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With Nothing Left to Prove at Virginia, Two-Way Star Eyes Next Level
Why are we examining the “negatives” of a Draft prospect who goes hard on both ends, has an NBA-ready body and mentality, is the ultimate team player, was the arguably the best defender in college hoops and led his team to the National Championship – going off for 27 points and nine boards while holding a fellow lottery pick to 5-for-22 shooting in the deciding game?
Because it’s the silly season before the NBA Draft.
Virginia sophomore De’Andre Hunter is a classic case of proof vs. potential.
It’d be difficult to compile a better college resume than the one Hunter will bring to NBA teams during the pre-Draft process. But franchises at the top of the Lottery are often less enamored with what you’ve done than what you can do in the future. And for a player who’ll turn 22 midway through his rookie season, that’s a genuine concern – despite his prolific two-year track record with the ‘Hoos.
Hunter’s (and Virginia’s) story is well-documented.
After being named the ACC’s Sixth Man of the Year as a freshman, the rugged 6-7 forward broke his wrist in the Conference tourney and was sidelined for the 2018 NCCA Tournament. No. 1-seeded Virginia then proceeded to suffer the biggest upset in the history of the Big Dance – becoming the first top seed to fall to a No. 16 and doing so in embarrassing fashion – falling by 20 to the upstart UMBC Retrievers.
Hunter and Tony Bennett’s Cavaliers came back beyond hungry this past year and rumbled through the regular season and Tourney – led on both ends by Hunter, who put the icing on the cake in the title game when he went off for 27 points and nine boards – going 4-of-5 from long-range, including the game-tying triple with 15 seconds remaining in OT.
On the defensive end, he held Jarrett Culver – widely considered the most versatile player in college hoops – to 15 points on 5-for-22 shooting, including 0-for-6 from beyond the arc.
Hunter didn’t put up monster stats as a sophomore, but he was still one of the most efficient offensive players in the country – improving his scoring average from 9.2 ppg as a redshirt freshman to 15.2 ppg in his second season. In 2018-19, Hunter shot 52 percent from the floor, including 44 percent from deep and 78 percent from the stripe.
Hunter excelled on the other end of the floor – earning ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors.
So, with all this in mind, what’s the problem?
The problem is what Hunter’s upside is at the NBA level. He’ll almost certainly be a solid two-way player for whichever team selects him. But if he goes in the early Lottery – as expected – what’s his upside? Is he Thaddeus Young or Kawhi Leonard?
He’s proven himself at the collegiate level – even showing big improvement from one season to the next, starting zero games in 2017-18 and all 38 the next year. And it would be hard to prove one’s team value more than Virginia’s two experiences in the Tourney – choking to an unknown without Hunter and winning the Whole Enchilada with him.
De’Andre Hunter will definitely be a top 10 pick when next Thursday night rolls around.
The short- and long-term questions are all that await: Who will pick him and what will he develop into when he arrives?
STRENGTHS There aren’t many holes to Hunter’s game. And most of the critiques about Hunter’s offensive challenges can be attributed to Virginia’s slow-down system. Malcom Brogdon and Joe Harris didn’t shatter records in Charlottesville, but they’ve each developed into excellent pros.
Hunter has good range offensively, although he’s a reluctant long-range shooter, attempting less than three treys per game as a sophomore. Of course, he proved how effective he can be from deep under the brightest lights in the NCAA title game.
Hunter moves well without the ball and because of his two-way prowess, doesn’t always need a lot of touches to impact the game. He’s a solid rebounder off both the offensive and defensive glass. He uses his powerful frame to absorb and fight through contact.
The Philadelphia native has a mature game. He doesn’t turn the ball over and has excellent basketball instincts. He’s not the greatest athlete in this year’s Draft, but is still an above-the-rim performer.
Defensively, Hunter might be without peer in the incoming class. He’s an intelligent, athletic defender who can handle bigs physically and is quick enough to switch to guards on the perimeter – utilizing his impressive 7-2 wingspan to flummox both.
And then there’s something no coach can teach – Hunter’s relentless motor, going full-bore for 94 feet.
WEAKNESSES Critics have an easy target when it comes to Hunter’s age. He turns 22 on December 1, which is relatively ancient for a prospect in today’s Draft.
The four players discussed near the top of the 2019 Class – Zion Williamson, Ja Morant, R.J. Barrett and Darius Garland – will still be teenagers when Adam Silver calls their name next Thursday.
Finding weaknesses to Hunter’s game is a different story.
He’s not a strong ball-handler and he’s not a big three-point threat – attempting just under three triples per game as a sophomore. Scouts also feel he’ll need to speed up his release at the next level, where shooting space is even tougher to find. He also lacks a reliable ‘go-to’ post move.
Hunter is a very good athlete, but not a dynamic or explosive one. Some have even labeled him 'mechanical.'
HOW HE'D FIT The Cavaliers don’t have a lot of holes to fill along the front line – possessing a nice blend of seasoned vets and up-and-coming youngsters, especially at the 4 and 5. Adding the defensive-minded, pro-ready Hunter to a frontline that includes Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson, Larry Nance Jr., John Henson and Ante Zizic would make Cleveland’s frontline a formidable one.
(And let’s be honest, local writers would be salivating for the moment he and Tristan have a big night together so they can work “Hunter, Thompson” into a headline.)
Cedi Osman made a nice leap at small forward last year – quadrupling his scoring average from his rookie to sophomore seasons. He and Hunter at the 3 would give the Wine & Gold a nice 1-2 punch at the 3. And Hunter has the two-way versatility to slide over to the 4 if John Beilein decides to go small.
Cleveland’s new head coach comes into the summer trying to build a positive culture for the Cavaliers renaissance. Beginning that with a total team player like Hunter would be an excellent start.