As we start counting down the hours until the 2019 NBA Draft in New York, three Virginia Cavaliers — Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, and De’Andre Hunter — are hoping to hear their names called. Hunter is projected as a lottery pick, making him the first Virginia player drafted in the lottery since Bryant Stith in 1992 (13th overall). The only Cavalier players taken higher than that were Wally Walker (No. 5 in 1976), Ralph (No. 1 overall in 1983), and Olden Polynice (No. 8 in 1987).
De’Andre Hunter is universally projected to go in the top-10, and possibly in the top-5. Various mock drafts have Hunter going anywhere from fourth through eighth, but not below that.
As an NBA prospect, Hunter’s strength is his defense. He’s 6’7 225, which is very good size for an NBA wing. Long arms make it easier to poke the ball away, or deflect an incoming pass. Long arms make it easier to block shots. Long arms make it tougher for players to get by with the dribble. Hunter has a seven-foot-two-inch wingspan, which gives you the long arms you’re hoping for on defense.
Hunter may have been the best defensive player in the nation last year. He was voted ACC Defensive Player of the Year while generally guarding the best player on the opposing team, no matter what position they played. In the NCAA Tournament, he guarded 6’7 PF Kristian Doolittle, 6’1 PG Carsen Edwards and 6’9 SG Paul White.
In the championship game, he held Jarrett Culver to 5-for-22 from the field and just 15 points. Culver is another player projected to go in the top 5-10 of the draft. Sadly, good defense doesn’t always show up in highlight reels, but we do get bits and pieces, such as this monster block against Auburn in the Final Four.
Mostly, Virginia’s defensive scheme isn’t about generating steals. It’s about staying with your man and forcing him into a tough shot. That’s where Hunter excels. The long arms and the quick feet make it very difficult to score on him. As the above highlight shows, he’s also an excellent help defender.
Offensively, there seem to be questions about how Hunter’s game translates to the NBA. Hunter shot 44% (46-of-105) from downtown this season, after making 38% (21-of-55) last year. Obviously, the shooting percentage is strong. So why only two attempts per game? Is it merely the scheme favored by Tony Bennett? Or does he lack confidence in his shot?
Hunter’s usage rate was just 23% this year (and 25% last year). That’s well below the other projected top picks.
Again, is this due to Virginia’s scheme? Or is Hunter too passive?
Even PG Ty Jerome had a usage rate of just 24%. And Kyle Guy was at 21%. It’s part of why Virginia’s offense was so good, they didn’t rely on one person to do the work.
On the road against Louisville this year, the Hoos trailed by 10 at half. Both Guy and Jerome were off (0-for-11 combined from downtown). Hunter outscored the Cardinals by himself in the second half to single-handedly bring the Hoos back. Hunter took over in the second half when his team needed him. He shot 6-for-6, including a pair of threes.
It included some one-on-one action, with Hunter blowing by his man:
It also included catch-and-shoot threes:
The NBA scouts say Hunter’s jumper is too slow, but this shot came against Jordan Nwora, a good athlete and good defender. Hunter gets his shot off before Nwora can even react. He also shows a feel for moving without the ball, finding the spot and being ready for the shot when the ball gets there.
Oh, and he also did this to Louisville once:
Once again, this is a shot Hunter has to get off quickly to beat the buzzer.
NBA scouts also say that Hunter’s athleticism is just “average”. Tell that last year’s UNC team.
In the NCAA Championship game, Hunter used 30% of the team’s possessions and was the best player on the floor. That was one of just four games this season in which Hunter’s usage rate was over 30. Last year, he had six such games. He’s certainly capable of handling the load when needed.
Against Texas Tech’s vaunted defense, Hunter dropped a career high 27 points. He did it with drives:
He did it in the post:
And he did with his jumper:
That’s really a tough shot. He knows the shot clock is running down, so he uses one dribble to create some space and elevates for the jumper.
He also showed that he can pass. He wasn’t asked to be a facilitator much, but he does have that ability. With so many Red Raiders closing on him, the pass was the correct play.
There aren’t many holes in Hunter’s game, but even he has some things he needs to work on. Although his numbers from beyond the arc were very good last season (as indicated above), he gets knocked for having a slow release. It worked for him most of the time in college, but against the speed and athleticism of NBA players, he will have to get it off a little quicker.
When you hear from scouts that his jumper is slow, this is what they’re talking about. Hunter really takes his time with this one. But he has time, because there’s nobody near him. When you look back at Zion Williamson’s monster block of Hunter’s three attempt in the game in Charlottesville, that’s one potential side effect of the slow release.
Hunter is not a particularly strong ball handler or passer, something he will need to improve upon at the next level. He can create his own shot, but he shouldn’t be relied upon as a facilitator. As mentioned above, his steal and block numbers aren’t strong, but that’s more indicative of the Pack Line defense than his abilities as a defender.
Comparing anyone to Kawhi Leonard is just setting that person up for failure. That said, there are similarities in Hunter’s game to that of the now-champion Toronto Raptor. As the Daily Progress’ Josh Needelman puts it, “Both Leonard and Hunter prioritize efficiency and nuance over flash, winning fans for their hard-nosed defense and clutch shooting.” If Hunter even ends up with “Kawhi lite” skills, any team that takes him will be more than happy with that.
There have also been some names like Luol Deng or OG Anunoby thrown around for Hunter.
What the experts are saying...
Hunter is an excellent catch-and-shoot player (98 percent of his 3-pointers last season were assisted), who avoids turnovers (1.7 per 40 minutes). This combination alone gives him a pretty high floor. The mid-post isolation stuff him flourished with at UVA may become irrelevant in the NBA — if he becomes a lower-usage 3-and-D player, that isolation stuff from 15-20 feet is pointless. Regardless, I trust Hunter as a prospect; he makes sense with where the league is going, too.
Hunter is the ideal man defender. He has the length and quickness to potentially guard four positions at the next level, but it’s his balance and technique that makes him special. Hunter is a master at getting over screens, at using his feet to deny driving lanes, and at closing out on any shot from the perimeter. There aren’t many players in the world who have a prayer against the NBA’s biggest, baddest wing scorers, but Hunter’s physicality, focus, and defensive fundamentals gives him a chance.
Potential landing spots...
The Pelicans traded the Lakers for the fourth spot in the draft, sending Anthony Davis to California for a collection of players. Now, they may try and get a strong wing shooter and defender to go with the No. 1 overall pick of Zion Williamson. There’s discussion of the Pelicans potentially going with Jarrett Culver here, but Hunter still in the mix. There’s also a possibility for trade...
Hunter has been very quiet about which teams he worked out with, but he did get in for Atlanta. They’re a great fit for Hunter, and have a pick at No. 8 if he falls that far. If they really want him, there’s a possibility that the Hawks trade up to nab him earlier in the draft as they do have three first round picks.
The Cavaliers have the fifth pick in the draft and now have a new coach at the helm in Michigan’s former coach John Beilein. Rumor has it that Beilein is a big fan of Hunter’s, and could try to influence the front office into keeping him a Cavalier. There’s also the possibility that the Cavs take Hunter at five and teammate Ty Jerome at No. 26, both players that would fit well under Beilein.
The Draft kicks off tonight at 7pm and will be aired on ESPN.