By now, hoop heads have seen, read and heard about 6-7 wing/forward De’Andre Hunter’s heroic performance guiding Virginia to the program’s first national championship in April.
They’ve also heard all the jokes about the Cavaliers being the first No. 1 seed to get bounced in the first round of the NCAA Tournament a year prior. Hunter heard them, too, unable to help his squad as a former redshirt freshman who became the ACC’s Sixth Man of the Year, because he was sidelined with an injured wrist.
“It taught me a lot,” Hunter says. “I knew my role would increase. So I knew I had to do everything I could to perfect my game to be the best player my team needed.”
He averaged 15.2 points per game and 5.1 boards, and locked up just about any position on the floor defensively on his way to First Team All-ACC and ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors. He capped the season with a career-high 27 points in the national title game—including big shot after big shot—and put the cuffs on Texas Tech star Jarrett Culver.
The Cavaliers’ notoriously slow, continuous pace on offense, and defensive connectedness and stinginess, is conducive to winning ball games and titles, but not great for gaudy individual numbers. So Dre sacrificed stats for a ‘chip the last two seasons, but wound up with both during his final collegiate game.
“I remember (Villanova’s) Donte (DiVincenzo) going crazy in their championship, and it seemed so far away at the time,” says Hunter, a native of Philadelphia, where he attended Friends’ Central School. “I thought about how amazing it would be to be on that stage with all those people in the stadium. So just to be there, and then to win it was a surreal feeling.”
Standing on the podium next to Jim Nantz as the star of the national championship game must have seemed like a pipe dream when Hunter was 16. He began to garner interest from local Division I schools like Temple and LaSalle during the summer going into his sophomore year of high school, but a broken leg wiped out his ensuing season.
“It was definitely a big setback for me,” Hunter says. “My coach told me a few schools were starting to look at me, so when I broke my leg I thought that maybe that would go away because I didn’t play, and I knew other guys would have a chance to do things I couldn’t.”
By the time Hunter hit the circuit after his junior season of high school, he was back to killing, but still under-the-radar relative to most future lotto picks—both in terms of offers and the arbitrary rankings college fans love to check.
In fact, UVA didn’t even get into the mix until Hunter’s last tournament on the circuit in front of coaches—the Fab 48 in Las Vegas. Virginia associate head coach Jason Williford remembers head coach Tony Bennett saying, We have to have him, that’s our guy, during that tournament. The rest is history.
The decision to redshirt came about shortly before Hunter’s freshman season, when it was evident he wasn’t going to be guaranteed a spot in the rotation. Williford, who played at UVA before graduating in 1995, told Hunter that he regretted not redshirting, having logged a total of only 36 minutes his freshman year. Though Hunter was disappointed at first, like any hooper being told they aren’t going to play would be, he dove headfirst into acclimating himself to the Cavaliers’ system, strength program and the overall physicality of DI college hoops at practice.
Biding his time until it was his turn was nothing new for Hunter.
“Every time we put him in one-on-one drills, to be honest…” Williford explains. “It’d be one-on-one with guards, or one-on-one with some of the bigger and more versatile forwards, in those settings, we felt like we couldn’t wait to have that guy. He could score the rock.
“Then every time we put him in on defense, and he’d have to guard multiple spots, he was staying in front of guards and wings. He just kept getting better over time and we knew we had a good one.”
All 2018-19 season, Hunter proved to be a killer from the high post, either facing up and draining jumpers from the elbow or getting by his man off the dribble and finishing at the rim. His length, athleticism, skill and feel allow him to excel in any offensive situation. He’s equally versatile and prolific on the defensive end as well.
That is the recipe for a lottery pick, which Hunter should be in June.
Williford has high expectations for Hunter in the League, mentioning his ability to adapt to whatever role a coach needs him to play on the court.
“At the next level where the floor is spaced a little more, and the defenses can’t pack in like they do in college, I think you’ll see more to his game,” Williford adds. “In the summer the guys would tell us all the time how unbelievable he is when they play pickup. Obviously when they’re playing pickup there’s no coaches around, so they aren’t playing our pack-line defense.”
You can expect to see more of Hunter’s playmaking arsenal on display in the NBA. You can also expect him to make an immediate impact wherever he lands.
“I’m eager to showcase my full game,” says Hunter, who declared for the draft a week after winning the title. “I can do a lot more than I showed at UVA. There were flashes at times but I can dribble, shoot off the dribble do things people think I can’t do.
“I think my defense will help me a lot (in the NBA), and my versatility overall. I feel like there isn’t one thing on the court I can’t do. I think any team would need that. I think that will all translate just fine.”
For someone who missed his entire sophomore season of high school ball with a broken leg and didn’t know if he’d garner major Division I interest, and as someone who entered college without any draft hype, Hunter is used to his game speak for itself.
“I definitely felt like I was overlooked and felt like I was just as good as the top guys in the country,” Hunter says. “My coaches have always believed in me, and I worked hard to have a chance to be one of those guys. I feel like in the end, it’s worked out perfectly.”
The days of overlooking De’Andre Hunter on the court are officially over.
Danny Hazan is a contributor to SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @groovedh.
Photos via Getty.