R.J. Hunter should not be in the position he is in.
The incessant griping about the Celtics’ lack of perimeter shooting is justified, with there being few — if any — options both in the starting lineup and off the bench for reliable 3-point shooting.
However, Hunter, a first-round pick in 2015, is known for his shot, so this should be his wheelhouse. Instead, he’s on the fringe of making the final 15-man roster.
“It’s just spurts where it’s like, ‘Bro, what I am I doing wrong?’ ” Hunter said, speaking to MassLive.com on Saturday at the Basketball Hall of Fame. “And it’s nothing. You’re just on a really good team.”
Hunter brings up a good point. On most any other NBA team, Hunter would have been a much more heavily utilized asset, not the eight minutes per game player he was in his 36 NBA games last season. Conversely, the 22-year-old didn’t do himself many favors when given the opportunity from Brad Stevens to play.
The shooting guard shot a pedestrian 30.2 percent from 3, while putting together a 36.7 percent field goal percentage, totaling a 2.7 points per game total over the course of the season. As a result of the underwhelming performances, he found himself in the D-League for eight games during the middle of the season. While there he shot slightly worse from 3-point range than in the NBA, with a 29.6 percent mark, but ultimately averaged 13.8 points per game.
“At that point, it was just so completely mental,” he said. “I’m not going to lie, my ego got in the way of me making shots. It was almost like for me, whatever I do, I’m in the D-League, and if I don’t do well, it looks worse. And that’s just the wrong attitude to have instead of just going in there. When you have that mentality, now I’m rushing shots. I’m not finishing shots. I’m not really putting in preparation like I have to on every shot. That’s part of growing up, though — you’re in the league, and you’re caught up in it.”
And now with the slow going to enter the league, he finds himself in a precarious position that is simultaneously a life lesson on the business of basketball: competing against a friend.
Almost immediately when he came to the Celtics, Hunter befriended James Young and has grown close with him. Also struggling to earn a spot on the 15-man roster, Young conceivably could be the biggest roadblock in Hunter starting the season with the Celtics, and vice versa.
“It was awkward at first, because we clicked,” Hunter said. “It was like, ‘Oh, you like the same things I like.’ And then we just became homies, because we were always on the bench, or we were always working out together. We always shot together after practice. I think we both know what’s at stake, and we’re grown enough to put that aside. We all have our dreams and aspirations, but it’s bigger than just me against him. I think we both kind of know that.
“It’s weird with me and James. We’ve always competed for that spot since I touched down in Boston. It’s like ‘All right, it’s going to be me or you.’ Like, that’s such my homie. That’s the crazy thing about it. It’s part of the business, though.”
If Hunter can find his way and return to the form that saw him shoot a career 35.5 percent from 3 and 42.6 percent from the field in his three seasons in college at Georgia State, he could become a valuable asset off the bench.
What sets Hunter apart is the optimism that he can hit from deep, and the two people he needs to impress most — Stevens and president of basketball operations Danny Ainge — he has.
“Danny just told me a lot of the things he likes,” Hunter said. “‘You have long arms, great touch, great feel, if you really want to put your mind to this, you could be as good as you want to be.’ That’s coming from DA. Come on. What else do I need to hear? The same with Brad, Brad’s always been good about complimenting my game. … Just what they said about what future I have and how good I can be, it was super uplifting.”
Hunter has been busy this offseason, watching tape with ridiculous amounts of detail and narrowing down what he needs to improve. It starts with the basics, with his footwork being periodically off last season.
“Every close-out I’ve had, my feet were either too spaced or I’m not ready to slide and compete,” he said. “Footwork, that’s the control of your body, so it starts there. Working on that is just building my foundation.”
Time will tell for the second-year pro, with camp now less than a month away, but after a disappointing rookie campaign, things can only go up.
“I trust my game more than ever, I trust myself more than ever,” he said. “I saw so much I can implement, given a chance. I’m really excited about that.”