As the NBA season approaches and training camps get underway, we’ll be taking a look at the player on each team that holds the key to unlocking their potential, starting in Atlanta with third-year forward De’Andre Hunter.
Hunter was on his way to a breakout sophomore campaign, averaging 15 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per game on 48.4/32.6/85.9 shooting, but knee issues plagued him all season, limiting him to 23 games in the regular season and a torn meniscus ended his first postseason after the first round against the Knicks. Without Hunter, the Hawks surprised many by upsetting the Sixers to reach the Eastern Conference Finals, pushing the eventual NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks to six games.
The Hawks will look much the same this coming season, led by Trae Young and John Collins, with veterans Clint Capela, Danilo Gallinari, and Bogdan Bogdanovic all back for another go around. Most of Atlanta’s offseason moves this summer were about bolstering depth, which means top-level improvement needs to come from internal development of their young stars and better health, as well. Hunter will be the biggest addition to the roster we saw in the Conference Finals — along with Bogdanovic being back at full strength — and his two-way ability has the potential to keep the Hawks in the conversation of East contenders.
Hunter’s impact defensively is tremendous. In 678 minutes (an admittedly small sample), the Hawks had a defensive rating of 105.9, while without him (a much larger 2,803 minutes) the team’s defensive rating was 113.0. Even factoring the noise of on/off defensive rating, the Hawks are significantly better when he’s on the floor thanks to his considerable gifts as an on and off ball defender, with versatility to guard 2-4. Adding him back into the lineup will, if nothing else, be a boost defensively, but it’s on the offensive end, where Atlanta is already terrific, that Hunter has the biggest questions.
Prior to the injury, Hunter was shooting 36.6 percent from three in the first 18 games of the season (his 1-of-13 stretch in the last five games of the regular season brought his percentage down considerably) and he was emerging as more of an on-ball threat in his second season. If he can sustain that back at full strength, he makes the Hawks a far more dangerous, balanced team no matter who he is paired with on the wing between Bogdanovic and Kevin Huerter, who had a breakout of his own in the postseason.
The Hawks have a chance to be the third best team in the East next season, as there is a clear top two in Brooklyn and Milwaukee, but ample questions beyond that considering the Ben Simmons situation in Philadelphia (partially caused by the Hawks). If they are going to get there and have a chance at threatening either of those two top dogs, Hunter will need to not just sustain what he did at the start of last year, but continue growing as a player, something that’s very much in play for the third-year forward.