What a difference a year can make. At this time last year, De'Andre Hunter was not sure how happy he was in the University of Virginia basketball program, with thoughts of transfer and a brother who would soon be publicly agitating for him to do so; nor was he sure how good he really was. The redshirt had shaken him, and he came into the season insecure in his self-confidence as a player and in his position on the team. His first few games, he played like it. Stumbling over his own feet, missing shots, oozing uncertainty on the offensive end. When the fall semester ended and the players went home for Christmas break, we weren't certain he would even return. When he did return for the Boston College game on December 30, we were relieved, but we still didn't know how good he was going to be. in five games against bottom-tier D1 programs, he had shown his potential with 65 points on 21-32 shooting, but in 7 games against mid-major or higher competition, he had shot a combined 3-21 and scored a total of 13 points. The way his coach and teammates supported him during these struggles can be deduced from this clip:
The senior captain made a point of passing his hard-won opportunities off to the jittery freshman TWICE despite no visible evidence the kid would hit one. And the kid missed both, still seeming uncertain whether he should shoot it. Surely they gave up on him after his 0-2, 0 points in 6 minutes performance in that ACC opener and decided to wait until next year to see how he would do....
It was a turnaround as stunning as it was rare. He scored more points in the Hokie pit than in 8 previous mid-to-high-D1 games combined! And he was off and running. It was, as we wrote several times during those times of struggle and as he said repeatedly in interviews once reporters started shoving recorders under his nose, just a matter of confidence.
Return to the present, and "Hunter has an air of confidence on the court that wasn't always apparent at this time last year. The 6-7, 225-pound forward is a dynamic talent, and he knows it," Jeff White wrote as fall practice began. That same kid is a potential lottery pick in June's NBA draft. He's likely to garner multiple pre-season honors. Expectations are high not just among fans who had followed him since he burst onto Tony Bennett's radar like a Klingon warship dropping cloak, but among professional college basketball observers.
Damn, what a difference a year can make.
What He Brings
At the top of his game, Hunter brings a combination of offensive and defensive virtuosity perhaps unprecendented at UVA. Take a Cornel Parker shutdown on-ball defender and give him Bryant Stith's or Malcolm Brogdon's offensive game with more length than either, and more 3-point shooting than Stith or more inside game than Brogdon. Hunter excels where the rest of the team is weakest, on both ends of the court. On defense, no other Wahoo can take anyone from a point guard to a big forward man-to-man and shut him down. On offense, he can get to the rim. His at-rim percentages were the highest of UVA's perimeter players last season. He excelled at isolation play, scoring a 92% rating from Synergy Sports (as did Ty Jerome, but Hunter goes to the rim while Jerome shoots short jumpers). As a result, his free throw rate was stratospheric compared to his backcourt mates. His presence on the court diversifies Virginia's offense in a way that nobody else can. The way his offensive skills blend with those of Jerome and Kyle Guy should allow Virginia to exploit any defense by finding a weakness then attacking it remorselessly until the opponent adjusts to cover that weakness - thereby exposing one of the bigger ones it was trying to protect by leaving the first one exposed.
Hunter finished the season shooting 38.2% from three, 75.5% from the free throw line, and 48.8% overall. He was effective against man-to-man defense, but was absolutely lethal against zones. Against zone defenses, he scored 1.241 PPP for a 91% rating. Interestingly enough, Hunter was far more prolific against zones than either presumed zonebuster Kyle Guy (0.950) or Jerome (0.956 PPP). With more than one ACC opponent likely to employ zones this season, Hunter brings a poison pill for those teams.
In the man-to-man, he brings a third primary scorer for opposing defenses to confront. We are going to see more than one head coach come into a game with a defensive game plan focused on stopping Hunter. Last year, coaches planned to stop Guy, and ACC coaches were quite successful at it for much of the season. With the emergence of Hunter, the performance of Jerome, and the offseason attention those two players have received, it will be interesting to see what opposing coaches do. An unselfish team like Virginia where the players literally do not care who scores is very difficult to game plan for if it has multiple offensive focal players. Hitherto the strategy has been to put your best long perimeter defender on Guy and have him glued to Guy's hip (generally by having a fistful of jersey as he goes by screens), then just guard the other guys. But unless you have two of those defenders, that means Hunter's 7-2 wingspan and lethal offensive repertoire going up against a smaller or class B defender. Ok, we need to put our long defender on Hunter, but Guy has demonstrated from day one in college that class B defenders don't even slow him down. Maybe you have two class A defenders. Put the longer one on Hunter and the smaller on Guy - and then you have your third best defender trying to handle Ty Jerome and his 92% isolation game. Because all three of them are such good three-point shooters, you can use them to spread the floor and create room on the baseline and around the lane.
On defense, Hunter gives you a defender who can fill that Brogdon role of icing a hot scorer. He is also a versatile defender who can go wherever he is needed. While his off-ball defense had weaknesses, he was able to guard almost any player on the floor in any game and at least hold his own. As he learns the intricacies of the PacklineTM reads, his incredible length should allow him to be a great help defender and weakside lurker.
Intangibly, Dre appears to carry himself with an untouchable aloof, like things don't touch him, but when he makes a big play, you can see the exuberance come out. He sometimes appears to take a moment to assess things, but when he makes a move, he makes it with violence and fearlessness. Once his confidence bloomed, it just kept on blooming. It does not appear from what we have heard out of summer workouts or early practices that his injuries have diminished his aggressiveness. The way he attacks the rim can produce some amazing moments.
What I Would Like To See More
Threes. Only 25.8% of Hunter's shots were from the arc. That's low for a player who connected on 38.2% of his attempts - and 47.1% in ACC play! It will be interesting to see how teams play Hunter this year. Because he started the season with such poor shooting statistics, the scouting reports on him wrote him off as a threat from out there and teams gave him space, preferring to keep him from getting to the rim. Boy did they pay for that. Will teams elect to stay out on him and dare him to go to the rack, or will they feel the need to keep the defense more compact due to having to stay so close to Guy?
Good reads away from the ball. Being a great on-ball defender can be easier than being a great team defender. The next step in Dre's development as a defender will be making the correct reads when he is not guarding the ball. Without Isaiah Wilkins' ability to be in two places at once and guard his own man while covering for a teammate he can see is in the wrong place, it will be up to the remaining players to be more solid. It's even more important with Devon Hall also gone. For three years, Wilkins and Hall were stalwarts of the defense. Without them, Hunter can't just be a lockdown defender on his own man.
Play on the wing. As the season progressed, Dre seemed to spend more and more time as a blocker in the Sides offense. Setting screens next to the lane and posting up are not the best ways to use Dre's talents. He converted just 1.244 PPP (69%) on cuts, the classic blocker play, placing him third out of the four UVA posts - ahead of only Wilkins who was at 1.196 (60%). Even Jack Salt out -performed Dre on cuts (1.298 for 76%). Mamadi Diakite is far and away the best on the team at scoring on cuts (1.435 PPP for 90%). For all the work put in on post-ups for Dre, it was his least efficient area at a mere 0.732 PPP (35%). Not only was Hunter pedestrian at blocker scoring, he did not excel at the traditional mover plays of coming off screens and spotting up: He was at only 0.792 PPP (36%) coming off screens, and 1.000 PPP (69%) on spot up shots. Comparing these figures with his Excellent isolation play, the Hoos should be looking for opportunities to let Dr. Dre operate from the wing.
Minutes. Hunter averaged 22.8 minutes per game in ACC play as a redshirt freshman. Now, as a redshirt sophomore, he is one of the team's veterans, and will be relied upon for major minutes. While it might be too much to expect him to play the 35+ minutes I expect from Kyle and Ty, I would like to see him in the low 30s on a regular basis. This would be considerabl growth for him, as only once all season did he play 30 minutes, and in only 7 other games did he play 25 or more. With Hall graduating, Hunter will have to absorb a good chunk of his 32 minutes per game.
Statistical contribution other than scoring. Dre scored at a good clip last season, but there was not any other one area where he was a leader. If he is playing on the wing, I would like to see more steals and assists. If he is playing the 4, let's see more defensive rebounds.
What I Would Like To See Less
Two-point jumpers. Anybody who has read my work on a consistent basis knows how I feel about the two-point jumper. Shoot the three or go to the rim. The correlation between Final Four success and the ratio of those two shot types against two-point jumpers is too strong. Hunter took more 2ptJs than any other shot last season, at a whopping 40.8% of his output. His 33.3% at the rim is a respectable number, but taking 8 2pt jumpers for every 5 3FGA is the wrong ratio.
Setting screens. If Hunter is going to play the 4, I want to see him playing as a wing 4, not a blocker. Saw too much blocker from Dre last season. I think the roster limitations are likely to take care of this situation for me, though, because I just don't see the possibility of him playing many minutes as a 4. If he does, however, I hope Bennett indulges his reported affection for the Villanova offense.
Injuries. A sprained ankle in freshman practice might have been the main reason he redshirted that year. A twisted ankle against Duke limited him for a couple weeks of the ACC season, and we all know what happened with his wrist. Let's hope he's put his share of injuries behind him.
It takes no special knowledge to forecast a huge role for De'Andre Hunter. Expect him to be top three in minutes played - #3, in fact, behind Guy and Jerome. He will most likely play the overwhelming majority of those minutes as a true wing. The team's depth is stronger in the post than it is on the perimeter. If Braxton Key is eligible, we could see the one-post lineup more frequently - almost certainly will - but it is unclear which of the two forwards will be matched up with the opposing four. If I'm game planning for Virginia, I'm putting my wing defender on Hunter and post on Key, comparing the three-point shooting numbers of the two of them.
When on the court, Hunter will be used as a primary scoring option. The Hoos will look to get him the ball and let him make plays. Whether he will be the primary option or just a primary option will depend on how opponents approach the Hoos. On defense, he is going to be the Brogdon defender, the ice blanket Bennett tosses on a hot scorer. I wonder what Hunter could have done with Jairus Lyles.... Ok, I apologize for picking that scab (scab? Let's be real, it's a big ugly inch-thick scar). This would be another reason to move away from a switching defense, to allow Hunter to lock onto a big scorer and take him off the board.
The change in De'Andre Hunter's situation in less than a year is nothing more than remarkable. When the fall 2017 semester was ending, he was a diffident player lacking in confidence, and an uncertain young man not sure if he was happy at UVA. At least one family member wanted him to leave. He couldn't hit a shot against real competition and fell over his own feet a few times. Now he's an absolute stud overflowing with confidence in his game, being forecast as a possible lottery pick in the next NBA draft, and widely expected to be one of the best college players in the country! He gives Virginia a true plus athlete who is also a smart and skilled player. It is pretty remarkable for a player in Tony Bennett's system to score the way Hunter did. Even with his poor start, Hunter scored over 18 points per 40 minutes in ACC play to lead Virginia by a wide margin. Since 2013, only Malcolm Brogdon in 2015-16 has exceeded that mark. Will Hunter score at that rate again? A lot will depend on defenses. If they switch focus from stopping Guy to focus on stopping Hunter, he might not - although then Kyle Guy might. And that would be just fine with Hunter.