Is R.J. Hunter still worth the gamble?

Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

There’s something easily digestible about R.J. Hunter — something familiar that allows us to buy into his ability quicker than players with similar skill sets. Maybe it’s his silky smooth quick shooting stroke that takes us back to Steph Curry at Davidson, or the heart-warming story of an NBA prospect playing for his father at a small university like Doug McDermott.

Whatever it is, Hunter is fitting a narrative that makes fans take notice and scouts fall in love.

But after a season where Hunter’s efficiency dipped into an undesirable range, scouts are left asking themselves whether it was R.J. Hunter they were in love with at all, or the idea of R.J. Hunter.

The junior small forward has been dramatical drops in his three-point percentage (30.8 percent down from 39.5 percent last season), field goal percentage (40.0 percent down from 44.4 percent), and free-throw percentage (77.6 percent down from 88.2 percent) — not something NBA teams want to see in a player grabbing attention for his scoring ability. Despite the drop in efficiency, Hunter is still able to score his highest points per game total of 20.1 thanks to a higher dosage of field goal attempts.

That isn’t what pro scouts had in mind for what should have been most dominant season, though.

These shooting valleys can’t all be put on Hunter, of course. When you’re in the discussion of the country’s best pure shooters, you’re going to have some defenses adjust to your game. This season, Hunter has seen the frequent double team and large amount of crashing when he has the ball. While he notched most of his points from a catch-and-shoot action last season, defenses are now forcing him to earn his points off the dribble which has lead to a more rushed release in his shooting motion. He’s also having to rely more on quick first steps to get around the first defender in order to create space.

He’s having to go from this…

…to this…

This new facet of Hunter’s offensive game — though still being pruned — should be an encouragement to scouts. Hunter came into this season at the top of every opposing team’s scouting reports, and has adjusted the way he gets points based on what defenses are giving him. It’s refreshing to see players known for their shooting ability have the humility to abandon it when it’s not there in order to find a better look.

If scouts can see that, then they should also be able to see how Hunter has expanded his influence on both ends of the court. Looking past the scoring numbers, Hunter is putting up his highest per game totals in assists (3.8 from 1.7 last season), steals (2.2 from 1.9 last season), and blocks (1.1 from 0.9 last season).

Still, there is more that scouts wish they could see in order to get a true gauge on Hunter’s professional ability. For starters, the Panthers almost exclusively run a zone defense — something that won’t be found on professional courts too often. This has been a long-time knock on Jim Boeheim and his Syracuse squad in regards to developing NBA talent in that his players are never as good, defensively, as they looked in college.

This worries scouts, for good reason, and could very well apply to R.J. Hunter, too. His 6–foot–6 frame gives him great length at the position, as does his improving footwork, but there’s no way of truly knowing how well he’ll match up one-on-one against elite perimeter players. This is especially tricky if a team invests in him hoping to turn him into a “three-and-D” type of player.

And then there’s the issue of the Panthers’ schedule, whose only true test all season long has been Iowa St. Many players get the benefit of matching up against top-flight talent a few times a week in front of scouts, but  R.J. Hunter has been buried in the weak Sun Belt conference. In that one game against the Cyclones, Hunter scored 21 points going 8-for-20 from the field and 4-for-11 from behind the arc. Iowa St. had a large lead most of the game, so many of those shot attempts came in desperation, early in the shot clock, and were pull ups from deep.

Hunter is currently 24th in Draft Express’s player rankings, which is down a few spots from earlier in the year. There’s some word that scouts are worried about his thin frame, and whether he’s going to be able to put on muscle, but we’ve learned from Kevin Durant that if the shot is there, weight becomes less of a problem.

That brings us back to where we all started with R.J. Hunter: his shot. In every sport, there’s a specific skill that trumps any fixable shortcomings that may exist within a player. In baseball, if a player has a beautiful swing and can crush the ball, the general manager will find a spot for him in the field no matter his skill level at that position (i.e. half of all first baseman). In basketball, this is a shooting form. When the form looks as good as Hunter’s, all it takes are small tweaks to get it back on track, and don’t think scouts aren’t drooling over that fact.

The Georgia St. Panthers will be dancing this year, so we will get to see possibly one more chance for R.J. Hunter to go up against a top-tier team. While scout’s perceptions of Hunter are mostly cemented, a good performance against two- or three-seeded squad could be the push he needs to jump up a few draft picks.

His next game will be the biggest of his life for many reasons, but none more important than proving to NBA teams that he’s worth the gamble.