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Hometown hero R.J. Hunter humbled by life as an NBA journeyman

The Georgia State legend is embracing his time back in Atlanta, even if it’s only for the couple of weeks for training camp.

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

ATLANTA — The Atlanta Hawks began to pull away from the New Orleans Pelicans on Monday night in the fourth quarter before the actual game started.

One by one, the non-guaranteed contract players started to check into the contest.

Former top-five pick Thomas Robinson was off the bench a couple of minutes before 2015 first-round draft pick R.J. Hunter was at the scorer’s table.

“It’s just focus,” Hunter said of playing with a chance of making a team at stake. “You’ve got to realize that it’s serious but it’s basketball. Your life is not on the line. You focus and put everything into your craft and live with the results; it’s an easy life. Of course, you want to be stamped in and you want to be secure but it’s life. You’ve got to work for this if you really want it and you’ve got to go through it. So it’s about who’s trying to go through that.”

Hunter was greeted by Atlanta fans differently than most players who check in during garbage time of a preseason game but the applause was understood. The 6’5 guard is arguably the best player in the history of currently the best college basketball program in the city of Atlanta: Georgia State University.

“My family has always been huge in support,” Hunter said. “That’s why it’s huge to be here right now because support is No. 1 in whatever endeavor you’re trying to take and I have resources [in Atlanta], plus I’m at home comfortable. There’s a lot of good mixtures being here right now.”

Hunter and his father, Georgia State head basketball coach Ron Hunter, played instrumental roles in helping change the school’s image.

Before the Hunter era, Georgia State had just embarked upon its first football season, the university’s largest attempt to develop school pride and a more traditional feel. At the time, the football program was the latest step for the university to distance itself from the commuter night school reputation.

By the time R.J. Hunter stepped off the floor one last time as a Panther in the round of 32 against Xavier in the NCAA Tournament, Georgia State had become the highly-populated university that somehow maintained the charm of a small school in the middle of a big city whenever someone walked through the doors of the GSU Sports Arena on Decatur Street.

It was only three-and-a-half years ago when a sold-out sports arena chanted “A-T-L” as Hunter checked out of a home game for the final time in his college career. The team just defeated Georgia Southern, a victory that also secured the Panthers another regular season Sun Belt Conference title. Hunter was greeted on the sideline in the waning seconds of the win with a bear hug from his father as camera lights flickered throughout the packed gym capturing the Kodak moment.

Just when it seemed like there wouldn’t be a better basketball moment for Hunter, who was a junior projected to go in the first round of the NBA Draft at that point, he led Georgia State to a Sun Belt Conference Tournament Championship. Then, he hit a shot that would change his life forever in the NCAA Tournament against Taurean Prince and the Baylor Bears in a viral moment that continues to play after his father fell off of his stool celebrating the game-winner.

Hunter returned to campus after that spring break as the man. Not only did everyone on campus know who he was but his highlight was being replayed over and over on national television. To cap off the magical four months, Hunter realized his lifelong dream of being drafted into the NBA by the Boston Celtics.

The ideal fantasy journey ended soon after draft night for Hunter.

He averaged only 8.8 minutes a game his rookie year, competing in the packed backcourt with Avery Bradley, Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart, Evan Turner and Isaiah Thomas. Then, Hunter found himself in a battle for the final spot on the Celtics with James Young, who is currently without a job in the NBA, the following season.

After losing the battle to Young, Hunter was waived by the Celtics and signed to fill in the last available spot in the league with the Chicago Bulls. Unfortunately, he was in a dilemma similar to the one he faced in Boston as he sat behind Jimmy Butler, Rajon Rondo, Michael Carter-Williams and Dwyane Wade. He was waived by Chicago before the new year.

After finishing his second season in the G-League and playing with the Portland Trail Blazers in Summer League, Hunter was eventually signed to his third team in his third NBA season on a two-way deal with the Houston Rockets.

While in Houston, Hunter scored a career-high of 19 points against the Sacramento Kings but still only averaged nine minutes a night in the five games that he saw action as a Rocket. He sat behind Gerald Green, Eric Gordon and some guys named Chris Paul and James Harden.

After playing with the Rockets in 2018 Summer League, Hunter was waived again in August.

After trading his G League rights to the Erie Bayhawks, Hunter found himself on the Atlanta Hawks preseason roster. The Hawks mark his fourth NBA team, fifth including his Summer League stint with Portland, and his ninth team overall, because he’s played for the Maine Red Claws, Windy City Bulls, Long Island Nets and Rio Grande Valley Vipers in the G League since becoming a professional three years ago.

“It was definitely hard to check your ego,” Hunter said of his transition to the pros. “Especially because your ego’s at an all-time high getting drafted. Like, you’re 21 with money, you just got drafted, you’re chasing a lot of things, so you’re ego’s already not where it’s supposed to be. That needed to happen to me because I was headed in the wrong direction mentally so that popped my ego and I really stepped back like, ‘Oh. It’s not just basketball, it’s a business now.’”

Hunter said that he learned to never take an opportunity for granted after going from city to city between both the NBA and G League. The 24-year-old is grateful to live in his Atlanta home as opposed to the AirBnBs in which he stayed during his two-way deal going back-and-forth between Houston and Rio Grande, Texas, which is nearly a seven-hour drive.

In the early days of training camp, the Hawks have finished practices in different groups for shoot-around. Groups include the wing players, the big men, a group solely dedicated to Trae Young and John Collins and a trio of shooters in Hunter, Jeremy Lin and Kevin Huerter.

Hunter said that he and Huerter always talk with each other because they have the same agent and both players were drafted around the same spot in the first round. Hunter constantly asks Lin questions whenever he gets the opportunity to because, as a self-proclaimed student of the game, Linsanity was one of his favorite basketball moments of all-time.

Going into the preseason on the outside looking in of the Hawks’ final roster, Hunter isn’t holding his breath that this is the season that he gets his opportunity in the league but he also hasn’t gotten too pessimistic about the game he would “die for.”

“It could be any year,” he said. “Your opportunity comes when it comes. I think whenever the opportunity comes, is whenever it will happen.”