NBA Draft Prospects: De'Andre Hunter

De'Andre Hunter dominated the National Championship but he has been playing like a top five talent all season with his elite defense and improved shooting ability.

Despite winning consistently over the past eight years, University of Virginia basketball has consistently been ridiculed for their play style. They have been called boring, old-fashioned, and stuck in the past while focusing on defense and efficient offense. The Virginia program has struggled to attract big-name recruits, but they have still been able to develop and produce NBA talent. While many Virginia players like Mike Scott, Joe Harris, and Malcolm Brogdon have gone on to have successful NBA careers, none in recent years have been as talented as De’Andre Hunter.

Hunter’s defensive expertise and improved scoring potential have made him a top-five talent in this year’s NBA Draft. Hunter returned to Virginia this last season in order to redeem the failures of the prior season, display his improved offensive versatility, and cement his status as an elite defender. This season Hunter showed that he is one of the most promising two-way wings in this draft with his ability to take over a game on either end of the floor.

Main Selling Point

The most attractive aspect of Hunter’s game is his elite defense and 3-and-D potential. His strong 6’7" frame and 7’2" wingspan give him the physical foundation of a strong defender, which is complemented by great instincts, timing, and footwork. These tools led Hunter to be the anchor of one of college basketball’s best defenses.

On top of guarding every position with ease, Hunter demonstrated a big jump in his offensive production. He became a more efficient shooter and proved that he can score in multiple ways. Per Synergy, Hunter scored 1.284 points per possession on catch and shoot opportunities (90th percentile in D-1) while also scoring 1.338 points per possession when cutting (81st percentile). Hunter won’t be relied on as a lead scoring option, but his floor awareness and off-ball impact are obvious.

Off-Ball Defense

Judging a college player’s defensive acumen can be difficult as many don’t translate well to the NBA; look no further than the sieve that goes by Andrew Wiggins. The reason that players of this ilk don’t translate is usually because they relied on their elite athleticism to take advantage of the less fortunate. While Hunter is a good athlete, his best tools are his awareness, timing, and footwork. All of these made him a suffocating college defender and will accompany him to the NBA.

This sounds banal but one of the biggest aspects of playing good defense is being in the right spot and getting in the way. I know, I know, a lot more goes into it than that, but as a starting point, this is something that young players often struggle with. They fail to make rotations, make too strong of rotation, or get caught ball watching; long story short, they aren’t where they need to be. That won’t be an issue with Hunter.

Hunter’s defensive awareness and length are most obvious on his weak-side rotations. Below we see how Hunter immediately recognizes the play and bails out his teammates. Wake Forest begins by setting a pseudo-screen near the top of the key. The miscommunication between the Virginia players leaves Wake Forest’s center a wide-open lane. Since Hunter’s man (bottom of the video) is more than one pass away from the ball, Hunter knows that he can shade closer to the lane in case he needs to rotate. Hunter and the ball handler seem to recognize the scoring opportunity at the same time. As the pass is made, Hunter breaks towards the rim, gets in front of his opponent, avoids making contact, and blocks what looked like it would be an easy layup.

 

We see a similar situation as before in this next clip. Hunter has less room to cover on this rotation and it is a little more obvious but just as impressive. Bryce Brown explodes towards the rim with every intention of setting the building on fire. Most defenders make a business decision and get out of the way, but not Hunter. Hunter rotates over a few feet and denies Brown at the rim. While this block shows Hunter’s willingness to rotate, it also shines a light on his explosiveness off two feet, the impact of his length, and his ability to be a weak-side rim protector at just 6’7.

 

We’ve seen Hunter defend in the post with his weak-side help, but he is also great at denying post position and using his strength to guard bigger defenders. Below we see Hunter utilize great positioning, strength, and footwork to deny Zion Williamson any sort of post position. Williamson is one of the strongest players in the country, but Hunter isn’t intimidated. Hunter fronts Williamson and never relinquishes position because he never crosses his feet and he stays low. This allows him to fully utilize his lower body strength. Hunter shows off his defensive versatility by denying Williamson the ball for eight seconds while three Duke players fail to find a passing lane.

 

On-Ball Defense

A lot of Hunter’s steals and blocks come from his off-ball defense, but some of his most impressive plays are when he is defending the ball handler. Hunter can switch onto any position and still defend at a high level. His footwork is impeccable (always sliding, rarely crossing) and he seems to know where his opponent wants to go before they make their move. This makes driving on him a hurdle, to say the least.

RJ Barrett was one of the best scorers in college basketball and had no issues getting to the rim, except against Hunter. Below we see Hunter play exceptional defense and not let Barrett get off a clean shot. Barrett initially tries to beat Hunter with speed, but once that clearly won’t work, he lowers his shoulder to create space. This also fails. Barrett proceeds to jump straight into Hunter, likely trying to draw a foul, but Hunter stays straight up and is strong enough that the contact doesn’t affect his positioning. Barrett gets a second attempt, but Hunter is there for another strong contest before he rips down the rebound.

 

In this clip we see a play develop similarly to the one above, but this time Hunter doesn’t even allow Barrett to get to the lane. Once Barrett is cut off, he tries to spin back towards his right. This doesn’t phase Hunter at all because he slides his feet, which allows him to always keep his balance and react quickly. Realizing that he has been cut off yet again, Barrett just lowers his shoulder and throws up a heavily contested shot that had little to no chance of going in.

 

Offensive Outlook

Hunter won’t be a team’s primary scoring option, but that doesn’t mean he won’t make a positive impact. Hunter’s floor awareness is evident on offense as he is a good cutter and rotates well on the perimeter. Over the last season, Hunter showed his improved shooting form and that he could be a more efficient shooter despite the increased volume.

Most of Hunter’s offensive opportunities will likely come from catch and shoots. We touched on it earlier, but in case you forgot, he scored 1.284 points per possession (90th percentile) in these situations. In layman’s terms, he’s good. Below we see how comfortable he is moving on the perimeter and getting off a quick shot. As Ty Jerome drives, Hunter's man slides over to swipe at the ball. Hunter recognizes that the corner is both very wide open and the only place Jerome will be able to pass to if he needs to bail out of his drive. Hunter knocks down the three because he does a great job of getting his feet set and keeping his form consistent, despite the late shot contest.

 

While Hunter’s on-ball responsibility will be limited, he has improved at getting to the rim. Per Synergy, Hunter scored .949 points per possession (67th percentile) on drives in ISO situations. This number doesn’t stand out as a strength but more of a sign of improvement and the possibility for continued development.

Below we see how Hunter’s improved ball handling and strength allow him to get to the rim. Hunter tries to drive baseline but that is quickly cut off by the weak-side rotation. He then uses a crossover and hesitation that freezes his defender for a split second. This gives him enough space to drive to the middle of the floor and use his size and strength to split the defense to get to the rim. This skill is something that Hunter will need to continue to develop but it has massively improved since last season.

 

Offensive Concerns

Hunter’s offensive game improved a lot this season but there are still some glaring concerns that will hinder him in the NBA. His overall decision making is far too slow. He struggles to find cutters on time and is easy to close out on because of his slow shooting motion. We often hear how some players need to learn to slow the game down, but in Hunter’s case, he needs to speed up.

Related to his slow decision making is his play-making inability and struggle to create space off the dribble. Hunter is a smart passer but when he needs to make a difficult pass or manipulate the floor like a primary ball handler, he really struggles, as we see below. Hunter is matched up again with Barrett (a below average defender) and can’t do anything when he tries to drive. Hunter makes a couple of moves but they don’t create any space. He ends up dribbling into a double team. To avoid traveling - because he has lost all balance - Hunter throws a wild pass that gives Duke a fast break.

 

Hunter’s struggle to create space off the dribble isn’t limited to just that clip either. Per Synergy, he scored a measly .762 points per possession on pull up jumpers this season. When you juxtapose this with his catch and shoot numbers, the difference is clearly due to Hunter’s inability to create space. Below we see how Hunter is shut down on the perimeter by an NBA caliber defender in Jarrett Culver. Culver cuts off Hunter’s drive attempt immediately. Hunter then crosses over a few times to try and get any reaction out of Culver. Since they are basic moves and Culver is a great defender, Culver doesn’t bite, forcing Hunter to take a contested long-two. Hunter ends up making the shot, but it is one of the worst shots in basketball and not something that should be settled for that easily.

 

Going Forward

Hunter has been towards the top of draft boards all season based mostly on his NBA size and defense. In the National Championship game, he showed how efficient he can be scoring the ball too. From day one Hunter will be a great team and individual defender. He will be able to switch onto any opponent and defend at a high level. His offensive impact will come away from the ball but to expect scoring outbursts like he had in the National Championship game would be foolish.

The worst-case scenario for De’Andre Hunter is that he is a really good defensive player in the NBA for a long time. Drafting Hunter will be like drafting a good offensive lineman in the NFL; it won’t be obvious where the impact comes but he will be a valuable piece. The team that drafts Hunter will need to be patient with Hunter’s offensive development, but there are already signs of improvement. Hunter’s ability to make a positive defensive impact and his offensive potential make him an easy top-five talent in this year’s draft.

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