The 2019-20 NBA season isn’t “over” but, with the coronavirus pandemic placing the season in a suspended mode, there is a distinct chance that the Atlanta Hawks won’t be playing again this season. With that as the backdrop, the Peachtree Hoops crew will look back at the players still on the roster and how they performed in the team’s first 67 games.
The ninth installment centers on rookie forward De’Andre Hunter.
Much was made around the league of the steep price the Atlanta Hawks paid the New Orleans Pelicans to trade for De’Andre Hunter on the night of the 2019 NBA Draft. The full haul: The eight pick, the No. 17 pick and the No. 35 pick to New Orleans in exchange for Hunter, the 57th pick, Solomon Hill, and a future second-round pick. Taking Hill was part of the package, as his contract was $12.7 million of essentially dead cap. The Hawks later sent Hill, along with Miles Plumlee, to the Memphis Grizzlies in exchange for Chandler Parsons in a swap of ugly contractual obligations.
The significant price, coupled with the draft slot at No. 4 overall, placed a certain set of expectations on the rookie wing, who, while older than most players in the draft, was supposed to bring tremendous upside through his versatility on both ends of the court. Hunter was one of the better college players in the country during the 2018-19 season, helping lead Virginia to a National Championship. The pairing on the wing of Hunter and No. 10 pick Cam Reddish lit a buzz within the fan base, elevating their expectations despite the losses of key 2018-19 contributors such as Dewayne Dedmon and Taurean Prince.
Hunter struggled out of the gate, shooting just 25% from three-point (39% from the floor) range in October, totaling just 8.4 points per game while offering little in the rebounding department at the forward position. Many pegged Hunter as a small-ball 4 upon his arrival to Atlanta, but Lloyd Pierce seemed much more comfortable with him at the small forward, especially early in the season.
Hunter’s shot woke up in November, shooting 39% from beyond the three-point arc in the 30-day period. This proved to be more of the norm, as he shot 36% on above-the-break threes for the season, per Cleaning the Glass. Hunter was passive in the early going, on both ends of the court, but more so in terms of physical contact than being too shy to turn down an open jumper.
Somewhat surprisingly, he was actually part of the Hawks’ shooting issues in terms of not living up to the potential of their overall team shot profile, as he converted on only 32.7% of “open threes” (open is classified as the closest defender being 4-6 feet away on NBA Stats), while he was up over 40% on the wide-open (closest defender 6+ feet away and properly socially distanced) opportunities per NBA.com’s advanced stats section. Hunter ranked last among qualified Hawks, shooting only 16.7% on tightly contested (closest defender 2-4 feet) shots from distance for the season. He made 38.8% of his catch-and-shoot jumpers, but shot only 8-for-43 on pull-up threes.
The overall shooting success was as expected, if there’s an area of concern and uncertainty in regards to Hunter’s game at this stage, it’s how big of an impact he truly makes on the defensive end after a relatively quiet rookie season. Both his block and steal rates rank among the worst at his position, below the 25th percentile in each category. While ‘stocks’ don’t tell the entire story, he was not necessarily a positive defensively for the Hawks, particularly compared to the fellow rookie wing Reddish, who is already developing a reputation as one of the future wing ‘stoppers’ around the league.
This is perhaps the biggest red flag to monitor for Hunter whenever basketball resumes. He projects to be and looks the part of a capable shooter, and even showed a little bit of a face-up game.
Hunter was second on the Hawks in drives (392) and field goals on drives (77). He also improved his rebounding late in the season, averaging 7.1 rebounds per game in the last 15 games before the stoppage. The last box people are waiting to check for the No. 4 overall pick is anything close to that ‘elite’ defensive ceiling.
There have not been many live, on-film examples of Hunter resembling an elite defender so far in the NBA. It’s still early, but Hunter might be almost or right at 23-years old by the time the Hawks play again, depending when that is. He’s older than Jayson Tatum. If Hunter is going to become that lock-down defender that some expected, it needs to start showing up soon.
The one part of Hunter’s defensive game that did deliver right away was his versatility. Per Krishna Narsu, Hunter’s ‘Basic Defensive Versatility’ breaks down like this:
Hunter’s ‘Versatility’ score ranked 54th out of 514 players tracked by Narsu, and 24th among players who played at least 2000 possessions. The interesting note here is his ‘Positions Est. Matchup’ this season was closer to shooting guard than power forward, which is contrary to the archetype most figured he’d fit coming in to the league. Hunter spent 70.3% of his time guarding positions 1-3 per Narsu, with nearly as much time on 2s as on 3s.
The Hawks may be more willing to put Hunter at the 4 given his late-season rebound surge, but for now, it appears they enjoy using his length on the wing as opposed to near the basket. With Clint Capela and John Collins in the fold, look for Hunter to play a lot of wing whenever play resumes for Atlanta. With three more years of team control, Hunter is obviously still a huge part of Atlanta’s core and should be a solid piece going forward, with his overall level of impact largely tied to his ability to be a clear positive defensively.