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R.J. Hunter is a Draft Steal Waiting to Happen

NCAA Tournament hero R.J. Hunter has announced that he’ll forego his senior season and enter the NBA draft. Although Hunter played against mostly weak competition and doesn’t have numbers that jump off the page, he has enormous potential and is being underrated by the scouting community. Hunter is projected to go anywhere from the late lottery to the early second round, and any team that gets him 18 or beyond is getting real value.

There was some buzz at the beginning of the season that Hunter could fall in the 10-15 range with a solid season, but his efficiency took a major hit in his junior year. Although he scored a career-high 19.7 points per game, Hunter’s field goal percentage fell from 44.4 percent to 39.5 percent. Perhaps more importantly, his three-point percentage went from 39.5 percent to 30.5 percent.

Because the three-point shot is supposed to be Hunter’s biggest strength, that three-point percentage is going to make some teams wary of taking him. But basing a player’s shooting potential from one season of college statistics can be dangerous.

A great example of a player who had a poor shooting season despite being billed as a great shooter is Bradley Beal. Beal was obviously on a different level as a prospect than Hunter is right now, but there were doubts about how great a shooter Beal could be because of his sub-par shooting (33.9 percent) from deep in his only collegiate year. Beal is currently in the top 10 in the NBA in three-point percentage, and one of the most feared shooters in the league.

Another excellent example is Wes Matthews. Matthews’s shooting numbers were awful in his sophomore and junior years. Matthews combined to take only 147 threes in the two seasons combined, and made less than 30 percent of them. Even after shooting near 37 percent his senior year, Matthews went undrafted. He shot 38.9 percent on threes this season in the NBA, proving players can shoot well from deep even if they don’t necessarily do so in college.

Hunter clearly has the potential to be an elite shooter. His release is lower than one would like, but he makes up for it with an incredibly quick release and unlimited range. Take a look (for the millionth time) at Hunter’s game-winner against Baylor:

Notice how quickly he can get a shot off from well behind the three-point line. This is a critical skill at the next level, as NBA players close with incredible quickness.

With a huge emphasis on shooting and ball movement the past few NBA seasons, wings need to be able to drive to the basket when defenders close out on shots and make quick decisions with the ball. Hunter showed the ability to do that this season, with his assist rate soaring from 10.5 percent to 20.3 percent. He also showed off a nice in-between game, with a decent right-handed floater in the lane. He had the ball in his hands much more this season, and, although he’ll never be mistaken for an NBA point guard, Hunter showed enough ability to take advantage of defenders closing out hard on his jumper.

Hunter still needs to gain some muscle, and he’ll most likely struggle initially with the physicality of the NBA. He’s only 190 pounds and struggled with more physical players in college. Fortunately, he looks capable of filling out his 6’5 frame. It might take a year or two, but filling out should help Hunter with his problems finishing at the rim, which is one of his weaknesses.

Despite some issues at the rim, Hunter still showed enough craftiness and athleticism to draw contact at the college level. His free throw rate improved significantly each of his collegiate years and was well above-average for a jump shooter. In fact, among players who attempted 200 threes this season, Hunter ranked third in the NCAA in free throw attempts per game, per Sports-Reference. If he does fill out some, Hunter could improve even more in this area and be a very versatile offensive weapon.

Defensively, Hunter isn’t going to be mistaken for a stopper, as he has average athleticism and has the physicality issues. However, if he fills out, Hunter profiles as a decent wing defender, as he has great length (6’9.5 wingspan) and has shown good defensive instincts in college. Hunter may never be an elite wing defender, but he shouldn’t be a liability, either.

Ultimately, Hunter is still a bit of a project, and there is some uncertainty in his NBA future. But if a team that can afford to be patient with him drafts him the second half of the first round, it’ll likely be one of the steals of the draft.

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