MINNEAPOLIS — At halftime against Texas Tech on Monday evening, the whispers became shouts aimed in the direction of De’Andre Hunter. Though the redshirt sophomore forward has been projected as a lottery pick in the 2019 NBA Draft for months, the broad nature of the stage during the national championship game provided the opportunity for many to evaluate his game for the first time. Prior to the break, Hunter didn’t perform at an optimal level, missing seven of his first eight shots, and that, combined with a profile not always associated with top-end status in the draft, gave skeptics ample fuel.
Then the second half arrived and Hunter was nearly perfect. The 21-year-old exploded for 22 points in the final 25 minutes of game action, converting seven of his eight shots (including all four of his three-point attempts) to greatly aid in Virginia’s run to the national championship.
Beyond the natural storyline of Virginia’s embarrassing loss to UMBC one year ago leading to a situation in which the Cavaliers cut down the nets in 2019, Hunter’s own story is wildly intriguing. It is often ignored that Hunter, who was projected as a first-round pick had he declared for the draft after the 2017-18 season, was not present for Virginia’s high-profile first-round loss last season, as he was sidelined with injury. Without the benefit of hindsight, it would be aggressive to boldly state that the Cavaliers would have avoided disaster had Hunter been on the floor but, at the very least, his presence may have helped to shift the outcome in a more positive direction.
Regardless of the past, Hunter’s game is well-suited to the NBA in a modern sense. At 6’8 with a 7’2 wingspan, Hunter is able to defend multiple positions at a high level, even with some appropriate questioning about his statistical translations. He may not be a full-fledged game-changer on the defensive end, largely due to his lack of “havoc” statistics like blocks and steals, but Hunter’s size and physical profile paint an optimistic picture in the way that he can deter opponents.
That was on full display on Monday when Hunter stood toe-to-toe with fellow projected lottery pick Jarrett Culver. While the Texas Tech standout made plays in his own right, it would be reasonable to say that Hunter won the head-to-head duel, particularly when taking into account Culver’s numbers in the game when defended by someone other than Hunter, compared to his performance when the duo was faced off directly.
“We wanted that matchup,” Virginia head coach Tony Bennett said of Hunter defending Culver. “We really wanted to have that matchup. So Chris, Coach Beard, did a great job of they went small. When they went small, we had to match and go small. Braxton (Key) did a great job. And we wanted to switch the ball screens. Then we’re a little worried because he is so good, but we just tried to make it happen as much as possible, and Dre (Hunter) made him work to get shots.”
“De’Andre, he was just named Defensive Player of the Year, and his ability to lock in and slide is as good as most,” Bennett continued. “I thought that was a great two-way performance, defensively and offensively, in this game and this setting, and he saved his best for last. That tells you there’s something in that young man. He’s got more — he’s scratching the surface.”