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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