NBA AM: Stevens Took Chance on Hunter in High School

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For R.J. Hunter there was college basketball, and then there was Indiana college basketball. Growing up in Indianapolis, he watched in-state teams and thought of what it would be like to suit up for them as he pursued his own career.

Recruiting wasn’t an issue for Hunter. The sharpshooting guard garnered attention from around the country as college neared. The interest from his home state of Indiana, however, wasn’t as significant. The fact that Hunter’s father, Ron, was the head coach of IUPUI at the time deterred many schools from pursuing him.

There was one, though, that took a chance. In spite of the fact that Hunter’s decision seemed obvious, they couldn’t let Hunter’s talent pass them by.

The only other program in Indiana that recruited Hunter was Butler University, led by now-Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens.

“A lot of schools were kind of scared to jump in because my dad was the coach,” Hunter told Basketball Insiders. “Brad just decided to say, ‘Forget it, I just want to talk to him.’ He was the only coach in Indiana besides my dad who decided to move forward with it.”

Stevens first introduced himself to Hunter during a high school tournament in Illinois. Hunter was taken aback by the interest from the on-the-rise coach, whose team appeared in consecutive NCAA championship games in 2010 and 2011.

“He was hot back then, so it was cool,” said Hunter. “He said he liked my game, he liked my style. Butler has a specific type and they all know how to play, so once he started recruiting me, I figured I had somewhat of an IQ.”

Ultimately Hunter decided to play for his father, who took a new job as the head coach at Georgia State University during his junior year of high school. He went on to play three years for the Panthers, earning Sun Belt Player of the Year honors and AP All-America Honorable Mention among others. He left the school as the all-time leader in points, free throws, three pointers and field goal attempts. Had Hunter opted to play in-state basketball, he said he would have chosen Butler.

Hunter didn’t have to pass on Stevens as a coach permanently, though. While he was in college, the Celtics hired Stevens as head coach in 2013. This summer, the team selected Hunter with the 28th pick in the NBA Draft. Since Hunter did not have a pre-draft workout with the team, he believes his familiarity with Stevens played a large role in the selection.

“I watched him grow up, watched him get a lot better as a player, improve greatly from the time he was probably a freshman or sophomore in high school to the time he was a senior,” Stevens said following the draft. “Then [I] obviously followed his success from afar at Georgia State.”

Hunter has fit quickly into Stevens’ system. During training camp, he has shown he is willing to shoot without hesitation on the pro level. His offensive bursts could earn him playing time on the team as minutes are at a premium for rookies.

It is easy for Hunter to imagine what it would have been like playing for Stevens in college. He doesn’t think the style of coaching would have been that much different.

“I feel like it almost would have been the same because he makes it like the college team atmosphere as close-knit as we are,” he said. “I think it’s cooler now … He’s here after I’ve known him for a while and I’m here too.”

Even though Stevens now coaches Hunter in the NBA, thinking of when he expressed interest in him in high school brings a smile to the rookie’s face. Being drafted by the Celtics was monumental, but being recruited by Butler still was significant.

“It was huge for me because that’s all it is as a youngin’ – you want to play college in Indy,” said Hunter. “I wanted to be recruited by IU, Purdue and those guys, but they never did. That meant a lot of [Butler] to do that.”