Stage Two: His Potential Role
Part I: This Year
Before the season there was a fair amount of speculation that Dre could earn a starting spot. What could be expected from each of the players was uncertain. Some thought he might be one of the winners of the preseason competition for roles. After eight games, it is pretty apparent that he won't be breaking into the starting lineup, but that is because the players who were ahead of him last year have upped their game. Guy is emerging as the scorer we all anticipated him being - and a quality defender in his own right. Hall is scoring more than at any point in his career and looking like a potential workhorse in that area, without sacrificing anything in the way of defense, rebounding or Glue play. Jerome is the guy who runs the show.
While he will not break the starting lineup this season, Hunter already has broken into the regular rotation as the eighth man. Might he get squeezed out for playing time as the season progresses? It is always possible, but that would only happen if he is unable to keep his level of play where it needs to be in ACC play. In other words, he has the opportunity to keep his spot, because Bennett is not one of those coaches who prefers to rely on a 7-man rotation then seek sympathy in the press for being short-handed. He's going to play the 8th man if that man is not going to hurt the team defense, and the number of minutes that man will play is going to vary, but can be considerable. Hunter also has an opportunity to become the 7th or even 6th man depending on how he develops vs. Nigel Johnson and Mamadi Diakite, and on strategic or tactical considerations as the season unfolds.
Because of his versatility and the versatility of the rest of the roster, Hunter can come in for any player on the floor. He can come in for a big and pair with any of the bigs, or he can come in for any of the perimeter players and one of the others has the ability to take the lead guard role. In the Wisconsin game, for example, Dre first entered the game for Devon Hall, then later in the half after Diakite allowed Aleem Ford space for consecutive three-pointers, Hunter came in for Diakite and paired with Jack Salt.
If Devon Hall weren't balling at such a high level, you could see Hunter possibly having a top-five role on this team the way Jerome grew into it last season. Hunter is already a plus defender both on the ball and away from it. He does the glue things like box out and rotate on defense. Bennett can be confident Hunter is not going to cause the PacklineTM to break down, and more than that, he can use Hunter as a defensive stopper. Dre can stonewall anyone from a point guard to a stretch 4. I can't think of another freshman we have had who was this good of a defender, not even Malcolm Brogdon.
Hunter builds on that solid base of glue and defense with an offensive game that can drop ten in a row like he did against Monmouth. Ok, Monmouth is not North Cheatolina, but baby steps: Monmouth now, Cheatolina later. This makes him an ideal sixth man. You know your defense is not going to drop off - it might even get better - and you have a potentially explosive scorer coming in against either a tiring starter or a backup. Mismatch potential with a guy who appears to have the mindset to work it.
Defensive stopper. Glue guy. Microwave. All roles he has demonstrated aptitude for. It makes him valuable as a strategic reserve. Think of the unit a commander can hold out of the line as he sets his forces and throw into action wherever it is needed or can exploit an opportunity. That unit or player can be more valuable to the cause as a reserve than in the opening line. It's also a great role for a freshman. Kyle Guy last year is an example of a freshman who appeared to do better as a reserve than a starter.
But even being behind the suddenly surging Hall, Hunter has the potential to provide immense advantages on the floor once he grows into his game a little. Whatever his ultimate role this year, the advantages he offers Coach Bennett portend an even greater role next year.
Part II: Future Years
Devon Hall is graduating. Nigel Johnson is graduating. That's almost 50 minutes per game walking the Lawn in May. Ok, well, both of them are exhausting their eligibility. They already graduated. They might be walking the Lawn in May with colored banners on their robes, or different colored tassels, or whatever designates a master's candidate. Point is, 50 minutes per game are opening up. Guy and Jerome can only absorb maybe 10 of them over and above what they are already getting. Who is going to move into Devon's starting spot?
Who do you think? It's so inescapably obvious that even Digger Phelps couldn't get it wrong - Donald Hand. Oops, wrong DH. I mean, the initials don't even have to change. DH becomes DH. Write it in with a big ass permanent magic marker.
Devon Hall's starting spot already belongs to De'Andre Hunter. Hall merely has a life estate (college eligibility version). Even if a hotshot McDonald's All-American were to fall into the 2018 recruiting class, he wouldn't start over Dre. Once Dre moves into the manor house, he ain't moving out until he ascends to greater things. This is a kid who is the Next Iteration of The Process. Redshirt. Freshman role player. Sophomore starter. Upperclass stud. Pro.
There is no way to miss how central Hunter is to Virginia's plans going forward. Marial Shayok sure didn't miss it. He chose to not play at all this year instead of play the role he expected to win in the competition with Dre. Hunter's expected role is so big because of all the ways he can impact the team's fortunes.
Part III: Potential Impacts
Whether in a "sixth man" role this season or a starting role in future seasons, Dre's demonstrated abilities make him a "force multiplier" in the Virginia lineup. What that means is that whatever his strengths might be in a vacuum - and he very likely could carry many teams on his own - within the Hoos' lineup those strengths have the potential to combine with the strengths of others to make the team exponentially more powerful.
The ACC discovered last year that the way to shut Kyle Guy down was to put your best - preferably longest - perimeter defender on him and assign that man to stick to him like sticky fingers (often with sticky fingers) on his runs off screens. Doing so would essentially erase him from the offense and the rest of your defense could deal with the rest of Virginia's offense. That wasn't that difficult of a task.
Early returns this year indicated that the same strategy might still be effective. The second half of the UNC-Greensboro game and the Rhode Island game were supporting evidence.
Hunter would complicate that decision for opposing coaches. With Hunter as another volume scorer who can drive the ball, come off screens, catch-and-shoot, or post up, can you still automatically put your longest, best perimeter defender on Guy? Do that and Hunter kills you. Put him on Hunter and Guy kills you. Lucky enough to have two, and we have Ty Jerome getting a defender who almost definitely can't guard him. If you have three, fuck it, you're winning the national championship, congratulations to you.
[So far this season, Devon Hall has unexpectedly started to provide this dilemma for opposing coaches, as his offense has exploded]
Speaking of Hall, Hunter's emergence allows Hall to relinquish the small-4 role and move back toward the point guard duties where he is best and where he can support and be insurance against maturation, decision-making, or acclimation problems that sophomore Ty Jerome or transfer Nigel Johnson might experience. Hunter has the size and length to effectively compete in the lane defensively and also the skills to do so offensively. With his three-point shooting he can pull defending fours out of the paint, and with his driving ability go around them. Ultimately, he is better-suited than Hall to be the small ball 4.
Because of his ability to hold his own defending and rebounding in the paint and to be an offensive force against posts (primarily in the 4-man motion offense), he provides insurance against foul trouble in the big men, and potential unreadiness of the younger posts for full-time or situational duty. He gives Bennett another option for stealing minutes here.
All of the above hint at this next advantage: Hunter provides Bennett with matchup flexibility. Got a quick big who is giving the posts trouble? Bring in Hunter. Got a big guard who is overpowering the guards? Bring in Hunter. Want to pull a big out of the paint? Force him to match up with Hunter. Want to attack a small guard? Run with Hunter, Hall and Jerome and force the shrimp to guard someone who will simply overpower him. Hunter can also be part of a zone-busting offense. It's not just that Dre himself is versatile; it's also that his versatility allows the coaching staff to use the other players' versatility in more variations. We can use this versatility either defensively to respond to mismatches the opponent seeks to exploit, or offensively to create our own and perhaps take someone out of the game.
Finally, Dre has shown a penchant for drawing fouls and an excellence at hitting his free throws. He can help both in creating foul situations in the run of play, and in closing out games. The ability to put Jerome, Guy, Hall, Hunter and Wilkins on the floor at the end of games without sacrificing the ability to protect the paint is an enormous advantage late in close games.
Obviously, the more time Dre is ready to play, the more he can provide these benefits. How much of a role is he going to be ready for this year? What is the likelihood of him being able to reach these objectives? What must he do to get there?