Trying to figure out the status of R.J Hunter’s most important asset, shooting.
R.J. Hunter is locked in a battle for the Boston Celtics’ final roster spot. He’s only in his second year, and is certainly still developing as a player, but he’s already got a reputation as a shooter above all else. That’s not to say that he doesn’t have other skills. He does a lot of little things well, but to maximize his likelihood of making the team, Hunter will need to cash in on his potential to become an elite-level shooter, and he’ll need to do it quickly.
As a second year player, Hunter doesn’t have much history to fall back on, and the data he can point to does not suggest he’s actually much of a marksman. In his rookie campaign, Hunter shot only 36.7 percent from the floor, and an abysmal 30.2 percent from three. He was given limited playing time, though, and it’s possible those numbers would have risen with more opportunity to adjust to playing against NBA-level talent.
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Transitioning from college basketball to the professional game is no small task, and plenty of rookies need a full year of development before they begin to resemble productive players. Conventional wisdom would suggest Boston remain patient before making any decisions on Hunter’s future, but they are in a unique situation, with a glut of young talent, a host of future picks, and realistic expectations of being competitive in the present. That hurts Hunter’s prospects considerably, and it makes those pieces of evidence that the Celtics have available to evaluate all the more valuable.
Looking past Hunter’s NBA numbers doesn’t necessarily do him any favors. Over three years at Georgia State, Hunter shot a fairly uninspiring 42.3 percent from the floor and 35.4 percent from deep. Not once did he post a season with a three-point percentage over forty percent, a reality that remains true going all the way back through his senior year of high school. Those aren’t numbers indicative of the kind of deadeye shooter Boston was hoping to add when they drafted Hunter, but they’re not necessarily damning.
Hunter’s shooting percentages were weighed down a bit in college by having to be his team’s primary scoring option. Maintaining efficiency within a heavy workload is difficult, and clearly Hunter has demonstrated enough shooting competence to keep everyone declaring him a quality shooter throughout his collegiate career and into his early professional years. He’s not just chucking bricks all practice long, but being a good shooter means translating that effectiveness in practice and drills on to the court during live action. Hunter has struggled to make that step to date.
His biggest challenge to date seems to be finding clean looks. Hunter has difficulty getting separation from his man off the ball, and all too often defenders are able to close out on him before he can pull the trigger. That’s equal parts an issue of athleticism, awareness, and shot mechanics. Hunter isn’t an elite athlete, but he is relatively rangy, and he seems to understand some of the nuances of running off of screens and positioning himself for decent shots. Those are skills that will help him overcome some of the quickness disadvantages he might face in matchups with individual defenders.
His shooting form is an issue of its own. Hunter has a tendency to drop the ball a bit before rising to shoot. It’s not an enormous hitch, but it steals away precious tenths of seconds in which he can go from being open to being contested. Mechanics are something that can be changed over time. Unfortunately, Hunter doesn’t have much of that before the Celtics need to finalize their roster.
There are plenty of other variables, outside of Hunter’s control, that may influence his shooting performance, and ultimately his spot on the team. Whether or not his teammates are able to get him the ball, how opposing defenses approach defending him and the team as a whole, and even how he is perceived by the general basketball public.
The Celtics will take all of these variables, and many more, into account when they make their final cuts. Hunter isn’t the shooter everyone hoped he would be, at least not yet, but he’s shown signs of promise in other areas. He’s creative in the pick and roll. He’s invested on the defensive end, and he’s a supportive and well-liked teammate. The Celtics are asking him to fill a role as the end of the bench sniper that is difficult to fill. That’s not who Hunter is as a professional player right now, but that doesn’t mean he has no value or potential to be more, and that is what makes the situation so challenging.
Boston is being forced to decide if Hunter will ever become what they hoped he would be, if what he might be becoming instead is something worth waiting for, and whether or not they have the roster spot to provide him with enough time to find out. They’re doing it all within a very limited time frame. Player development happens over the course of years. Hunter has had only one of those as a professional, and he’s down to a handful of days to solidify his case for staying on the team. He hasn’t proven to be a good shooter to date, but all he needs to do is convince the Celtics he could be. We’ll find out soon if he has.