So many things have occurred since De’Andre Hunter was drafted fourth overall by the Atlanta Hawks in the 2019 draft, but true lift-off for his career as the two-way wing the Hawks spent considerable assets to trade up to acquire him hasn’t been one of them...so far.
It’s fair to say Hunter’s growth — and the reason he hasn’t been able to reach those heights as of yet — has been somewhat stunted by his health.
In his three years in Atlanta so far, 63 games is the most Hunter has been able to assemble, granted, that came in his rookie shortened season of 2019-20 out of a possible 67 games. The following season Hunter played just 23 games in 2020-21 and left the Hawks and their fanbase wondering what could have been as the Hawks advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals. The high-level of play Hunter had demonstrated in the early phase of the 2020-21 season — as well as his brief playoff stint — gave everyone optimism that Hunter was ready for the next step in Year 3.
It never really came.
Hunter’s averages were down in some important categories across the board in 2021-22 (including scoring, field goal percentage, free throw attempts and percentage) and while some of this can be reflected in the lack of a more accurate sample size with those 23 games in his sophomore year, it also reflects a bit of a disappointing year for Hunter offensively where more was surely expected.
It would be somewhat unfair to expect top-tier offensive games all the time from Hunter when he also has the task of, usually, guarding the opposing team’s best offensive player — whether it was a forward or a guard (a position he spent 37.9% of his defensive time guarding) and this, he believes, had an impact.
“I was OK,” reflected Hunter on his third season during the Hawks’ exit interviews. “I definitely think I can be better. But it’s all about growth, my third year, just learning. Guarding a lot of guys, you’re going to have some bad nights guarding the types of guys I’m guarding. Just learning when to pick my spots, how to not foul and things like that. I’ll learn and I’ll be better.”
In addition, Hunter only managed to muster 53 appearances on the season, highlighting his difficulties in simply being available for the Hawks; an ever increasingly worrying trend.
Which moves us onto Hunter’s upcoming season.
In the past, not having Hunter available, while not ideal, was a blow made somewhat easier by having Kevin Huerter to call upon (depending if Bogdan Bogdanovic was the starting shooting guard in place of Huerter). Huerter was always solid and easy to plug in and usually healthy. Without Huerter’s availability and, well, ability — as well as Bogdanovic’s own health concerns — the Hawks cannot afford another season like this from Hunter in terms of availability.
As obvious as this is, they need Hunter to be available but this year this it is even more important Hunter is healthy given that the Hawks’ depth has taken a hit over the summer and any loss of Hunter will be felt more harshly than seasons past (if he is absent, it might be good news and a great opportunity for A.J. Griffin but alas).
Similar to his sophomore year however, Hunter’s high-level of play in the Miami series will leave encouragement that he can perhaps make the leap many expected in his third season. In that series, Hunter averaged 21.2 points per game on 55.7% shooting from the field, 46.2% from three on five attempts and 80% from the line on four attempts per game.
“I was just in a rhythm,” said Hunter. “Had the ball in my hands, got to make plays. Didn’t really get those opportunities that much this season.”
Hunter saw a fairly significant increase in usage percentage in the playoffs (23.8%) compared to the regular season (19.4%) and with the Hawks needing to go away from Trae Young in that series as a result of their defense of him — in the absence of John Collins — Hunter stepped up to the mark.
While his playoff numbers and usage won’t likely be sustainable over a full season, the Hawks do need a leap from Hunter somewhat, and more consistency at the very least. Hunter did see a marked increase in this three-point percentage last season but in terms of his overall game, he is looking to work on all aspects of his game to become a more rounded player.
“Trying to be as versatile as possible,” said Hunter on how he sees his game growing. “Being able to handle the ball, being able to post-up, being able to play defense.”
Hunter would later go on to say that ball-handling was an area he believed would unlock the next level of his game.
“Only being in my third year I think I’ve got to improve on everything,” said Hunter. “I’m not great at anything yet. Definitely my ball-handling, shot-making, just ball control in general. That’s what I feel I need to get better at to expand my game and I will.”
Hunter’s work on the move, off the dribble, left quite a bit to be desired at times and quite a number of turnovers came as a result of Hunter’s somewhat loose handle. He believes that not being able to work on that during the last summer impacted his work in this regard but that it will be a different story this summer.
“I can dribble,” said Hunter when asked about that aspect of his game. “I lose my handle sometimes but I think not being able to workout this (last) summer and having a wrist injury where I really couldn’t dribble as well I feel like that did hurt me. But I’m not going to make excuses. Next season I’ll be a better ball-handler for sure.”
Encouragingly, Hunter entered this off-season with a much cleaner bill of health. While he mentioned in his exit interview that he was playing through some back pain, his knee and his wrist felt fine, so in theory there’s nothing to hold Hunter back from having had a strong summer to improve his game, which is obviously something he is going to want to do for a few reasons.
Hunter enters his fourth season and is extension eligible. In his exit interview, Hunter was coy on what would happen but said that ‘there wasn’t a specific number’ he was looking for.
It would be in the Hawks’ best interest financially to sign Hunter to an extension because I think the likelihood of him banking on himself and earning a better contract, as John Collins did, is high, given that Hunter hasn’t shown his full two-way potential to warrant a lucrative deal so far. At the same time, given that he has struggled to show consistency staying on the floor, any long term offer the Hawks may make may seem more appealing than it may seem...
If Hunter banks on himself and decides to enter restricted free agency, he has another incentive to play his best ball of his career so far, which I think he has a great chance to do if he has had a clean summer health wise.
So much expectation surrounded Hunter and Cam Reddish when they were drafted in 2019. Since then, Hunter has teased that potential and Reddish is no longer with the team. The hopes of the once oh-so promising wings of the future lie squarely on Hunter’s shoulders and he has everything he needs to realize that hope.
In a contract year, a year where his ability on the court and his ability to stay on the court will be more important than ever, is he up to the task?
Only time will tell...