The Atlanta Hawks coveted, targeted, and ultimately acquired De’Andre Hunter via a draft-day trade. The price they paid to get him to Atlanta speaks volumes in regards to what they think he can contribute to the young core of talent Travis Schlenk and his staff have been assembling piece by piece since 2017. While shooting and offensive upside are primarily the skills Hawks’ brass looked for in the first round of the previous two drafts, Schlenk’s staff seemingly shifted their primary focus to the defensive end at the top of the 2019 draft board. Hunter certainly has plenty to offer in terms of offensive upside, but his ability to potentially guard all five positions while possessing more than enough offensive acumen to stay on the court for 30 minutes a night in the NBA is what drew the club to his skill set, enough so that they traded substantial draft capital in order to acquire him.
Projecting exactly what type of season Hunter has statistically is a tough order, as it’s hard to project exactly how many plays head coach Lloyd Pierce will draw up for the rookie with several more experienced offensive weapons already on the roster. What Atlanta should be able to plug-and-play is Hunter’s defensive versatility as well as shooting. To what degree he measures as a true quality defender as a rookie remains to be seen, but a successful rookie campaign would entail him being tasked with guarding multiple positions with some effectiveness, being relatively competent in catch-and-shoot, and displaying the high IQ he played with at the University of Virginia on both ends of the floor.
Hunter very likely could start the first game of his professional career, while that is obviously not certain at this point. He is currently the only true small forward on the roster, while veterans DeAndre’ Bembry, Evan Turner, Allen Crabbe, Chandler Parsons, Jabari Parker and Vince Carter could all fill the spot in case of an injury or the organization deeming Hunter is not ready to start right away. Another potential starting option at small forward, while not likely, would be fellow rookie Cam Reddish. With Hunter having the leg up in experience and health (Reddish has been nursing himself back to health this summer following a minor procedure on a core muscle injury), it seems unlikely that Reddish would start over him in the near future, but he’s an option for Pierce and company nonetheless.
While much has been made in the light of Hunter’s defensive versatility, he was almost equally versatile offensively at Virginia. He ranked near the top of his draft class in several areas of the game. Notably, he excelled in the pick-and-roll both as the ball handler and the roll man, ranking fifth in the class in PPP (points per possession) as the ball handler and, while the sample size is small, first in the class in PPP as the roll man, per Synergy Sports. He was 6th in PPP when passing out of the pick-and-roll. The forward also ranked 12th in the class in PPP on post-ups, and 11th in PPP when passing out of the post. A lot of this speaks to the quality of his coaches and teammates, but the numbers are still impressive across the board. Hunter was also 20th in the class in PPP in isolation situations, 18th in transition, and 12th (41 points on 41 possessions) when attacking defenses after receiving the benefit of an off-ball screen. His offensive game at the collegiate level was extremely well-rounded and it is easy to see why Atlanta is excited to add him to the already talented young core.
Going further into the advanced numbers, Hunter was 15th in the draft class in PPP across on jump-shots, and seventh in PPP on three-pointers. He ranked 17th in the class in efficiency on catch-and-shoot, and even higher (12th) when those catch-and-shoot jumpers were contested. If these numbers are any indication, all signs point towards Hunter having a relatively high floor in terms of shooting at the next level, especially when considering his size. Exactly how fast Hunter will find his footing within the NBA game remains to be seen, but his jumper does not appear to be something worth worrying about at this stage. Expect Hunter to mesh into the offense as the fourth or even fifth option in the starting lineup, likely being used as a screener for Trae Young to initiate some offense for the team. It feels like Hunter possesses both the skill level and the basketball IQ to mesh into the system seamlessly on the offensive end, while he may be the best defender in the starting lineup from day one.
Projecting exact statistics seems like a pointless task, but expecting Hunter to contribute right away in some capacity is very fair. All rookies struggle at some point, so it is important to temper expectations, but it also feels safe to expect Hunter to be a reliable part of the 2019-20 team given his combination of size/length, skill, athletic ability and the fact that he was one of the best players in college basketball each of the past two seasons.
Other rookies, like Zion Williamson, Ja Morant and R.J. Barrett, receive more hype for their upside in national circles, but Hunter’s floor could be among the highest in the 2019 class if his versatility and efficiency translate to the NBA. Expect Hunter to play fundamental, sound basketball while fitting within the team concept this season, while ideally getting more comfortable and aggressive as the season unfolds.
Hunter should help his teammates better on both ends of the floor with the flexibility he provides, especially defensively when teams will most assuredly be attacking Young night in and night out. He has grizzled veterans like Carter, Turner to turn to when things get tough, and a few budding offensive stars in Young, John Collins and Kevin Huerter to take the pressure off of him in terms of scoring. If the leaps made by Collins and Young are any indication, the Atlanta development staff is amongst the best in the league and should be trusted to put Hunter in a position to succeed as an NBA player. If things go to plan, Hunter will be in a great situation of both helping his team improve and learning on the fly in his first professional season.
Advanced statistics courtesy of Synergy Sports.