There's no doubt R.J. Hunter can shoot the lights out, as he displayed by scoring 21 points in Sunday's 85-76 win. Hunter's stroke made him an appealing first-round prospect for the Boston Celtics, a team starving for three-point shooting after ranking 27th in the NBA last year. But it's his feel for the game and basketball IQ that will give him an opportunity to earn consistent minutes as a rookie.
"At this level you don't have to do a lot," Hunter said at his introductory press conference. "They already have a playoff team, so I don't have to come in here and be superman, which is perfect for me. I just use my feel, use my shooting, use my IQ, and I can come in here and compete and I'll fit in."
Hunter's years of experience and love for watching film has clearly paid dividends for him, as he is quickly acclimatizing to the speed of the NBA. One-dimensional players often find themselves riding the pine, but Hunter brings much more to the table.
Offensively, he makes plays for others and defensively he is reliable off-ball, both important skills for players looking to carve out a role. These attributes have been a pleasant surprise to those who didn't watch the sharpshooter play in college, but his father/coach says he's actually a better passer than a shooter.
"Everybody talks about his shooting, but he is an elite passer," Georgia State head coach Ron Hunter told Celtics.com in June. "He has a vision that's uncanny. A lot of it has to do with being a coach's son, but he sees things a little differently than most people."
Here, Hunter shows off his pure point ability by reading the defense and accelerating to penetrate the paint. He elevates and delivers a relatively accurate pass to a wide open Jonathan Holmes for the three. Hunter needs to work on his dribble drive game when attempting to score, but he's not limited since he's capable of making plays for others.
This play is something Brad Stevens could run for Hunter this season. Jordan Mickey set a down screen for Hunter, who sprints toward the middle of the floor to draw the attention of the defense. This sets up the pass for easy points. The timing is good and Hunter whips a dime to Mickey, while allows him to move seamlessly into the dunk.
"I love film," Hunter said at the NBA Combine. "You just get to see everything when you feel like you did something, but then you really see what you did. It comes naturally when you watch film. It helped me sharpen up and see the floor more. I thought it just gave me an extra edge."
That edge has helped Hunter rapidly adapt to Boston's system, and he'll continue to grow throughout the summer as training camp approaches. Plays on offense will always make the highlights, but it's his defense that will determine how much and how frequently he plays this season.
As was the case last year, both Gigi Datome and James Young were unable to earn consistent minutes down the stretch because they were unreliable on the defensive end. While Datome is an elite shooter, and Young theoretically is, shooting isn't enough if you're getting scored on with ease on the other end.
So far, Hunter has passed the eye test and has developed each game. He keeps his head on a swivel playing off-ball, and appears to be picking up man-to-man concepts quickly after primarily playing zone in college.
"Defensively he's picked up our stuff pretty well in just 10 days," Stevens said on the NBA TV broadcast. "He's got a ways to go and he'll get stronger, and he's got a lot of work ahead of him, but I like what he can do."
On this play, Hunter properly rotates over to the free throw line to run the big man off his shot, ultimately forcing a low percentage pull up jumper. The movement on the weakside led to an open rebound opportunity for the 76ers, but Hunter pushes his man out of the way to snatch the rebound and end of the possession.
These sequences are what separate him from other young players in the league, who tend to get lost off-ball or forget to box out.
Hunter's experience as an impactful zone defender clearly helps him. He averaged 3.9 steals per 40 minutes as a junior, which is partially due to the scheme that allowed him to roam, but he has excellent instincts and vision. With a high IQ, it's unsurprising he has caught on instantly.
This is a good example of where Hunter needs to improve, but also what he's naturally capable of. He's switched onto a point guard, and falls out of his defensive stance while being late to "ICE" the on-ball screen, both symptomatic of a player not completely adjusted to playing man-to-man.
But he does a great job of fighting around the screen and recovering to use his long wingspan to block the shot from behind. With his long arms and elite instincts, he's already threat to rack up deflections and contest shots. The ability is there, he only needs experience and physical maturation to take his defense to the next level.
And Hunter knows that he must; he said before the draft he plans on adding 5-10 pounds by the end of the rookie season and his early progression is already supportive of his historically high work ethic.
"Instead of being reactive, I try to be proactive," Hunter said. "I just try to stay two steps ahead of everything."
If R.J. Hunter continues being proactive throughout his rookie season with the Boston Celtics, it won't be long before he's a rotation player who is leaned on to drain threes and bring a lot more to the table.
Here's my pre-draft scouting report of R.J. Hunter from my 2015 NBA Draft Guide.