By any reasonable expectations, De’Andre Hunter’s season went mostly as expected. Much like his game and emotional demeanor, the rookie’s season never slid to one extreme or another, but rather held steady along a path of gradual improvement. He might lean hot for a week or two, then run cold for a stretch, but save for the occasional nagging injury, not much moved him off of his consistent line.
The Hawks sacrificed a great deal (including four draft picks) for the right to draft Hunter last summer. Atlanta viewed him as both a central long-term piece and a valuable short-term cog, and thus invested heavy minutes in him early in his career. Hunter led all rookies in minutes this season (32 per game, 2018 total) while starting 62 of his 63 appearances.
While he showed flashes of offensive upside as a rookie, Hunter’s primary appeal is his defense. With Trae Young clearly at the center of its long-term plans, Atlanta must build a specific kind of roster around its point guard. Young will likely always be one of the worst defensive players in the NBA, which necessitates placing a cast of versatile defenders around him. Hunter -- at 6-foot-7, 225 pounds, with a 7-foot-2 wingspan -- is critical to that endeavor.
In a league dominated by elite offensive wings and forwards, teams must have someone with a fighting chance of containing those players, and Hunter may be Atlanta’s best candidate. The gap between those who can credibly defend the NBA’s best wings and those who get overwhelmed may seem slim, but the points of separation are significant. Right now, it isn’t clear if Hunter will become that type of defender, even if he still projects as a solid one. His rookie season provided both warning signs and reason for optimism about his defensive upside, and Hunter looks to be on roughly the same defensive trajectory Atlanta envisioned when it drafted him.
He’s fairly sturdy for a rookie, with quick feet and outstanding length, and Hunter applied those tools well at the point of attack. The 22-year-old is already a solid on-ball defender against most wings and can hold up in the post against bigger players. After getting worn out by James Harden in Houston, Hunter had one of his best defensive performances of the year against the eight-time All Star later in the year. He isn’t an exceptionally fluid athlete, which gave him trouble getting over screens -- both on and off the ball. Like his teammate, Cam Reddish, Hunter could be more proactive in stepping into and attaching himself to ball-handlers before screens occur to avoid getting picked off. He’ll also need to get stronger to hold up as a small-ball power forward and to physically challenge superstar wings.
Away from the ball, Hunter struggled to assert himself. Unlike Reddish, he isn’t a particularly disruptive or aggressive defender; he prefers to simply stay in front of the ball and keep the action under control. Hunter posted extremely low block and steal rates for a forward, which diminished his value as a rim protector and help defender. He seldom gets in the passing lanes or reaches for the ball, and doesn’t dart around the floor looking to incite chaos. There is a balance to find between disruption and discipline; wreaking havoc and forcing turnovers shouldn’t necessarily come at the expense of defensive integrity. But Hunter could stand to dial up his activity, and likely will as he becomes more comfortable on defense.
At this stage of his career, Hunter’s offensive game contains little pop or dynamism. He’s at his best working off the catch with the defense already in motion, either flicking spot-up 3-pointers or attacking closeouts with hard drives. Off of one or two dribbles with space in front of him, he can be an assertive finisher at the rim; in tighter spaces, he becomes more limited:
By necessity, the Hawks put the ball in the rookie’s hands often at the start of his career, giving him the leeway to create and get downhill. With few exceptions, those touches came in middle pick-and-rolls on the left side of the floor, allowing Hunter to get to his strong hand and attack into space:
He scored only 0.69 points per possession this season when he shot out of the pick-and-roll -- an expected outcome for a player just beginning to navigate the constantly changing landscape of the court and learn the fundamentals of playmaking. He gets decent extension on layups, but shot just 55 percent within four feet of the rim and struggled to finish over length around the basket. Hunter seldom finishes with his left hand, and even looked slightly uncomfortable driving left at times. He often had the ball stripped by smaller defenders on his way to the basket, a weakness that should improve with time. Developing his off-hand dexterity and diversifying his interior touch will help boost his efficiency at the rim, as will becoming stronger and craftier.
Hunter was more productive and efficient after Collins returned from suspension. In a more limited off-ball role -- the kind he’ll play for the fully-formed Hawks -- the rookie blossomed into a reliable standstill 3-point shooter from both the corners and above the break. Hunter shoots an easy ball with a high release and tight rotation, and he became increasingly willing to shoot as coaches and teammates encouraged him to do so.
He showed flashes of proficiency in the midrange and the post -- areas he could develop into handy failsafes as a tertiary creator or on second units. Hunter isn’t an outstanding playmaker, but for a rookie showed promising feel and acuity making basic reads -- possibly a product of spending two years in a finely-tuned college system. He keeps his head up in drive-and-kick scenarios, and instinctively makes the extra pass to the corner when defenses close out to him:
Hunter hit the rookie wall hard -- an obstacle made worse by nagging wrist and ankle injuries. He struggled on the second night of back-to-backs, and played through pain, soreness, and fatigue that, frankly, might have led other players to consider taking a night off.
After the All-Star break, once he pushed through his rookie struggles, Hunter closed the season with the best stretch of his young career, tallying 13.2 points and 7.4 rebounds per game over his final 13 contests while shooting 42 percent from beyond the arc. He made it a point to hit the defensive glass harder, and his rebounding noticeably ticked up as he played more power forward in small lineups.
The Hawks would probably like to see Hunter spend more time at the four. He played roughly a third of his minutes there last season -- mostly with the rest of Atlanta’s young nucleus -- and the Hawks posted a respectable 1.12 points per possession in that time. Both Hunter and his teammates, however, will need to improve defensively for that to be a viable alignment against quality competition. Soon enough, those results will begin to matter, and Hunter, one way or another, will help decide them.