Inside De’Andre Hunter’s Road to the National Title
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because he fought through frustration so Virginia could win it all.
Update: Behind Hunter’s career-high 27 points, including a huge 3-pointer to force overtime, Virginia won the national championship on Monday night. This story was first published ahead of the Final Four.
Many college basketball players arrive on campus with an ultimatum — playing time or else — which helps to make Virginia’s De’Andre Hunter remarkable. He chose to confront a snub. In the fall of 2016, the star at Philadelphia’s Friends’ Central School — a Top 100 player in the country — showed up in Charlottesville to coach Tony Bennett telling him he was going to sit out the year as a redshirt.
“I was pissed for two weeks,” Hunter says.
Many others in his situation would have stormed off campus. According to NCAA statistics, 40 percent of Division I basketball players transfer before the end of their sophomore year. “There were some people who told me I should leave, but that would have been the soft thing to do,” Hunter says about transferring. “I’m not soft.”
There is not a more admired player on the team, because Hunter accepted the redshirt and has blossomed into a first-round pick.
This came even though Hunter admits that when he committed he “didn’t know much about” Virginia’s grinding offensive scheme, which is about as far as it gets from a pro-style isolation offense that can showcase a player of Hunter’s gifts for an NBA future. He just liked the people. Did Hunter recoil when he found out about the demands of the UVA “pack-line” defense, which has chased off offensive-minded recruits? “I like playing defense,” he says. Hunter has become himself, not what others demand basketball stars should be.
So just watch Virginia’s best player in the Final Four this Saturday and know he has been up against annoyance before and slugged his way through it. Whether he thrives on the biggest stage will likely determine if the Cavaliers can bring home the school’s first-ever hoops national championship.
Hunter was a projected lottery pick in June’s NBA draft before the NCAA Tournament, but that is less certain now. His tournament has been full of offensive struggles, shooting just 12-for-32 from the floor (37.5 percent) in the past three games after topping 50 percent for the season. He was a reliable facilitator all year long but had the ball slapped off his leg for a key turnover against Purdue in the Elite Eight and uncharacteristically missed short shots.
Yet, in the UVA locker room following the chaotic win to secure the program’s first Final Four since 1984, he was all grins, no grim. “When someone is not playing well, we have guys who can step up and play well,” Hunter told reporters, rattling off teammates’ names and not including his own. “We don’t get down.”
His team needs him to be aggressive, but despite his last name, he doesn’t hunt shots. Hunter’s buckets come within the flow along with guards Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome, though lately forward Mamadi Diakite — he of the dramatic shot to send the Purdue game to overtime — has joined the mix.
Hunter’s value goes beyond points. He is never pushed around on the court, he facilitates offense, he rebounds (5.0 per game) and, holy smokes, does this man play defense. The Atlantic Coast Conference Defensive Player of the Year can match up against virtually any position on the floor (though even he couldn’t slow Purdue’s Carsen Edwards, who dropped 42 points on the Cavaliers). The 6-foot-7, 225-pound Hunter has been measured with a wingspan of 7-foot-2.
“If he ends up guarding you at practice,” says sophomore forward Austin Katstra, “you might as well just go home. He’s not going to let you do anything.” Adds Duke’s Cam Reddish: “One of the best defenders we played against.”
Hunter’s defensive stance is classic: sit and slide. He seals gaps in the defense by making it really hard to throw a basketball around him. It is harder still to shoot a ball over him (Carsen Edwards notwithstanding). “That year I redshirted, I learned how to better get up into people on defense and stay in front,” Hunter says.
Walk around the UVA locker room and you’ll find there is not a more admired player on the team because Hunter accepted the redshirt and has blossomed into a first-round pick. Hunter’s best friend on the team is the irreverent guard Jerome, whose sarcasm and high jinks can tip over a too-serious room. “Dre can keep up with Ty,” Katstra says. “Seems quiet, but he can be pretty fun. They are our class clowns.”
Jerome and Hunter are also chieftains in a rollicking, free-for-all card game called Capitalism that also goes by the name Scum. It sounds ruthlessly fun, as players race to get rid of all their cards first so they snatch the tag of president. Jerome, a New Yorker with a playground ethos, is regarded as the most competitive guy on the roster. For Jerome and Hunter to bond is a show of Hunter’s hidden sauciness.
When he needs a basketball break, Hunter favors medical drama Grey’s Anatomy on Netflix, he says. And then there is the dancing Dre. The public personality suggests two left feet and no bounce. The athleticism and the knowing nods of his teammates suggest he is quite the artist.
Hunter’s offensive game could use more dance floor rumba. He does not show a lot with the dribble-drive, which the NBA will have to drag out of him in workouts. Jerome and Guy are the ones usually knifing into the paint and peeling open the opponent’s defense, and Hunter feeds off that.
But when his team needs him, like against Oregon when he scored four points in the last 27 seconds, or when he made the winning bucket in overtime against Purdue, Hunter delivers.
Keep that in mind as you’re handicapping Virginia’s Final Four chances. When frustration hits hardest, Hunter doesn’t run.
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