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The emergence of De’Andre Hunter

Minnesota Timberwolves v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Adam Hagy/NBAE via Getty Images

De’Andre Hunter has never failed to surprise — fans, coaches and perhaps even himself.

He isn’t the flashiest player. He isn’t the most animated competitor on the court. But he has quietly gotten the job done since high school, and despite adversity, he has exceeded expectations at every stop in his career.

Hunter, a 6-foot-7 and 190 pound high schooler, left Friends’ Central School with no desire to play power forward. He always thought of himself as more of a guard. The University of Virginia felt the same way when it snuck in on the tail end of his recruitment in 2015.

“We recruited him specifically to play on the perimeter,” Virginia assistant coach Jason Williford said. “At the time, you couldn’t tell him he was gonna play some four.”

Putting Hunter at the four felt like a stretch at the time, though. Draymond Green had barely led the now-well-regarded revolution of small-ball power forwards in 2016, and Hunter wasn’t exactly in Green’s weight class.

The staff was enticed by the idea of Hunter’s perimeter abilities. Williford called it his “face-up game.” His jab; his ability to work from the elbow. Virtues that are undervalued in today’s game. It’s why he never stood out.

But when Hunter took off for college, Virginia’s outlook on him changed, and so did much of his play style. He wasn’t a consistent jump shooter. His defense was good but not great.

“He had to continue to work on his slides and be able to guard quicker, smaller guys,” Williford said. “There were times we’d do this close out drill, and he’d chop his feet, and guards would just blow right by him.”

The Cavaliers were deep when Hunter reached campus, and an ankle injury added another variable to his situation. The plans Virginia had for him were for the future. The team encouraged him to redshirt his first season, and Hunter, as reserved as they come, made it known that he hated it.

“He was not happy,” Williford said. “He had said that publicly. So I think he was gonna prove to us, ‘I don’t care what you think of me or what happens; I’m gonna be on the floor, and I’ll guard wherever you need me to guard.’”

And he did. Hunter worked endlessly that entire season and the following offseason, pushing himself into the lineup by the next season, when the Cavaliers’ staff forced him to play power forward. Hunter won the Atlantic Coast Conference Sixth Man of the Year award as a freshman. By the following year, he was one of the best forwards in college basketball.

Hunter led his team to an astonishing 35-3 record during his sophomore season and tallied 27 points and nine rebounds in the NCAA championship game. He had grown tremendously, playing vastly different roles in each of his two seasons in Charlottesville. The turnaround turned scouts’ heads. Hunter generated enough buzz for the Atlanta Hawks to trade into the top five of the 2019 NBA Draft to secure him.

Thirty pounds stronger now, Hunter no longer had a problem switching onto guards. It had become his strong suit. His jumper had grown in consistency.

Most of all, he had outworked everyone around him, bought into coach Tony Bennett’s system and eventually embodied the small-ball power forward mold.

“They dedicated that (2018) summer to improving and getting better,” Williford said. “And they lived in the gym. They started to eat right, take care of their bodies. They were getting proper sleep. Whatever they had to do to be in tip top condition, or on top of their game from a basketball standpoint, they did it. They worked.”

By the time he declared for the draft, Hunter was widely considered the best defender in his class. As Williford put it, Hunter “didn’t have a choice” when it came to improving as a defender under Bennett.

Did the Virginia coaching staff foresee Hunter becoming such an elite defender?

“We liked his versatility because of his size ... but no,” Williford said. “We were quite surprised at how he picked stuff up. He allowed us to kind of change how we played. We started switching ball screens, one through four, with him. We started doing stuff we hadn’t ever done, and his versatility was the main reason. It was the reason we ultimately won it all.”

There was still uncertainty attached to Hunter’s name as he entered the NBA. He was drafted No. 4 overall by the Hawks in 2019, behind what might be the most hyped top three picks in recent memory, headlined by Duke sensation Zion Williamson. Williamson was known for his incredible athleticism and dunks, making him something of a complete opposite to Hunter.

Critics questioned the Hawks’ decision to trade up to snag Hunter. He didn’t play like a top-five pick in every moment of his rookie season, and his ability to grow and buy in was necessary last year.

Hunter described his first campaign as a “learning curve.” The 6-8 small forward started in 62 of his 63 appearances during the 2019-20 season, and the big role early in his career came with inevitable errors.

Hunter developed an unfamiliar reputation in his rookie year. He turned out to be a solid scorer, but he failed to live up to the defensive reputation he had built prior to his arrival in Atlanta. He was still a decent on-ball defender, but in the grand scheme of things, he was not yet the game-changing defender that the team had scouted.

Hunter had his lows but overall shut down much of the pre-draft criticism. He proved to be a starting-caliber contributor from day one and was effective at both forward spots, complementing fellow forward John Collins.

While Hunter didn’t have a shabby rookie season, the repetitive dialogue lingered in his head like a dark cloud: What’s his ceiling? Can he get much better than this? Hunter acknowledged the chatter.

“I watched a lot of film during quarantine,” Hunter said in early December. “Just tried to watch guys I’d probably be guarding. You know, learn their tendencies, things like that. I think I can be a lot better on the defensive end. I think I probably focused more on defense than anything.”

The same work ethic Hunter displayed in college was put to use after his rookie year. Hunter and his Hawks went more than 280 days without playing a game, but the layoff seemed to benefit the former lottery pick.

Hunter skipped the “sophomore slump” memo, and through 16 games, he has been one of the Hawks’ most reliable options, if not the most. Through in-house mishaps between stars Collins and Trae Young, Hunter has played behind the scenes, transcending his role as Atlanta’s unforeseen third option.

Hunter has looked comfortable in his second season, smoothly navigating through pick-and-rolls and creating for himself without playing too much outside of his game.

“His mentality has been absolutely perfect,” Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce said about Hunter in the screen-and-roll. “Patient, waiting for the screen. Ability to create his own shot. … I think his ability to find his spots has been pretty good for the most part.”

Hunter’s offense hasn’t just progressed; it has blossomed. The forward is averaging 17.4 points and 5.8 rebounds per game through the first month-plus of the NBA season. Although he’s only games into his second campaign, Hunter has enjoyed incredible jumps in efficiency from everywhere on the floor, shooting 52.0 percent from the field, 39.1 percent from three-point range and 86.7 percent from the free-throw line.

Through games where Young has shot poorly, Hunter has been there to deliver, which has seemingly been more often than the organization would like this season. In a 114-96 win over the Brooklyn Nets on Jan. 1, Hunter found himself initiating more offense than usual, and he continually found his spots.

The basket only got bigger for Hunter as the night became his, and by the end of it all, he’d made nine of his 10 shot attempts and tallied 23 points without a turnover.

“He’s had some big moments,” Pierce said following the Hawks’ win in Brooklyn. “I didn’t realize he was 9-for-10. Travis (Schlenk) brought it up to me jokingly after the game. … Offensively we were able to go to him a bit, and obviously his shot was going down.”

While Hunter has continued to expand offensively, he has also emphasized his defense more than ever. Given the unsatisfactory season Hunter had defensively a year ago, the expectations for him to pick up his pre-draft prowess have resurfaced. Hunter has answered the call.

“I mean, I play defense,” Hunter said. “Doesn’t matter who I’m guarding. The one, two, three or four. Just going out there and trying to win that matchup every night.”

Hunter was entrusted with containing All-Star Kyrie Irving, among others, in the win at Barclays. He hasn’t shied away from any challenge.

“I think for him, the defensive effort and the challenge of guarding a guy like Kyrie and really just being solid,” Pierce said. “I didn’t think he did anything that hurt Kyrie; I just thought he was solid from start to finish.”

Irving, pre-James Harden and his momentary team departure, had played really well up to that point. Through four games, he averaged 28.3 points while shooting 55.1 percent from the field. Irving can erupt at any point, but Hunter managed him pretty well, with Irving scoring a season-low 18 points on 28.6 percent shooting from the field and 2-for-11 from beyond the arc.

Hunter has faced some tall tasks in the early goings of this season: assignments that only a number of guys in the NBA can be commissioned with, and an even shorter list of second-year players.

“It’s tough to evaluate if you’re just looking at numbers,” Pierce said of Hunter’s defensive efforts this season. “He’s got (Kevin Durant), D’Angelo Russell ... I think he started on CJ McCollum the other night. He’s gonna have those matchups. The challenge for him is, can he be more disruptive as a defender? I think he’s kind of a containment guy, a solid defender, a position defender. How do we get him to be more disruptive as a defender? That’s gonna be his growth as a defender.”

But growth in any aspect is what Hunter lives for. He went from being recruited as a sub-200-pound perimeter player to being redshirted and converted to power forward. He evolved from sixth man to a revolutionary for Virginia’s defense — a program that was already heralded as one of the top defensive fortresses in college hoops — in his new position. He shot up draft boards and joined elite company, then turned in big minutes in his first NBA season despite ultimately failing to live up to his reputation. But he ran with the criticism and everything he picked up. The patience paid off. He has burst onto the scene in his second season as one of the league’s most reliable starters.

Hunter has turned heads and changed expectations everywhere he’s been. Growth is all he knows. To challenge Hunter to improve isn’t a matter of whether he can do it — it’s a matter of when. In terms of his development, Hawks fans might only be seeing him scratch the surface.