By Evan Zaucha
The draw for teams in the 2020 NBA Draft when it came to selecting De’Andre Hunter was that he was an NBA-ready on-ball wing defender with a promising three-point shot who wouldn’t need many touches to make his mark. In many ways, Hunter did exactly what was expected of him. In others, he proved a surprise for one reason or another.
Interestingly, De’Andre’s success this year didn’t come from where many analysts expected. The shooting was as-advertised. However, he struggled to defend bigger wings on-ball, the skill he was most highly touted for before the draft. While the on-ball defense will need work to fulfill the promise it showed coming into the league, Hunter did a solid job gunking up the passing lanes and making things difficult for opposing teams.
These surprising avenues of success suggest a higher ceiling than originally anticipated, but what does he need to do to maximize his potential and push his development to the next level? With a few tweaks to his mentality and physicality, Hunter can build upon his promising first campaign.
Spacing the Floor
One of the most important skills one can possess when playing in a rotation alongside a shot-creating wunderkind like Trae Young is the ability to knock down catch-and-shoot threes with consistency, and Hunter did just that. While his release can be somewhat mechanical, Young’s gravity helped Hunter get open looks (93rd percentile shot quality, per BBall Index) and Hunter knocked them down at an acceptable rate given his volume (35.5% on 4.8 3PA per game, per Basketball Reference).
Hunter’s reliable shooting on catch-and-shoot threes opened up the floor for Trae Young to go to work, a crucial part of any lineup built around a heliocentric primary initiator. In this sense, the Hawks got what they bargained for. Hunter can improve even more in this department by working on his handle when attacking defenders on closeouts. This will force defenders to make a split second assessment every time Hunter receives the ball, prohibiting them from becoming complacent and helping off him to pay extra attention to Young.
Trustworthy Team Defense
Hunter may not be the event creator every elite defense needs. His steal and block rates are extremely low (1.0 and 0.7 respectively, per Basketball Reference) for such a capable defender with good size, a high level of awareness, and solid technique. While he could be more aggressive on the defensive end, he does his job well and wing defenders are a valuable commodity in this league.
De’Andre keeps offenses honest with conservative-but-conscientious team defense principles. Hunter stays home, doesn’t get beat off the dribble too often, and provides help on the weak side when necessary (especially when rolled out as a nominal power forward). He knows his personnel and typically makes the correct decision whether to go under or over on screens. He’s not going to create points off turnovers often, but he ensures the opposing team’s wings have to work hard to make things happen on the offensive end.
I can see De’Andre Hunter making additional strides on this end with some seasoning. As he becomes more comfortable in the league with more repetitions, De’Andre will have a better feel for when to make something happen off-ball and when to stay home and contain. In addition, an increased level of strength would allow him to handle bigger wings and be more impactful on-ball.
Savvy Ball Movement
This point is a smaller one in Hunter’s favor, as he wasn’t a high volume shot creator, but some of the passing flashes De’Andre Hunter showed in college appeared in his rookie season as well. Hunter does a good job finding the open man on the short roll, and he keeps the ball moving within the flow of the offense if he’s not open on the catch.
I’d like to see Hunter get more opportunities to act as the roll man in simple pick-and-roll actions. It doesn’t need to be a primary focus for the offense, but finding opportunities for him to continue to develop as a ball-mover will prove valuable for the Hawks as they seek to build a future contender. Ensuring the Hawks’ half-court offense doesn’t stagnate if teams commit to doubling or blitzing Trae Young will be critical to any potential postseason success the Hawks expect to enjoy going forward.
Offseason To-Do List
As mentioned previously, Hunter is relatively skinny still as a rookie and Atlanta would do well to ensure he hits the weight this offseason. Specifically, I think he should focus on adding muscle mass to his lower body. Increased quad strength would allow him to stand his ground better against big wing initiators, and his once-vaunted on-ball defense could return.
Adding strength wouldn’t just help on defense either. Hunter can hit catch-and-shoot jumpers, which causes defenders to closeout hard when he gets the ball in the corners. While his handle is nothing special, De’Andre needs to be able to punish these closeouts by attacking the rim. This is a capability he hasn’t shown much of so far, and I’m curious to see if he’ll ever be more than a floor-spacer/glue-guy type.
Lastly, once the Delete Eight teams can return to five-on-five basketball activities, the Hawks should encourage Hunter to be more aggressive off-ball when defending in scrimmages. Watching the film, one can tell he reads actions and can see a step or two ahead, but he’s too conservative and prefers to stay with his man over taking chances. A greater willingness to cause disruptions on defense would result in easy buckets on offense, and Hunter has the tools to make that happen. While there are things he can improve on, De’Andre Hunter had a fine rookie season and looks to be a promising option as a starter at either forward spot for Atlanta going forward.
BONUS: Evan if a “Cardiac Research Scientist By Day, Basketball Analyst By Night” who reached out to do a feature piece for the site. Give him a follow! And, if you have interest in contributing, contact us! Thanks, Ev!