Entering his 5th season in the NBA, and the first year of a 4-year/$90 million contract, De’Andre Hunter is one of the — ah — more polarizing players on the Atlanta Hawks’ roster.
The detractors will say that he has not quite lived up to his billing as the fourth overall pick in the 2019 draft, pointing to his unspectacular career “per-game” averages of 13.9 points, 4.2 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.7 steals and 0.3 blocks in just over 31 minutes a night, his good-not-great three-point shooting ability (35.6% from three on 4.3 attempts per game), and his declining regular season on/off impact. They might ask: after a promising rookie campaign, what has Hunter really gotten better at over the past three seasons?
Those still beating the drum on “Hunter Island” (if you consider yourself an unapologetic optimist, book a trip and stay a while — it’s not too crowded over here!) will point to an unfortunate injury history which stunted a promising sophomore campaign, then sidetracked his third season. They’ll cite Hunter’s defensive versatility and point out that as far as Atlanta’s shortcomings on the less glamorous end of the floor are concerned, he is far from the main culprit. They might even ask the candid question about whether or not playing alongside Trae Young in a guard-focused, pick-and-roll heavy offensive system for the past four seasons has been the best fertilizer for his development on the offensive end of the floor?
While there is an inkling of truth on both sides of the Hunter debate, the other factor to consider is that with Saddiq Bey entering the final year of his rookie contract without an extension, as well as an extension for Jalen Johnson looming in the not-so-distant future, keeping all three forwards on the Hawks for the long haul is going to be quite the juggling act when you take into account that this is a team that has not paid the luxury tax since the 2002 season per Spotrac.
Hunter has long been the uncontested option to start at small forward ever since he entered the Hawks’ facility in 2019, but as our own Wes Morton put it in an article back in August, he is now facing far more competition for playing time than ever before. So where does Hunter’s value lie, and what should we expect from him in the 2023-24 season?
At 6-foot-8, 225 pounds, with a monstrous, 7-foot-2 wingspan, it’s long been said that De’Andre Hunter has all the physical traits that NBA teams are searching for in a starting small forward. It’s part of the reason the Hawks drafted him fourth overall in 2019 and it’s part of the reason that he is going to be making $90+ million over the next four seasons. Atlanta was one of the skinnier teams in the league last season, and while their overall defense wasn’t great*, Hunter’s size and versatility made him invaluable on that end of the floor.
*Atlanta ranked 21st in defensive rating last season per cleaningtheglass
Hunter was routinely tasked with the toughest matchups on the wing for the Hawks in 2022-23 (with admittedly mixed results), and while I don’t expect his defensive role to change all that much in 2023-24, if he can prove to be a bit more disciplined than he has shown in previous years*, I anticipate that we’ll see him fare a bit better in these mono e mono matchups. Additionally, he has posted below-average steal and block rates throughout his career, though if his teammates can do a better job parrying “north-south” attacks from their opponents than they have in the past, we should hopefully see an uptick in these categories from Hunter as he typically knows where to position himself.
*(3.7% foul rate last season - 33rd percentile amongst forwards per cleaningtheglass)
Of course, at the end of the day, defense is a choice. Effort is a non-negotiable, and plays like the ones below simply cannot happen this season — especially not come playoff time — but with the Hawks’ aiming for their first top-15 finish in defensive rating since 2017, I expect for Hunter to lock in and really prove his value on the defensive end in 2023-24.
One glaring area of the game that Hunter simply needs to improve at is his ability to rebound the basketball. As you can see in the table below, Hunter’s offensive and defensive rebounding rates have been below the league average for forwards ever since he entered the league, and given his physical traits, it’s tough to explain why these numbers haven’t improved.
Atlanta ranked ninth in offensive rebounding and 17th in defensive rebounding last season, which might not look that bad until you remember that they traded away one of their better rebounders over the summer in John Collins. With Clint Capela and Onyeka Okongwu already shouldering a heavy rebounding burden, the fact of the matter is that someone else is going to have to step up and replace Collins’ 6.5 boards per game from last season, and I don’t see a reason why Hunter cannot be part of the solution.
For what it’s worth, he did snag eight boards in 23 minutes during last week’s preseason game against the 76ers, and plays like the ones below were certainly encouraging to see*.
*Shoutout Glen Willis for the clips!
Opening possession can see how Hawks defend the elbow/away series— Glen Willis (@willis_glen) October 21, 2023
Trae loses contact with Maxey
Clint steps up to help on ball handler/drive
Hunter helps down on Embiid
Bey helps contain Tucker as a rebounder
Hunter strong on the boards pic.twitter.com/VrlyXlr8gd
Hunter anchoring and organizing while Clint is up the floor— Glen Willis (@willis_glen) October 21, 2023
Another area where his play is fairly well ahead of Jalen and Bey
Jalen just needs the reps and to build confidence
Bey has never really worked outside of a heavy drop scheme until joining Hawks so he needs reps too pic.twitter.com/1IWWUbe6EQ
Enjoyed the Hunter grab and go Hunter— Glen Willis (@willis_glen) October 21, 2023
But notice Trae empowering Hunter here as if to say "you've got it, go"
This is a kind of chemistry we haven't seen from this team before IMO pic.twitter.com/bZKxXH84TH
I’d like to highlight the third clip especially, as it was great to see him (and his teammates!) show some confidence in his handle after grabbing the rebound. Hunter’s “grab-and-go” game could be an area to watch this season, as he ranked fourth on the team in both transition frequency (18.9%) and efficiency (1.28 PPP) last season, and no one will be complaining if he can carve out a few more of these opportunities for himself in 2023-24. The key now for Hunter is consistency on the glass.
Moving on to his scoring ability, you can see in the tables below that while Hunter hasn’t quite progressed as a three-point shooter and is a sub-par finisher at the rim, he has quietly blossomed into one of the best mid-range scorers in the league*, and just turned in the most efficient scoring season of his career (outside of his injury-shortened 2020-21 campaign) on isolation, transition, pick-and-roll ball-handler, and off-screen play-types, per nba.com/stats.
*Only Kevin Durant took more mid-range jump-shots per game and knocked them down at a higher rate than Hunter last season per nba.com/stats
With Quin Snyder encouraging his players to play a quicker brand of basketball, I hope to see Hunter attacking fewer set defenses than he faced last season, leading to more open three-pointers and shot attempts at the rim. While these are areas of the floor that Hunter has struggled to consistently shoot at a league average rate from, even if his efficiency remains the same as it did last year, on a pure points-per-shot basis, it’s still better for the offense if Hunter shoots from the rim (1.2 PPS) or from three (1.05 PPS) than from the mid-range (0.98 PPS).
That being said, given his proficiency from the mid-range, I don’t expect him to entirely abandon this part of his game either. Don’t be surprised to see the Hawks throw him the ball on the low block against smaller defenders and let him go to work, shooting over the top of them as he does in the clip below.
This post touch early in the shot clock is valuable - before defense is set - and attacking the guard— Glen Willis (@willis_glen) October 21, 2023
Don't want these so much later in the shot clock pic.twitter.com/pkO47Trlqb
Additionally, due to his progression as a pick-and-roll and isolation scorer, perhaps the Hawks entrust him with more of these opportunities in 2023-24. In both situations, it’s good for him to be able to fall back on a reliable mid-range jumper if the initial attack doesn’t work out, making this a valuable skill to keep in his back pocket.
All in all, this season is going to be a big one for De’Andre Hunter. For all the words, the real talking will be done on the basketball court. Can he be the starting small forward for a team that wants to be competing to win a championship within the next three years? Can he be the #1 perimeter defensive option for a team that wants to compete within the next three years?
By season’s end, if the answer to either of those questions is a “no”, then the team’s decision makers are going to face some difficult questions about Hunter’s long-term fit on this team. On the flip side, if the answer to either of those questions is a “yes”, his 4-year/$90-million contract will start to look a whole lot more palatable, and it won’t be long before the prices of tickets to “Hunter Island” begin to skyrocket.
My advice? Book your cabanas now.
Disclaimer: All statistics/videos used in this article are from basketballreference.com, pbpstats.com, nba.com/stats, bball-index.com, and cleaningtheglass.com.