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R.J. Hunter realizes his time must be now

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As the Celtics continue to push front-line talent to the top of their rotation, other players, like R.J. Hunter, are left finding fewer opportunities to contribute.

Boston Celtics v Atlanta Hawks - Game One Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

R.J. Hunter was supposed to be the steal of the draft—the sharp-shooter to end Boston’s perimeter woes. He was to be Brad Stevens’s secret spark plug when the team needed a scoring punch. When James Young was relegated to the Red Claws’ rotation, Hunter emerged as a potential regular addition to Boston’s lineup. Hunter’s hype persisted well past draft night, and the Cs were starving for the kind of outside shooting that Hunter had demonstrated in college.

The idea of Hunter as a roster regular floated as far as the coach’s office. Fanfare may not hit a coach like Brad Stevens, but curiosity can. Through New Year’s Day, Hunter displayed flashes of brilliance. While Stevens bequeathed some inactive games and DNPs to Hunter, R.J. saw 11.6 minutes per game through his first 20 contests in green. For a team that had an influx of bodies, these opportunities would have solidified his spot in the lineup had his production held steady.

Instead, Hunter was left to ponder his subpar Boston performances in Maine after shooting a horrid 26.7% from outside in those 20 games in green. The Stevens challis was handed to him before any one of the younger members of the roster. He ultimately lost his grip, and Rozier latched onto an opportunity and soared to great heights. From there on, Hunter saw 5.1 minutes per game in just 16 contests. Fans didn’t see Hunter again until the team was desperately in search of buckets in Atlanta for game two of the first round.

Digging deeper into his production, albeit in a small and hectic sample size, Hunter showed skill in shooting Steph Curry-like shots—he shot 36% on shots in the 25-29 foot range compared to 21% in the 20-24 foot range. That sample doesn’t even include his half-court drill against Minnesota. Given that Hunter shot 33 shots from 25-29 feet and 28 shots from 20 to 24 feet, the numbers alone are large enough to draw some conclusions from them. However, in context, that these shots were spread out over a long season of inconsistent playing time makes them, at best, a shaky ground from which to draw conclusions.

What is hitting home for Hunter, luckily, is that there isn’t time to wait for a large sample over a consistent span. He even sees this inconsistent production for what it very well may be: his last chance to make a significant impact in a Celtics uniform:

“I’m a competitor, so it’s just absolutely motivation for me,” he said of training camp competition. “I think it just adds an extra competitive spirit to training camp, which is a great way to get the year started.”

His foes are mostly familiar faces, too. Hunter likely will find himself across from James Young, John Holland, and newcomer Gerald Green at the swingman position should the current roster stand. Perhaps the signing of Green escalated Hunter’s alertness to the situation at hand, or perhaps he glimpses the huge amount of bench time that awaits him should his production dip below that of Green. Whatever the motivation, Hunter’s basic premise is that he is now the “most ready” he has ever been for training camp.

Hunter could get lost in the fold just a year after being drafted—an indicator of the talent the Celtics have been able to add through their successes in the draft and the trade market. Hunter’s situation emphasizes the importance of seizing the moment while you are able. If Hunter ran with that twenty-game head start he got on the other young guns, both he and the team could have been in a completely different situation right now. This fall, with ten or eleven players solidly above him and two or three in direct competition for bottom-end minutes, his back is against the wall. The bright side? As Stevens has shown in the past, all wounds are healed if you can bury him some threes, and that was Hunter’s bread and butter in college. Shoot away, R.J.