Boston Celtics: Don’t Give Up on R.J. Hunter

Mar 9, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics guard R.J. Hunter (28) shoots for three points against Memphis Grizzlies forward Jarell Martin (10) in the second half at TD Garden. The Celtics defeated Memphis 116-96. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 9, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics guard R.J. Hunter (28) shoots for three points against Memphis Grizzlies forward Jarell Martin (10) in the second half at TD Garden. The Celtics defeated Memphis 116-96. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports /

The Celtics sharpshooter may have already been on their roster

Unlike Terry Rozier and Jordan Mickey last season, R.J. Hunter cracked the rotation right away. He appeared in six of the first 10 games and played at least 10 minutes in 10 games over the Celtics first 30 contests.

Hunter only scored in double-digits once during the first 30 games, though. He also saw a stretch of four games in which he saw 18.3 minutes per game but only averaged 5.5 points per game on 38.1 percent shooting from the field and 28.6 percent shooting from three.

It was a rough start to his NBA career, and it dropped him out of the rotation until the playoffs. It made sense, even though some of his struggles were just normal rookie errors. Either way, Hunter finished his rookie campaign shooting 30.2 percent from three and an even worse 29.6 percent in the D-League. The Celtics drafted Hunter 28th overall to bring sharpshooting from three to an otherwise mediocre outside shooting team, and he failed to do so.

With Jae Crowder limited in the playoffs and Avery Bradley going down in Game One with a hamstring injury, the Celtics turned to Rozier, who saw playing time at the end of the season, and R.J. Hunter. After only recording 315 minutes in the regular season, Hunter played 8.2 minutes per game, appearing in five of six games.

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It was a huge upgrade in minutes instantaneously, making any real contribution from Hunter unlikely. Hunter only shot 22.2 percent from the field and 20 percent from deep during the playoffs. The Celtics as a team shot a playoff worse 38.4 percent from the field and owned the second-worst three-point percentage, shooting 27.5 percent. However, Hunter’s poor rookie campaign exemplified his poor shooting more than other players.

As previously mentioned, expecting any real contribution from him at the time was crazy. To put in perspective how far down the bench he fell at the end of the season, to match the 41 minutes he played in the playoffs, it would have taken Hunter’s last 14 regular season games to match his playing time in the playoffs.

Either way, he never found his shot in the NBA or D-League and is now competing for an NBA roster spot with the Boston Celtics just a year after being drafted in the first round. While some hope that Ben Bentil sneaks onto the Celtics roster, all signs point towards R.J. Hunter barely beating out James Young. If Hunter does make the roster, he has a chance to be everything the Celtics were hoping he’d be as a rookie.

Despite his three-point percentage dropping to a career-low 30.5 percent during his junior season at Georgia State, and Hunter’s struggles as a rookie, he has the stroke and range to be the three-point specialist the Celtics need.

He showcased that during summer league this year, giving Celtics’ fans some hope that he could eventually find his three-point stroke in the NBA. The first thing that everyone looks at is his three-point percentage. While shooting 47.2 percent from deep over five games is impressive, Hunter was much more than a shooter, he was a scorer.

He averaged 18.4 points per game over his three seasons at Georgia State, proving that he was much more than a spot-up shooter in college. Hunter used his offensive arsenal during summer league to take control of the offense. Sure, Rozier was the star of the team running the show, but Hunter was extremely versatile, as well.

Besides stepping a couple of feet behind the arc and knocking down threes with ease, Hunter scored in a variety of ways. He drove and got fouled, shooting 77.5 percent from the line. He also killed opponents with his mid-range game, scoring off the dribble with a hand in his face. It led to Hunter averaging 10.2 points per game.

Although, it wasn’t enough to instill complete trust in him. Boston brought in veteran Gerald Green this offseason. Green is a proven three-point shooter in the NBA, however he has been inconsistent throughout his career.

His three-point percentage has decreased by 7.7 percent over the past three seasons to just 32.3 percent with the Miami Heat last season. Boston’s high-tempo offense should benefit Green’s athleticism and offensive game, however there’s no guarantee that he sticks in the rotation.

If Green struggles or an injury takes place, Hunter would be the next wing player off the bench. While many may want to see rookie guard Demetrius Jackson, Brad Stevens showed last season that he opts towards veteran players over rookies. First round pick Terry Rozier only cracked the rotation when Jae Crowder went down at the end of the regular season, signifying a likely season-long D-League stint for Jackson this year.

Besides, Hunter gives the Celtics size and experience. Jackson stands at only 6-1, four inches shorter than Hunter’s 6-5 stature. Plus, Hunter’s versatility was on full display for Brad Stevens last season. He played everywhere from point guard to power forward, spending 79 percent of his minutes at shooting guard and small forward. The Celtics were one of the shortest teams in the league last season, therefore adding size would be very beneficial.

Not to mention that Hunter still owns more potential as a three-point shooter than Jackson. At Notre Dame, Jackson only connected on 33.1 percent from deep as a junior. While the Celtics still need to add another reliable wing scorer, a three-point specialist is still on their wish list, as well.

If the Celtics want Hunter to get on track, they’ll need to give him consistent minutes. Hunter only saw double-digit minutes in at least three consecutive games once as a rookie. Trying to establish yourself in the NBA is hard, but it’s even harder when you’re a shooter. Plus, shooters need consistency to find a groove.

If Hunter does crack the rotation and sees consistent minutes, he could see a similar increase in production that Chicago Bulls small forward Doug McDermott saw. McDermott struggled during his injury-plagued rookie campaign that held him to 36 games and 321 minutes, eerily similar to Hunter’s 36 games and 315 minutes.

Also, when McDermott was finally healthy during the 2014-15 season, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau used him sparingly. He would play him every couple of games and gave him a short leash, not letting him make normal rookie mistakes.

During his second season in 2015-16, McDermott became the player the Bulls envisioned when drafting him 11th overall in 2014. He played in 81 games, only starting four, and shot 42.5 percent from deep over 23 minutes per game. McDermott tied Klay Thompson for the sixth best three-point percentage in the NBA.

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McDermott started to thrive under a bigger role and more room to make mistakes. He quickly found his groove as a shooter and then developed into a scorer. McDermott ended the season shooting 46.7 percent from 10-to-15 feet away, while owning a stretch of scoring double-digit points in 11 of 13 contests in late February. It’s evident that while the Bulls relied on his shooting, they also turned to him as an offensive weapon as the season went on.

Of course that’s best case scenario for a young player. The Celtics can’t expect Hunter to skyrocket to one of the 10 best shooters in the game. With that being said, it is possible to drastically improve, and expecting Hunter to shoot 38-to-40 percent from deep isn’t unrealistic.

When it comes down to it, R.J. Hunter might not even be on the roster at the start of the season. He has a long road ahead of him, starting with making the roster then cracking the rotation. It’s evident that Brad Stevens had at least a little trust in the young shooter at the start of last season, therefore regaining that trust isn’t out of question.

With the Celtics poor outside shooting, anything that could help them even a little will be welcome. Hunter will see plenty of time in the D-League, garnering many scoring opportunities as one of the top options.

Next: Boston Celtics Player Profile: Avery Bradley

Boston drafted Hunter in the first round for a reason, and now is the time to find out if they have anything in him. The Celtics will need to be patient and give him time to find his groove in the NBA, but I’m not sure if they’re willing to do that without a major injury taking place.