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.
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