The NBA is no easy landscape for a rookie to navigate. In many ways, surviving the first year in the world’s top basketball league is simply a matter of finding one’s bearings. There’s so much new information to absorb, unfamiliar challenges to face, and hard lessons to be learned -- not to mention the increased physical strain of playing against a higher level of competition, traveling constantly, and ramping up weight training.
Getting a feel for all those different rhythms takes varying amounts of time and repetition to learn. De’Andre Hunter came into the NBA a sturdy 6-foot-7, 225 pounds, with multiple years of college experience and an NCAA championship under his belt. If any 21-year-old would be prepared for the physical toll of an NBA season, it’d be him. Yet even Hunter, who led all rookies in minutes this year, felt some wear-and-tear from his first professional season.
“The season is strenuous,” he said. “From practicing, to watching film, to games, to travel, it’s just a lot. Being a rookie, it’s something you have to get used to.”
One consideration he didn’t account for was the threat of a global pandemic, which altered the course of his rookie season and the NBA’s future alike. The Hawks were among the eight teams in action the night of March 11, when midway through an overtime loss to the Knicks, Hunter caught word during a dead ball that the season might be over. Minutes later, he confirmed the rumor with the Hawks’ coaching staff on the bench. “After that it was basically like a pickup game,” Hunter said. “It was just weird playing out the rest of the game not knowing if we would have another game, or if that game even mattered.”
Like the rest of the world, the Hawks sat in limbo for months, awaiting a decision from higher powers. That resolution came this week, when the NBA Board of Governors approved a return-to-play scenario that includes 22 of the league’s 30 teams, with the Hawks being excluded.
“It’s tough, especially being my rookie season. You get so used to playing and practicing and getting treatment and things like that,” Hunter said. “For it to just come to a stop and you basically don’t know when it’s gonna restart -- you have so many questions.”
Hunter stayed in Atlanta for the first few weeks after the season shut down, but has spent most of his time in Charlottesville, Virginia, where he has access to a basketball court and a weight room. He spends his days working out with former Virginia teammates Devon Hall and Ty Jerome, Jerome’s younger brother, Kobe, and their trainer, Damin Altizer.
Hunter knows more will be expected of him in his second year as the Hawks aim to get back into the postseason. The 22-year-old may never be a primary scorer in the NBA, but his size, defensive versatility, shooting, and ball-handling should at least make him a multifaceted role player who scales well with other good players. More than his individual scoring or playmaking, Atlanta will count on Hunter’s complementary skills next season and beyond. “Just keep sharpening up my defense, my shooting, handling the ball,” Hunter said of his offseason goals. “I’m just trying to be a good all-around player.”
The Hawks will need his contributions most on defense, where he figures to guard opponents’ best wings and help shore up the unit from the weak side. While the pack-line defense helped turn Hunter into the national Defensive Player of the Year in college, it deviates philosophically from more conventional NBA converages. That, combined, with stylistic differences to which all rookies must adapt, made Hunter a somewhat inconsistent defender as a rookie. He posted exceptionally low block and steal rates, and occasionally missed help responsibilities or struggled getting through screens by taking bad routes or losing contact with his man.
“Guys are great shooters in the NBA. They run a lot of plays for those guys and I’m usually guarding them, so it was a little different, just staying attached to guys and fighting around screens and being able to contest without fouling,” Hunter said. “Sometimes I do it well, sometimes I don’t.”
At the point of attack, Hunter looked more comfortable. He fared reasonably well defending All-Star wings as a rookie -- most notably against James Harden -- sliding his feet and using his chest to absorb contact. His length allows him to challenge shots when opponents rise up off the dribble and recover when they step back or get by him. The next step will be asserting himself more consistently as a help defender.
Offensively, he flashed more capability as an NBA rookie than he got to in college. In addition to shooting 39 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s, Hunter ranked in the 54th percentile among forwards in usage rate and the 44th percentile in assist rate. Partly out of necessity, Atlanta let him stretch himself as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, and while the results were often poor, it allowed Hunter to explore parts of his game that will eventually come in handy in a more ancillary role. Over his last 18 games, he averaged 13.5 points and 6.5 rebounds on nearly 42 percent shooting from beyond the arc. Even if he levels off there -- unlikely given his age -- he’ll still be a perfectly suitable piece of Atlanta’s Trae Young-centric offense.
The Hawks don’t need Hunter to be a visionary passer or explosive ball-handler, only a sound decision-maker and willing ball-mover. As a rookie, Hunter proved capable of making the extra pass against rotating defenses and finding teammates on basic drive-and-kick plays. He has sound instincts and fundamentals, and usually played under control and within the team concepts. As the season wore on, he began to look more steady putting the ball on the floor and making decisions.
Those simple reads, and the more advanced ones that follow, become easier with time and repetition. The longer a player spends in the NBA, the more the game slows down, as it did for Hunter late in the year. Now better acclimated with the NBA game, he and the Hawks can expect to clear a higher bar next season.
“The NBA is a faster-paced game, but when you play so many minutes and you see so many things, you just get used to it and the game slows down a little bit,” Hunter said. “I feel like I did a pretty good job taking care of my body, staying healthy, playing as many games as I could. So I feel like I have that under my belt, just knowing what it takes to go through an NBA season.”