Expect R.J. Hunter To Play Regular Minutes This Season

Because of R.J. Hunter’s decorated college career, Celtics fans were excited when Danny Ainge selected him with the 28th pick. However, most players selected that late in the draft play very little in their rookie season. Could R.J. Hunter defy that norm? 

The majority of the NBA’s 28th-overall picks tally up more DNP’s in their rookie season than actual games played. In fact, statistics show that the majority of 28th-overall picks never amount to anything more than deep-bench role players who predominantly end up out of the league prior to their rookie contract expiring.

While it’s far too early to deem Celtics’ 28th overall pick, R.J. Hunter an outlier – judging by head coach Brad Stevens’ allocation of preseason minutes – he may find himself a steady amount of playing time in his rookie season. He’s so far averaged over 20 minutes a game this preseason, making him the most experienced of all Celtics rookies.

People intially expected him to spend far more time on the bench than he has, considering the Celtics’ log-jam at the two-guard position. But some minor injuries and locker room illnesses would clear out playing time for Hunter to prove his worth. In the four games we’ve seen him, he’s played surprisingly well. He’s fared far better against NBA talent than everyone expected – especially defensively.

Defense was everyone’s primary concern entering the preseason, since the general perception was that his small frame would make him a weak defender. While Hunter’s still far too slender to develop into even an above-average defender at the NBA-level, his basketball IQ has somewhat compensated for his size. He’s skilled at anticipating incoming screens and reading opposing offenses. His IQ has apparently elevated him to a defensive level Brad Stevens deems adequate enough to receive playing time.

Stevens told A. Sherrod Blakely of Comcast Sports Net New England, that he too, was pleasantly surprised at Hunter’s development on the defensive end.

Defensively, he’s way ahead of where I thought he would be. He’s just long and active.

At 6’6″, Hunter’s taller than the average off-guard. His 6’10.5″ wingspan allows him to use his arms to intercept passes (see below) and contest jump-shots even if his footwork hasn’t put him in an optimal spot to contest.

However, it’d help Hunter to have some more strength to prevent opponents from out-muscling him. In the interim, Hunter has sought the guidance of fellow-lanky guard, Hall-of-Famer, Reggie Miller. From Miller, Hunter’s learned that in order to stop his opponent, he needs to out-smart him.

Hunter told the Boston Herald:

You have to be crafty when you’re skinny, and you have to be smarter when you’re skinny. It’s being craftier and smarter with every movement, and every movement has to be precise.

On a team without a star, the Celtics need to be an above-average defensive squad in order to remain competitive. Thus, Hunter’s minutes will be wholly contingent on whether he can defend at a level that won’t completely compromise the team’s defense. The concern should end there, however, as offensively, he’s coming along well, as expected.

Considering Hunter’s game, it makes perfect sense that Hunter’s choosing to emulate Miller since both are marksman. From three, Hunter’s excelling so far this preseason, shooting 35% – a mark more-than-acceptable for any rookie. He has that Kyle Korver knack at finding time-sensitive open shots from the perimeter. Like Korver, Hunter’s gifted playing off-the-ball, enough so that he has already warranted set plays designed for him.

In the above play, Hunter is the trigger man of a set play designed to generate three-pointers. By positioning Hunter in the strong side corner with the two bigs (Tyler Zeller and Kelly Olynyk) by the elbows, it gives Hunter two wide screens to curl around and pick his defender.

If it wasn’t for Hunter’s ability to square up on a dime and throw up a quick release, Sasha Vujacic would have been able to contest it better. But Hunter curled out of the corner at the exact right time to catch both screens and give him precisely enough room to get an open shot and thus, hit the three.

His ability to convert on these plays is undoubtedly one of the biggest reasons why the Celtics drafted him at 28. Three-point shooting was a major weakness last season for the Celtics, as the team took the thirteenth-most threes last year, yet ranked bottom-four in percentage made.

Most people therefore expected Hunter’s role with the Celtics to be akin to a shooter like Korver’s, but this role is actually a departure from what Hunter did in college. As Georgia State’s go-to scorer, Hunter frequently played with the ball in his hands. He was tasked with creating shots both for himself and for his teammates. Over time, Hunter developed the strengths necessary to completely control his team’s offense during large stretches of time. Yet scouts were quick to dismiss this ability, thinking it simply wouldn’t translate to the NBA.

However, since the start of summer league, Celtics fans have noticed how Hunter’s passing is much better than it was originally advertised. In fact, Stevens is seemingly impressed enough with Hunter’s passing that he deployed Hunter as the Celtics’ primary ball-handler at the start of the Celtics’ fourth preseason game last Friday against the New York Knicks. This assignment would be too harrowing for any late-drafted rookie, yet fortunately, Hunter isn’t short on confidence.

He told the Boston Herald:

Once you get comfortable, there’s no better feeling. When I stepped into that (Olimpia) Milano game, it just felt natural. Even in practice it’s not consistent. So when I start feeling 100 percent natural, that’s when it’s going to really start.

He needs to remain this confident if he wants to continue developing his passing skills. On one hand, it’d be far easier for Hunter to relegate himself into an off-the-ball role, but in order to see major minutes in a Celtics uniform, he’ll need to take any opportunity he can to make himself a bigger part of the team’s offense. He’ll therefore need to keep looking to make extra passes and simultaneously stay as far away from hero ball as possible, considering hero ball is the antithesis to Brad Stevens’ offense.

Fortunately, Hunter’s made a great case for himself so far, by frequently using his terrific court vision to make pinpoint accurate passes.

On the above Jordan Mickey alley-oop, Hunter was able to find Mickey with a pass over the sleeping Derrick Williams. This ability to create a shot in an otherwise ugly possession, makes Hunter a candidate to receive regular season fourth quarter minutes.

Hunter still has to develop his ball-handling skills, however. Even though he’s a fantastic passer, this skill will go severely underused if he isn’t first able to create more off-the-dribble. Evan Turner, for example, generates many of his assists by driving to the hoop. Turner’s ball-handling allows him to easily get inside the paint without turning the ball over frequently. This breaks down the defense as it often provokes a help defender to slack off of their assignment. Turner can then find this now-open teammate for an easy basket.

Hunter, on the other hand, struggles dribbling through heavy coverage, as evidenced below:

He has a tendency to dribble the ball too high – plus he doesn’t have the strength to protect the ball from opponents. This could lead to defenders out-muscling him into a corner and from there, create easy turnovers.

But don’t let this scare you – remember he is still a rookie and is yet to play a single minute of regular season basketball. What we’ve seen so far should have you feeling optimistic, as it seems like Hunter’s floor is a pure shooter. His ceiling however, is yet to be discovered. This makes him extremely intriguing. Could he ever be a star? Is Reggie Miller his ceiling? Let’s hope so, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Just know that between his passing ability, serviceable defense and unlimited range, Stevens will find him playing time.

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