In downtown Atlanta, dominating opponents in an unassuming gym named “The Sports Arena” that looks more like a high school gym than that of a team with NCAA Tournament hopes, there’s a 6-foot-6 basketball star who has put Georgia State on the map.
R.J. Hunter only went to Georgia State because his father, Ron Hunter, became the coach there after leaving IUPUI — which he turned into a solid mid-major program. The Indiana kid that could have gone to the Hoosiers or other bigger programs in the midwest came to the South wanting to play for his father, and in the process turned the program into one of the top mid-majors in the country.
The two Hunters have done more for Georgia State’s basketball program in the past three years than anyone had in over a decade since the Panthers’ last NCAA tournament bid. Ron Hunter realized the Panthers wouldn’t recruit at the highest level initially, but could bring in great transfer talent that had left the Atlanta area and were in need of a new start and looked to come home for it.
Enter R.J. Hunter’s backcourt running mates Ryan Harrow — formerly of Kentucky — and Kevin Ware — formerly of Louisville. The three make up one of the nation’s finest backcourt trios, and in between those two former top recruits, it’s Hunter that’s made himself into the darling of NBA scouts and evaluators.
Hunter entered this season with high expectations after a big 2013-14 season — 18.3 points per game with a 62.3 TS% — that he followed up by impressing at multiple camps this summer. I made the trek downtown to my alma mater on Thursday to take in the R.J. Hunter experience in person as the Panthers took on another top mid-major program in Green Bay.
The Panthers blasted the Phoenix from the opening tip and Hunter looked like the player that had NBA teams interested in him as a potential first round pick. Against the length of Jordan Fouse, he was still able to free himself for shots thanks to his great range and ability to create space off the bounce. Against a smaller Kiefer Sykes — a top mid-major player in his own right — he was able to rise over him for shots and even flashed a brief moment of high post skill with his back to the basket to draw a foul.
Hunter finished the game with 26 points — on 6-of-16 shooting, 4-of-13 from three — five rebounds, two assists, and two steals. He did well to get to the free throw line — going 10-for-12 — and was as active and attentive on defense as he has been all season. If there were ever a game to shine in, it was this one as there were at least a dozen NBA scouts and front office personnel in attendance to get a look at how Hunter fared against a quality opponent.Mandatory Credit: Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Sports
Hunter is a player that has scouts and evaluators divided. Some, like ESPN’s Chad Ford, are extremely high on him and see him as a low lottery level talent, while others say they wouldn’t draft him in the first round. All that he needs is one team to grade him out at a lotto talent to be taken there, but even within teams there will be those with questions about his NBA readiness and those that will love his talent.
The arguments on both sides have their merits, so we’ll start with the potential issues.
We’ll start on defense, where there are just a lot of question marks. Georgia State exclusively plays zone — usually 2-3, but they also have a 1-3-1 — so no one knows what he can do on the defensive end in man-to-man and we won’t know until he gets to the league. He has long arms and is pretty adept at jumping passing lanes, but there are concerns about his ability to cover in man-to-man since he’s never done it and doesn’t have a lot of size — he’s plenty tall, but very thin.
One scout I spoke with mentioned his thin legs as a concern. Plenty of players come into the league and add weight and strength to the upper body, but as the scout mentioned, it’s tough to do that with the lower body. Where R.J.’s slight frame concerns him is whether Hunter will be able to play with more physical wing players in the NBA, particularly on defense.
Speaking with scouts about Hunter both at Summer League in Las Vegas — after he wowed scouts at Durant and LeBron’s camps respectively — and last night ahead of the game against Green Bay, the defensive question are harder for some to get past than others. Some shrug it off as part of evaluating a college player — there are a lot of teams that run nothing but zone — while others drop him slightly because of it.
RJ.’s offensive skills aren’t in question, but his maturity is. He has earned a reputation of being a chucker, which is usually the result of the Panthers’ offense getting stagnant and Hunter getting frustrated with other players not making shots — Ryan Harrow is particularly frustrating for Hunter because of his tendency to dribble for long periods and not finish consistently around the basket on drives.
When this happens, Hunter will shoot the ball from anywhere on the floor, no matter how many defenders are around. One NBA front office person I spoke with also brought up his tendency to celebrate his good plays and not get back and play defense — he mentioned a specific play last season where Hunter dunked, and then ran back waving his arms to the crowd without knowing the opposing point guard was dribbling the ball up behind him. His arm hit the guard and he was called for a foul without ever seeing him.
This season he hasn’t had any moments nearly as egregious as that, and growing up is part of the process for any player — especially one that is THE STAR at a small school. R.J. is really good, and he knows it, which is also part of what makes him such a great player.Mandatory Credit: Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Sports
There are few shooting guards in this draft that have the offensive ability of Hunter, and with the premium put on three-point shooting in the NBA — which he certainly has the range for — it’s understandable why some would be so high on him.
Hunter is one of the best three-point shooters in the draft. He shot 39.5% on three-point attempts last season on 7.7 attempts per game and is at 36.7% on 8.6 attempts per game this season. He garners full attention from opponents on the perimeter and continues to find ways to put up 20+ points per game. Scouts love his shooting form, from footwork to release, and his athleticism and length make them feel he could become a decent wing defender if he puts the effort into that side of the floor.
This season, he’s tightened his handle and improved his finishing at the rim, where he’s finally using his lankiness to his advantage by keeping the ball high. Keeping his dribble tighter — where it used to get wide away from his body — has helped him get to the rim to take advantage of defenders trying to close out on him harder to keep him from shooting threes.
While he can get himself into trouble launching ill-advised threes, he projects to be more of an off-ball player in the NBA that will help a team maximize its spacing. In that role, Hunter can excel, which is the main reason he’s so coveted by NBA scouts. When Harrow and Ware penetrate the defense and actually kick the ball out to Hunter, he’s a deadly spot-up weapon.
In the right system, Hunter could be a better — certainly more efficient — offensive player in the NBA than he is in college. He has terrific footwork for a young shooter and is able to establish a solid base, square himself to the basket, and fire a shot as quickly as anyone. The Panthers don’t work him off of a ton of off-ball screens, but when they do, he shows a good understanding of how to free himself from a defender to catch and shoot quickly.
One of his favorite, most effective moves to get himself open off the ball is to feign like he’s going to go behind a screen and, when his opponent tries to jump the screen to get on the opposite side, peel back to open space for a catch-and-shoot. Hunter is not as efficient a shooter as Kyle Korver, but he exhibits a lot of similar offensive skills from a footwork/release standpoint. His best fit in the NBA would be with a team like the Hawks or Spurs that would ask him to fill a similar, albeit smaller, role as Korver has in Atlanta — spacing the floor and working off the ball off of mazes of screens.
Situation and fit will be crucial for Hunter’s success in the NBA. While his on-ball skills have improved, he’s not a player made to succeed in an isolation-heavy offense against NBA defenders. He’s not going to break players down off the dribble to create his own shot, and he doesn’t have the frame or build to play back to the basket. However, he shouldn’t be asked to. If he goes to a team that asks to be a shooter, he could excel and become a steal in this draft.
Hunter is a project on defense, but he has NBA-ready skills on offense and can have an immediate impact off the bench as a shooter and offensive weapon. Hunter’s name will continue to rise throughout the season as he will light up the weak Sun Belt in conference play. The biggest hurdle Hunter will have to pass is when teams get him in for pre-draft workouts, but he did himself a big favor by passing the eye test on Thursday against quality competition.