UVA Basketball: A force on both ends, De’Andre Hunter deserves All-American honors

De’Andre HunterOn Wednesday, De’Andre Hunter went about his business as usual. Sure, the redshirt sophomore opened Virginia’s scoring account with a three, had a highlight-reel dunk that he finished through a foul and scored a couple of tough layups as well. But on a night he played just 29 minutes, Hunter’s uber-efficient 18-point game on just 10 field goals attempted went somewhat quietly. After bullying the Yellow Jackets’ zone to the tune of 14 first-half points, he sat out large chunks of the second half as Virginia cruised to a ho-hum win.

It was everything Virginia basketball can be at its best: efficient on offense, unrelenting on defense and, often led by Hunter, simply dominant. As always, though, he was reluctant to talk about his success, crediting the team’s preparation for the big night.

So others praised him instead.

“He’s a great scorer, great all-around player,” Ty Jerome said. “When he comes out aggressive and he’s hitting, he’s giving us points, then he opens the floor up for everyone else, and it makes it much easier for us.”

Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner answered simply, “He’s a pro. He’ll play in the NBA.”

And Pastner is correct. Hunter is a sought-after NBA prospect who will likely be Virginia’s first top 10 pick since Olden Polynice went eighth in 1987.

But before that, he’ll chase the ultimate goal of helping Virginia win its first men’s basketball championship.

Along the way, though, he deserves to be selected as an All-American. His play this season — and especially during ACC play — speaks for itself.

I wrote about Virginia’s chances to have an All-American a few weeks ago, when I compared the cases for Hunter, Jerome and Kyle Guy. In the time since, though, Hunter has elevated himself as the Cavaliers’ top candidate.

Hunter ranks fourth in the ACC in offensive rating. Duke’s Zion Williamson, North Carolina’s Cameron Johnson and Virginia Tech’s Ty Outlaw are ahead of him. Williamson is the likely national player of the year, but Johnson’s and Outlaw’s numbers are boosted because they are relied on primarily for three-point shooting, which naturally boosts offensive rating as long as it is made at a high rate. Hunter has been able to combine a strong inside game with deft touch in the midrange and an ever-improving three-point stroke. Though Williamson’s production blows everyone else’s out of the water, it’s hard to find a better all-around scorer than Hunter, not only in the ACC, but in the nation.

Wednesday marked Hunter’s eighth game with at least 18 points on 11 or fewer shots. That’s tied for second-most in the nation, behind North Carolina Central’s Randy Miller Jr. Among the three players tied for second is Tennessee’s Grant Williams, arguably the favorite to win SEC Player of the Year. Hunter, meanwhile, probably isn’t even the most recognizable player on his own team.

What’s just as impressive is that Hunter continues to come on strong as the season winds down. Four of his 18-point, 11-or-fewer-shot games have come in the last five games. He dumped in 20 points on 10 shots against North Carolina, did the same on 11 shots against Notre Dame and then had a career-high 26 on just 11 attempts against Louisville on Saturday.

Tony Bennett rarely praises his individuals all too much. But on Saturday, he described Hunter’s effort, simply, as “special.”

“He was so complete defensively, he hit the threes, he was driving, and he’s just playing good basketball,” Bennett continued. “You look at his stat-line, 9 for 11, made two for two [from three], got to the line. I just thought he was so efficient. That’s about as efficient as it gets, and that’s what’s so valuable.”

Of course, one thing that always seems to hurt Hunter’s argument is the system in which he plays. Hunter averages 15.3 points per game this season, which might pale in comparison to other top players nationwide. His efficiency numbers, however, tell a different story. He’s the only major conference player averaging 15 points while shooting 57 percent from two and 45 percent from three.

Hunter has also come through when Virginia needs him most. He carried the offense in a second-half domination of Louisville, rescued a sleepwalking squad in a narrow win against Notre Dame, led the way in a close loss at Duke and demolished Virginia Tech in Charlottesville. He’s only posted one game with an offensive rating under 100 in ACC play — the opener against Florida St. In the non-conference slate, he earned MVP honors as Virginia claimed the Battle 4 Atlantis crown.

All that goes without mentioning Hunter’s defense, which, as usual, has been outstanding. Hunter provides length and quickness and has been relied on to slow some of the nation’s best scorers. At North Carolina a couple of weeks ago, he was in large part responsible for holding Coby White to 3-of-13 shooting in the second half.

Of course, there are logistics behind actually making an All-American team rather than just being deserving of one. The Blue Devils’ Williamson and R.J. Barrett are near-locks, as is Murray St. point guard phenom Ja Morant. Last year, Virginia was the No. 1 team in the nation by a significant stretch, and its lone All-American, Guy, was only a third-teamer. Hunter could certainly warrant some first-team consideration — he’s certainly deserving of it — but a second-team selection seems more likely.

Virginia has never been a program that’s been about individual accomplishment. If it were, it wouldn’t play the system it plays or, in all likelihood, have the success it’s had. But this season, Hunter has developed into a transcendent talent on both ends, which is why he’s in the position to become one of Virginia’s highest draft picks ever after just two seasons. Though Hunter’s most important goal — by a wide margin — is to cut down the nets in early April, an All-American selection is one that’s well-deserved by all measures.

Story by Zach Pereles



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