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De’Andre Hunter Can Fix Virginia’s Tournament Blues, If They Let Him

The redshirt sophomore is the best NBA prospect Tony Bennett has ever coached in Charlottesville. But is there room in the Cavaliers’ rigid, grinding system for a true star?  

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

De’Andre Hunter was a footnote to history last season. The redshirt freshman watched from the bench with a broken wrist as Virginia became the first no. 1 seed to ever lose to a no. 16 seed in the NCAA tournament. Hunter, the ACC Sixth Man of the Year, was more valuable than his modest per-game averages (9.2 points on 48.8 percent shooting and 3.5 rebounds) suggest. The Cavaliers have never had a player with his skill set under head coach Tony Bennett. Hunter won’t be a role player this season. He could be the star Virginia has always needed.

“I wanted to come back. I really didn’t like the way our season ended, and I knew if I stayed another year we would have a chance to come back to the tournament and change that,” Hunter told me over the phone last month. “For myself, I didn’t think I was good enough. I still have another year to get better.”

Hunter is a prototypical Bennett player in many ways. He grinds out every possession, is always in the right position on defense, and rarely forces the issue on offense. Bennett, despite not recruiting at nearly the same level as traditional ACC powers like Duke and North Carolina, turned Virginia into one of the top programs in the country by building teams around disciplined future NBA role players like Malcolm Brogdon and Joe Harris, who stayed in school for four seasons.

There’s just one crucial difference between Hunter and the guys who came before him in Charlottesville: He’s a physical specimen at 6-foot-7 and 225 pounds with a 7-foot-2 wingspan. Players with his size and athleticism don’t stay in college for very long. NBA teams wanted Hunter to go pro last season, even though he averaged only 19.9 minutes per game while backing up Isaiah Wilkins, the ACC Defensive Player of the Year. He would have been a lock for the first round if he declared.

Not even Hunter saw this coming. He wasn’t thinking about the NBA at the start of last season. He was a relatively unheralded recruit (no. 74 overall in the class of 2016) coming off a redshirt season. His goal was just to crack the rotation. His defense kept him on the floor initially. It took months for his offense to catch up. The switch flipped around the start of the new year. Hunter went from averaging 6.0 points per game on 43.6 percent shooting in 2017 to 11.3 points per game on 50.6 percent shooting in 2018.

“I definitely surprised myself, especially how the beginning of the season went. I wasn’t playing too much. I wasn’t playing my best basketball,” said Hunter. “I was more confident when I saw a couple shots go in.”

Even when Hunter started making shots, he was still easy to miss. The offense ran through a three-headed monster of perimeter players: senior Devon Hall, the no. 53 overall pick in this year’s draft; sophomore Ty Jerome, a third-team All-ACC selection; and sophomore Kyle Guy, the first McDonald’s All American whom Bennett signed at Virginia. Hunter came off the bench and went through large stretches of games without ever touching the ball. From the outside, he seemed like another faceless cog in the Virginia machine.

It takes a certain type of personality to play for Bennett. The Cavaliers are a proudly countercultural program in the one-and-done era of college basketball. Hunter is one of three players in their rotation who took a redshirt season (senior Jack Salt and junior Mamadi Diakite are the other two). Bennett is not the coach to play for if you want to pad your stats and showcase your offensive game. He’s essentially a sunnier version of Tom Thibodeau. His teams win by playing suffocating defense, slowing the game to a crawl, and out-executing opponents in the half court. Virginia had the no. 1–rated defense in Division I last season, and it was no. 351 (dead last) in pace.

“We don’t care who scores the ball as long as we score. We hang our hat on defense,” said Hunter. “And if you don’t want to do that, this is probably not going to be the place for you.”

Hunter’s defensive versatility is why he started rising on NBA draft boards. There wasn’t a player in the ACC whom he couldn’t guard. He could bang inside with 6-foot-11 big men like Marvin Bagley III, the no. 2 overall pick in this year’s draft, and stay in front of 6-foot-4 guards like Lonnie Walker IV, the no. 18 overall pick. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, Hunter was in the 87th percentile of defenders nationwide on spot-up shots, the 94th percentile against both pick-and-roll ball handlers and post-ups, the 92nd percentile against isolations, and the 99th percentile when contesting shots at the rim. His ability to match up with all types of players and play types fits perfectly with the way the league is trending defensively.

“I was the lead recruiter on [Hunter],” associate head coach Jason Williford told me over the phone. “The first time that Tony [Bennett] saw him was the summer before his senior season [of high school]. He texts me: ‘We have our guy. He’s a big wing. He’s a pro.’ The game [Bennett] saw in Las Vegas, he was going up against Miles Bridges [the no. 12 overall pick in this year’s draft]. And the game after that it was against Josh Jackson [the 2017 no. 4 overall pick]. He had a really good game against both of them.”

One of the most common types of NBA draft sleepers are players forced into smaller roles on their NCAA teams. Think guys like Zach LaVine, a backup shooting guard in his only season at UCLA who is now averaging 28.1 points per game in the NBA. Knocking down open shots was all a player with Hunter’s physical tools had to do to get noticed by NBA scouts. Jonathan Givony of ESPN currently has him as the no. 12 overall pick in his latest mock draft.

There aren’t any red flags in his shooting profile. Hunter shot 38.2 percent from 3 on 1.7 attempts per game, 52.5 percent from 2-point range on 4.8 attempts per game, and 75.5 percent from the free throw line on 3.0 attempts per game. His combination of defensive versatility and shooting ability gives him a high floor as a 3-and-D swingman at the next level. What Virginia has to figure out is whether he can be anything more, and whether its system would even allow him to be if he was.

“You kind of say, ‘Hey, how do you take that experience [of losing to UMBC], collectively, and get better as a team?’” Williford said. “Are there certain things we need to grow as a staff and as players and maybe do differently?”

Losing to a no. 16 seed would be traumatic enough even in the best of circumstances. What made the loss even more devastating for Virginia is how easily it fit into a preexisting narrative. They were known for coming up short in March long before anyone had heard of University of Maryland–Baltimore County. They didn’t lose on a last-second shot, either. The game against the Retrievers was every bit as one-sided as the final score (74-54) suggested.

The loss was every criticism of Bennett and his program condensed into a single 40-minute block. His pack-line defense, which is built around keeping multiple defenders in the paint and daring teams to knock down relatively low-percentage 3-point shots, got lit up by a low-seeded team that consistently made the shots the Cavaliers wanted them to take. And once Virginia fell behind in the second half, its methodical offense made it almost impossible to mount a comeback.

Their style of play makes more sense for David than Goliath. There’s not much room to freelance and be creative in their laborious half-court sets, and they never get out in transition. Bennett has built a program under the assumption that he will never have an athletic advantage over his opponents. Hunter gives him a player who can create mismatches on offense.

Some interesting numbers emerge when you dive deeper into his statistical profile. Just because Hunter wasn’t asked to do much on offense last season may not mean that he couldn’t. Hunter was in the 92nd percentile of isolation scorers nationwide and in the 71st percentile of players when shooting off the dribble. Those numbers came in minuscule sample sizes (30 for the former, 31 for the latter), but he wasn’t going outside his comfort zone on those plays. There are sequences when he can look like Carmelo Anthony, jab-stepping and shooting over smaller defenders then putting his head down and getting all the way to the rim when they press up on him.

Hunter spent most of the summer fine-tuning his offensive game. “The three things I’ve been trying to focus on [in the offseason] are my shooting, ballhandling, and dribbling into a shot,” he told me. With Wilkins and Hall gone, everything is set up for him to have a breakout season, though you would never hear him say that.

Players considering going pro often ask their college coaches to emphasize certain aspects of their game if they return to school. That’s not Hunter’s style. He has bought into the team-first culture at Virginia. Brogdon’s college teammates called him “The President” because of his unusual maturity for a player his age. Hunter could be his chief of staff. He’s the rare 20-year-old with virtually no presence on social media. He posts on Instagram about once a month, and, aside from retweets, has tweeted only once all summer. A lot of players say they don’t pay attention to what is said about them online. Hunter might actually mean it.

“He’s the type of kid who doesn’t even really think about the next level. He’ll address the NBA talk when the season is over,’ said Williford. “I love his approach. He’s in the moment. He’s about the now.”

Virginia doesn’t have to change anything. They can plug Hunter into the starting lineup and be one of the best teams in the ACC. There are things they can do to empower him in the regular season, though, that might help them make their first Final Four since 1984.

Hunter has the size and strength to guard almost every center in the country, and few will be able to stick with him on the perimeter. Playing him in smaller lineups would not only give him more room to attack the basket, it would create more driving lanes for Guy and Jerome. Hunter was used only as the roll man in the pick-and-roll in five possessions last season. Using him in those plays requires more space to operate than Virginia’s lineups typically afford. There’s nowhere for Hunter to roll if he’s playing next to a traditional big man like Salt, who checks in at 6-foot-10 and 250 pounds and hasn’t attempted a single 3-pointer his entire career.

Defense will always be the centerpiece of the Cavaliers program, but their history of collapses in the tournament is proof they need a Plan B. There will be games where they have to outscore a hot shooting team. It’s hard to imagine UMBC, a low-major team whose best lineup didn’t feature anyone over 6-foot-6, being able to stop Hunter if he were attacking off the dribble in space. There might not be many teams in the entire country that can.

For as many January and February wins as Virginia has piled up over the past decade, star players can make all the difference in March. The Cavaliers finally have one of their own. Now they just have to give him enough room on the floor to shine.