Soaring Confidence is Driving Hunter's Progression
WALTHAM, Mass. – Gaining and maintaining confidence is vital for a rookie as he treks through his first NBA preseason experience.
Through four exhibition games with the Celtics, it appears to be an attribute that Boston rookie R.J. Hunter is not lacking in, as he has played with poise on both ends of the floor and seems very comfortable with Brad Stevens’ system.
Of course, it does help that he has known his coach for a large portion of his life, as the Stevens and Hunter households have been close for many years.
“Our families always knew each other and we’ve always kept in touch,” said Hunter, whose father Ron coached at Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) while Stevens was at the helm at Butler University.
That relationship enabled Stevens to keep a eye on Hunter's game since he was 12 years old, and the coach has kept close track of the progression he’s made since then.
Prior to Boston’s practice on Saturday, Stevens noted that Hunter’s confidence was not as evident early on in his playing career.
“He was not a well-established, highly-ranked prospect as a 16 or 17-year-old high school [athlete],” recalled Stevens. “He was a guy that was trying to figure out how to be at that level. He was really thin, even compared to now, and he was really passive.”
Stevens said Hunter had a ceiling, but did not scratch at it until his senior season of high school.
Being a late bloomer like that takes a hit on the college recruiting process and likely the draft process as well. However, Hunter has blossomed over the last few years and continues to do so at a high rate, thanks to the poise he’s developed and the high basketball IQ that is common among coaches’ sons.
On Wednesday night, Hunter saw his first action against an NBA team as the C’s faced off against the Nets for a preseason matchup in Brooklyn.
He played 30 minutes in the win and filled up the stat sheet with 11 points, four assists, four rebounds and a game-high four steals.
“I think he’s figuring out his spots on offense,” said Stevens. “Defensively he has some really good moments. He’s way ahead of where I thought he would be, but I think that he could still go a long way.”
Hunter may have a long way to go, but the monumental strides he has made over the last few weeks provide strong indication that his work ethic should carry him to success.
At the moment, the 6-foot-5 sharpshooter looks like a completely different player than the nervous wide-eyed rookie we saw during the first few games of Summer League in Salt Lake City three months ago.
Hunter's confidence has grown exponentially since then, and that’s what he believes is driving his early progression.
“If you tell yourself that you can play in this league, I think things start slowing down for you,” Hunter explained.
His coach has had faith in him early on as well. Hunter played 51 minutes during the team’s two games in New York this past week, and Stevens threw a curveball at the rookie by allowing him to run the point during the fourth quarter of Friday night’s loss to the Knicks.
Hunter said after the game that he hadn’t played point guard since middle school, but Stevens is all about experimentation during the preseason, so he tossed him out there to see how he would manage a ball handling role.
Keep note, it’s unlikely we will see him run the point during the season.
“I think he could definitely do it,” said Stevens, before adding with a smile that it “might be 10 years again till he does it.”
On a serious note, Stevens said Hunter “really has the ability to pass in small areas, but I just wouldn’t want to put him through the stress of being a point guard and to make shots.”
Though it is likely that Hunter will not run the point again anytime soon, he did have a few shining moments from the position Friday night. He looked particularly comfortable dishing to Jordan Mickey, as he assisted on both of his fellow rookie’s buckets.
“I think we’ve built some pretty good chemistry,” Mickey said prior to the team's practice on Saturday. “We kind of know what each other is going to do. He’s able to find me in certain areas and I’m always looking for him. Just playing together in practice everyday has helped out a lot.”
Like Hunter, Mickey also excelled during his first NBA road trip. He played 24 minutes during the two games combined, and scored 12 points on 5-of 7 shooting, collected eight rebounds and blocked three shots.
Mickey said during the first couple of weeks of the preseason, “I’ve seen myself grow a lot. I’m trying not to mess up too much out here and just make the right decisions.”
He’s made a lot of right decisions so far. Following practice on Tuesday, Stevens said the second round pick was “dominant” during the session and was the best player on the court.
However, Stevens noted both Hunter and Mickey have a long way to go and will “have some ups and downs” along the way.
But they are progressing quickly so far, and the confidence they are displaying at this point is promising.