R.J. Hunter’s welcome to Georgia State and college basketball came on a layup after a steal against Duke in his first game.
His welcome to the NBA didn’t go quite as well.
Having already made a few shots in three previous games, Hunter was going in for a layup in his fourth game when he caught out of his eye New York’s Derrick Williams coming in to contest the shot. Hunter tried to put the ball off the glass. Williams volleyball spiked the ball into the stands.
“He could have head-butted the block,” Hunter joked. “I knew I was going to have switch up my finishes.”
That may have been the only rough spot for Hunter in his transition from becoming a household name after leading the Panthers into the third round of the NCAA tournament, to just another rookie in the after the Celtics selected him with the 28th pick in the first round of the draft.
“It’s kind of like starting over and rebuilding,” he said. “You have to do that at each level, but at this level it’s magnified. In college you can get away with getting there and being the guy. There are only a few guys who can do that in the NBA.”
So, Hunter said he has been watching, studying and working, particularly his defense. The Celtics will open the regular season on Wednesday against Philadelphia.
Few questioned his shooting ability after becoming Georgia State’s all-time leading scorer in less than three seasons. Many people questioned his athleticism and ability to play defense as a professional.
So, Hunter has devoted himself to improving his defense.
After the four hours the team spends each day practicing, Hunter said he spends another hour watching film or on the court trying to fine-tune his techniques, particularly his footwork.
In that game against the Knicks in which his shot was blocked, Hunter played 21 minutes, 25 seconds and finished with a plus-minus ratio of minus-11, which isn’t good but not exclusively reflection of his play on defense. It was his worst mark in that category, but one of just two poor results in his first seven games.
“Defensively, he’s way ahead of where I thought he would be,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens was quoted as saying after a preseason game against Brooklyn in mid-October. “He’s just long and active.”
Hunter’s offense has been mostly solid. Hunter scored in bunches at Georgia State; the best example being the 12 points he scored in less than three minutes to rally the Panthers past Baylor. Possibly because he isn’t the focus of the offense in Boston like he was at Georgia State, he hasn’t scored nearly as much. But he is scoring each game, as few as 2 points in three games and as many as 11 against Brooklyn.
His other skills have impressed Stevens.
“I think it’s pretty obvious, just watching him, he really has a feel,” he told reporters in Brooklyn. “It just comes pretty natural — little passes, simple plays, being able to put the ball on the money to other people, understanding spacing, understanding where his opportunities are going to come. And he’s got a pretty good feel for the game.”
Hunter is undergoing adjustments off the court, as well. Hunter and his father, Ron, who coached him at Georgia State became tied together by the national media after both broke down crying following the final game in the NCAA tournament, a loss to Xavier. After three years together at Georgia State, R.J. Hunter is on his own now and is appreciating the experience.
“You can find yourself and your hobbies,” he said. “I really enjoy that.”
Among his discoveries are that he is developing an appreciation for art, museums and fashion. He said he spent time learning about all three during the Celtics’ preseason trips to Milan, where he attended an A.C. Milan soccer game and sat next to Mario Balotelli, and Madrid.
He also enjoys the material things. He has splurged, upgrading from a Chevy Impala to a white Mercedes-Benz truck that he had wanted for some time.
But none of that is taking his attention away from developing as a professional basketball player.
“This year I just want to learn as much as I can,” he said. “We have such a good team with good depth, I don’t really have to do too much. We have great vets and a bunch of guys who have been through it.”