What is Boston Celtics Guard R.J. Hunter’s Ceiling?


While R.J. Hunter was Georgia State’s number one option, he was marketed as a mere catch-and-shoot specialist going into the NBA. As we approached the draft, the growing perception among scouts was that he’d simply fail to translate into a shot-creator at the NBA level. His ceiling was projected somewhere between Mike Dunleavy and Marco Belinelli.

Despite our limited sample size, what we’ve seen from R.J. Hunter in summer league has been impressive. His shooting has been streaky, however, that’s to be expected for rookies contending with a deeper three-point line. Besides, shooting will only get you so far in the NBA, and for R.J. Hunter, it’s been the other aspects of his game that have been encouraging. It may not be this year, or even next year, but between his passing, IQ and potential, I believe he’ll eventually find himself in the Celtics starting lineup.

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Hunter didn’t hit a single shot in the Boston Celtics’ first two summer league games. But this wasn’t a problem, since the best shooters can get ice-cold, just as quickly as they can can get red-hot. It’s the other things that shooters do besides shooting, which determines their longevity in the NBA. Considering they’re are a dime-a-dozen, the successful ones must carve out a secondary and tertiary roles for themselves. Frequently, wings like Hunter evolve into the 3-and-D prototype (DeMarre Carroll, Bruce Bowen, etc…) while others grow into more complete offensive weapons.

The reason players like Kyle Korver and Jason Terry have been successful is due to their ability to make their teammates better, regardless of whether or not they’re hitting their shots. Both players excelled in the pass-happy systems of Mike Budenholzer and Rick Carlisle, respectively, as both were able to facilitate the offense in stretches, and find their teammates open shots. Hunter should emulate both players’ games as he is somewhat of a hybrid of the two: pure-shooter with a touch of ball-distributor.

Although the next logical step for Hunter – considering his strengths – is to become an off-the-bench shooting specialist, he’s illustrated a thirst to carry the ball. He’s not content standing in the corner and waiting for his defender to sag off of him for simple catch-and-shoots. After his bigs grab a rebound, Hunter often swings around to offer to carry the ball up the court. He’s been comfortable facilitating the offense as court vision thus far has been excellent.

Even though Hunter doesn’t have the ball-handling skills of Evan Turner, he can partially fill the void when Turner’s off-the-court. Despite lacking the size to effectively guard small forwards, over time, Hunter can eventually cultivate enough mass to move up a position. What makes Evan Turner such an important part of the Celtics’ offense is his ability to create shots for his teammates. While Hunter may not be able to get in to the lane as easily as Turner due to his inferior ball-handling, his superior shot will provoke defenders to guard him tighter on the perimeter. This will open up the lanes and create easier baskets for his big men.

With a post-up specialist in David Lee, a weak-side with Lee in the low post, and Hunter in the corner will clear up the requisite amount of room needed for Lee to post-up. If Hunter’s defender opts to help out on D to double-team Lee, instead of the opposing team’s strong-side big man, Hunter will have a wide-open shot in the corner. If the strong-side big man, double teams Lee, Hunter can swing the ball around to the strong side wing to get an open shot there. Regardless of the scenario, Hunter will be a HUGE upgrade for the Celtics in the spacing department over Turner.

Hunter’s IQ has been his best aspect this summer. He knows how to fill his lane and recognizes where he needs to be on defense. Despite his speed, his slender frame prevents him from quickly getting around screens. However, he always knows what the next step is. Last night, after giving up a potentially-open look, Hunter hurried back to his man and managed to block his opponent from behind. On the offensive side, Hunter has played well off the ball so far.

Shooters like Ray Allen and Klay Thompson, while both capable of creating shots for themselves, are best off-the-ball, as their ability to outsmart their defender and use picks is what gives them such open looks.

Throughout summer league, the Celtics have frequently run a set requiring Hunter to curl around off-ball-screens to create open three-point looks. While his tendency to hit these shots is impressive, his ability to find the backdoor-cutting big man for the easier basket is more impressive (see 4:55 in above video). A couple of times his screened-defender has kept up with him, which has led to Hunter taking heavily-contested shots. He’ll need to improve his shot selection as it’s imperative for shooters to recognize when it’s not appropriate to shoot. It’ll be effective for him to often pump fake and attempt to get to the lane as it’ll likely create open looks for teammates on the perimeter.

So far, what we’ve seen from R.J. Hunter has been more promising than all of what we’ve seen from James Young last season. While we’ve hardly seen either of the two, Hunter’s skill-set already seems more conducive to Stevens’ extra-pass offense.  For at least the first couple seasons, Hunter’s defense will be a liability, however, once he learns all of the NBA-level offensive schemes and can muscle up a little bit, he’ll grow into at least an average defender.

With the highest +/- on the court last night (+13, with 21 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists and 1 block), it was clear that Hunter was making his teammates better against the Philadelphia 76ers. If he can build on that, he’ll no doubt be an effective addition for the Celtics. Teams will inevitably be kicking themselves for letting Hunter go 28th in the draft.

Next: The Evolution of Marcus Smart