understands that it’s hard to find minutes for a guy who joined the team so late in the preseason.

“It’s not frustrating,” Hunter said. “It’s just kind of testing your patience, I think. Last year I had to stay so patient and just kind of learn the game, so this year I was like, ‘Alright, I’m ready to play now. This is my second year and now I’ve seen it.’ That’s not the same thing as an opportunity but again, when I wanted things on my time, it didn’t seem to work out for me, so I’m just going to let it play out. I mean, I’m learning from D-Wade! The fact that they wanted me when all these other really good free agents are out there is enough for me.

“With all that into play, it helps me put things into perspective.”

It’s hard to have perspective at so young an age, but Hunter seems to be handling his situation with grace and maturity. Who knows if his stint in Chicago will yield better results than his experience with the Celtics, but he seems up for the challenge. Now, it’s just a matter of getting the opportunity.

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.

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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers

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When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

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Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team

Basketball Insiders

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Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.

“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”

Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN

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