R.J. Hunter looks forward to making D League debut
The Windy City Bulls season opener is tonight
There’s a new game in town.
And perhaps a new shooter for the Bulls getting his first chance here.
It’s the inaugural game Friday in the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates of the Bulls’ NBA Developmental League team, the Windy City Bulls. Starting at shooting guard is expected to be R.J. Hunter, the former Boston Celtics first round pick and NCAA tournament shooting star whom the Bulls signed recently.
Hunter is expected to start in the backcourt along with former Bull Spencer Dinwiddie. Thomas Walkup, J.J. Avila and 7-1 former Suns draft pick Alec Brown figure to fill out the starting lineup, though there’s always the possibility of movement in the D-league with callups. Marshall High School’s Alfonzo McKinnie from the open tryout is on the roster along with Wesley Saunders from Harvard, shooting guard Aaron Thomas, Coreontae DeBerry from Cincinnati and Georgetown’s D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera.
“The guys are very excited. We want guys to compete, play hard and play together. Limit runs, get back on defense and on offense pace and space and share and take care of the ball. Get on the floor and bring what you’ve been working on.”
It’s always an audition for D-league players with NBA scouts watching and a chance to refine skills to get to or back to the NBA, which is Hunter’s hope as well.
He was the 28th pick in the 2015 draft by the Celtics, a renowned shooter from Georgia State who made some of the more memorable shots in the NCAA tournament. The two-time Sun Belt Player of the Year led No. 14 George State to the upset of No. 3 Baylor in the 2015 tournament, scoring 12 of the team’s last 13 points after they trailed by a dozen with three minutes left. His 35-foot three pointer with 2.6 seconds left won the game.
Hunter received the first round guaranteed money. But it’s not a guaranteed job, especially with a team that intends to contend, like the Celtics, but which also had so many top draft picks from trades, mostly with the Brooklyn Nets. Hunter was selected with the pick the Celtics got from coach Doc Rivers going to the Clippers. Hunter was a surprising release, though to keep another first round pick, James Young. Hunter was actually released on his 23rd birthday even as he seemed the favorite for the last spot with a good preseason and summer league.
“That was pressure in Boston,” he said. “You want to be a first round draft pick so you can have that guarantee. But there were not a lot of opportunities there. It was a combination of being on a really good team and just not really being given a chance; it was frustrating. But I learned a lot. I was around a great team, a great group of guys, learning from a great coach. So I have to look at it as a positive.”
Hunter averaged 2.7 points last season in 36 games for Boston and played briefly in five playoff games. He also averaged 13.8 points in eight games last season for Maine in the D-league.
“I loved the D-league because you go from sitting on the bench all game to playing all game. Obviously that’s huge for confidence and conditioning because sitting and watching you wonder what you’re capabilities are. So playing there helps.”
The Bulls hope so as well since adding Hunter for their 15th roster spot.
Hunter is a 6-5 guard known for his shooting, but only about 185 pounds. The concern was about not being strong enough. Hunter shot about 35 percent on threes in three college seasons, but has been inconsistent as a pro with off and on playing time. He hopes to use the D-league to refine his shot. The Bulls hope so as well since they could use another deep shooting threat.
He also has some models to follow.
He played for his father, Ron, at Georgia State. Ron was previously the coach at Indiana/Purdue in Indianapolis, where R.J. grew up as a Reggie Miller fan. With the long, lean frame he patterns himself after Miller with movement and shooting.
Ron was a college player at Miami of Ohio, where he was roommates with former Bull Ron Harper, who is R.J.’s godfather.
“I want to say he (Harper) was at the hospital when I was born,” said R.J. “They could have lied to me about that, but that’s what my dad said. When I was really young a few years after the three peat he had this ring with the three diamond trophies on it. He’d always let me see it. He’s been there for me. He was at the NCAA my last college game.
“Ron actually was the middle man to get me into Nike camps,” said R.J. “Before I got drafted he gave me the rundown and what he went through; he was telling me the ins and outs of the business.”
R.J. has gotten a quick education about the NBA as well and says he’s thrilled with the chance with the Bulls and with Windy City.
“I want to see the game again,” said R.J. “I haven’t played since preseason, so just to get that feel back. You can’t get that even in practice. And get my conditioning back and learn the system.
“They (Bulls) were the only team with 14 players,” R.J. said about signing with the Bulls. “There were a ton of free agents, so when they called me I felt it was a no brainer. I could have sat around and waited for someone to get hurt or get released, but I didn’t feel that was the right way to go about it. Obviously one thing about the Bulls is the talent of the team. I’ve been blessed to be on one playoff team. If you continue to be on winning teams you not only build those habits, but just naturally hanging around guys like D Wade, Jimmy, Rondo, you by osmosis become a winner. I know it’s early in my career and I knew whatever happened I was going to have to grind this way. So why not do it with champions and guys like D Wade to learn from?
“A lot of the teams are calling saying they need shooting,” said R.J. “So I’m obviously fortunate to be in the league right now where shooting is a premium and teams are winning a lot of games with spacing and scoring. The first thing they (Bulls) brought up was spreading the floor and shooting that ball.”
And now it’s up to R.J. to find that J.
Though he also seems to have good perspective about life in the NBA.
I introduced myself to him after arranging the interview with the D-league staff.
So R.J. then said: “I thought I was talking to the singer Sam Smith. I was thinking, ‘Wow, I made it.’”
You hope this kid makes it.