Our 2021-22 Atlanta Hawks player review series continues with a look at the third season of forward De’Andre Hunter.
De’Andre Hunter has had a difficult year to evaluate. It has been equal parts maddening, inconsistent, and yet ever so briefly brilliant. By most high draft pick’s third year, there are signs of either turning the corner and living up to pre-draft hype, or substantial doubts about the player’s ability to make the previously anticipated impact in the league.
Hunter is somewhere between those two archetypes: both extremely valuable to the Hawks in the skillset he brings while also not quite living up to his lofty No. 4 overall draft slot — at least not yet. He remains a large part of the Hawks offense and defense, but has he been efficient enough or productive enough to retain that cornerstone status going forward?
For the third straight season, Hunter’s quest for a complete campaign was disrupted. In his first season, the Hawks’ season was cut short due to the emerging Covid pandemic and subsequent Orlando Bubble to which Atlanta was not extended an invite. And in the most recent two, injuries have knocked Hunter out of a large share of contests. All in all, Hunter has only seen action in 139 NBA games, or fewer than two full 82-game campaigns combined.
This season, Hunter was victim to a tendon injury in his right wrist that forced him out for two months, and that had a lingering effect on his ability to dribble and shoot even when he did return. Hunter was able to ramp back up over the second half of the season, however, and he ended on a strong note, leading the Hawks in Game 4 and Game 5 in scoring, and averaging 29.5 points and 9 rebounds in two playoff defeats to the Miami Heat.
“I was just in a rhythm,” Hunter had to say about his performance in that series. “Had the ball in my hands. I got to make plays. I didn’t really get those opportunities that much this season.”
But over the regular season, it was much more of a mixed bag. While he recorded his best mark shooting the three at 37.9% 3P%, this efficiency came at a lower volume than in his previous two years.
Hunter finished fourth on the team in points per game, with 13.4 on 47.4% shooting from two and 76.5% from the free throw line. Thought to eventually settle into a role as a premier 3-and-D wing, Hunter did show some promise in his catch-and-shoot game. This kind of movement off the ball around screens is such a boon to a team’s offensive spacing.
‘Dre’ swinging baseline around a series of screen is something that the Hawks used to propel themselves to the second best offensive rating in the NBA this past year.
Hunter often feels as though he can get to his spots on offense with his controlled dribble against any foe, and he has taken a larger and larger amount of shots from mid-range in this season. Over a quarter of his attempts were from 10 feet to the 3-point line according to Basketball-Reference. He did manage to a 59th percentile finish in mid-range shooting according to Dunks and Threes in 2021-22. But unless he can blossom into a truly elite performer from there, it may not quite be conducive to winning in the modern NBA long term.
His increased confidence in dribbling and driving was let down by his finishing at the rim this season, to his misfortune. According to Dunks and Threes, he converted only 55% of his shots at the rim, which placed him in the 22nd percentile. Too often against physical opponents at the rim, he could be seen throwing up difficult attempts. But when he faced off against smaller foes, like Raul Neto and a late arriving Daniel Gafford below, it was looking at barbeque dinner for the former Virginia collegiate.
Hunter also picked his spots to cut and slip screens and was often rewarded by Trae Young with easy buckets.
While he had a largely solid year defensively, after the Cam Reddish trade Hunter was tasked with a lot of difficult assignments, and it became clear that his shift to more minutes at the power forward position changed his defensive role within the team. While some of this can be matchup-dependent to counter teams that go small, there’s a clear split in his defensive responsibilities when playing a more perimeter-oriented 3 versus him at the 4. According to Basketball-Reference, Hunter was estimated to play at small forward 65% of the time and power forward 35% of the time.
The coaching staff clearly wanted him to crowd the paint and stay at or below the level of screens and avoid switching as much as if he were playing on the perimeter.
For example, Trae being put in a ball screen should be an immediate alert to the rest of the defense. But Hunter barely budges with the immediate help and low man Bogi...tries to take a charge? pic.twitter.com/W9lnWIgAxh— Wes (@bloghawk) March 2, 2022
In other words, there was a clear pivot in his workload before and after the Reddish deal with the New York Knicks, and the burden of taking on the opposing team’s best player night in and night out took a major toll. This was compounded when either John Collins or Danilo Gallinari weren’t available at forward.
But on the balance, Hunter played admiral defense — often against the opponent’s best perimeter player. Here, he completely stifles Jimmy Butler with his length and extra effort.
Sadly, his highlight tape doesn’t properly capture the areas in which he still needs development. He registered a shockingly low number of assists — just 1.6 assists per 36 minutes and an equal number of turnovers — due to his tendency to slow and even halt ball movement. And there is significant worry about his poor rebounding, at just four per 36 minutes despite his 6’8” stature putting him below guys like Kevin Huerter and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot. These glaring weak spots in his game have only become more evident with his growing role on the team, and this makes the upcoming financial crossroad even more crucial in foresight.
“I was okay,” Hunter had to say about his game this year at exit interviews. “I could definitely be better. But it’s all about growth in my third year. You’re going to have some bad nights guarding the guys I’m guarding so just learning when to pick my spots.”
“I’m not great at anything yet,” he continued later. “Definitely my ball handling, shot-making, just ball control in general. I feel like that’s what I have to get better at to expand my game.”
De’Andre Hunter will be eligible for a rookie extension this offseason, similar to Trae Young and Kevin Hunter an offseason ago. It’s hard to know what his current valuation is or what he would command in an open free agent market, although reportedly some team executives paint that value at around $12-15 million. But based on his inconsistent play, the signs point toward the two sides not reaching an agreement before the deadline in October and Hunter playing in a true “prove it” situation. Maybe another season in Atlanta, this time with his restricted free agency looming, will provide some clarity in a murky situation.