25-under-25: De’Andre Hunter at No. 22

25-under-25, Atlanta Hawks

De’Andre Hunter will be crucial to the short- and long-term success of the Atlanta Hawks, provided he stays healthy enough to remain on the court.

Most NBA teams fall into one of two categories: those aggressively pursuing as many wins as possible and those stockpiling talent with the hope of eventually competing for a championship. The Atlanta Hawks are one of the few teams situated in the middle of that Venn diagram — at once an up-and-coming young roster with an emerging star and a competitive, playoff-tested team with genuine championship aspirations. Both timelines center on Trae Young, but not far down the list of Atlanta’s most important short- and long-term pieces is De’Andre Hunter, the team’s versatile third-year wing and, potentially, biggest variable for the coming season.

It’s hard to draw any meaningful conclusions from Hunter’s injury-riddled 2021 season. A partially torn right meniscus cost him the better part of four months, then season-ending surgery on the same ligament sidelined him for the last two rounds of his team’s playoff run. By season’s end, he had appeared in just 28 games and played under 900 total minutes, including the playoffs. That inconclusive sample size paired with his uncertain health leaves exceedingly little to work with when evaluating Hunter’s trajectory for next season. When healthy, however, he gave the Hawks reliable shot creation and stalwart on-ball defense on the wing, fulfilling his promise as both a long-term building block and a key member of a team ready to win right away.

While his offensive usage only increased marginally, Hunter’s true shooting percentage spiked to over 60 percent last season, largely on the strength of his improved mid-range shooting and finishing at the rim. An improved handle, better body control and a stronger frame made him a more assertive downhill attacker and steadier spot-picker, giving Atlanta two offensive elements it didn’t consistently have without him.

De’Andre Hunter is a secondary creator the Atlanta Hawks desperately need on the court

He converted a respectable 62 percent of his shots at the rim last year, thanks to both a higher share of assisted looks (often as a result of running the floor or cutting at the right time) and improved craft around the rim. As a rookie, Hunter could get to the rim with two or three hard dribbles but usually lacked the touch or creativity to finish over sturdier rim protectors. Last year, he not only had more shake off the bounce but looked more comfortable using his left hand and was more agile in the face of help defense:

That improved interior prowess also produced more free-throw attempts, which, coupled with significantly greater accuracy at the line, allowed Hunter to collect easy points at the charity stripe. When driving lanes weren’t available, Hunter was more than comfortable pulling up from the mid-range, where he shot a Durant-esque 54 percent on nearly four attempts per game. That astronomical efficiency is likely unsustainable, but Hunter’s ability to consistently get to his preferred spots on the floor and shoot over defenders could provide a handy bailout option when Atlanta’s offense bogs down:

While most of his brief sophomore breakout came on offense, the bulk of Hunter’s present value and long-term promise is in his defense. Though he isn’t quite nimble or strong enough to legitimately guard five positions, he’s clearly Atlanta’s most important wing defender and will therefore be essential to the team building upon last year’s playoff success. At 6-foot-8, 225 pounds with quick feet and a 7-foot-2 wingspan, Hunter may be the only Hawk with the physical profile required to contend with playmaking wings like James Harden, Khris Middleton and Jimmy Butler (figuring out Kevin Durant or Giannis Antetokounmpo is another matter).

Even if he can’t quite hold up in one-on-one matchups with superstars, Hunter should continue to progress as both an on-ball and help defender next season, assuming a full recovery of his knee. Improved discipline on the ball would help him iron out some cheap fouls, and dialing up his aggression away from the ball could raise his value as a team defender.

Hunter tends to play cautiously on defense, staying home whenever possible rather than taking gambles that might leave him out of position. He’ll do all he can to make an opponent’s shot uncomfortable but seldom erases the attempt altogether, as evidenced by surprisingly low block and steal rates for his position. That conservative approach helps him avoid mistakes, but it also limits his impact as a defensive playmaker and occasionally plays as hesitance. Finding the balance between those two styles is difficult, but Hunter has the defensive capacity to be more aggressive without compromising his positioning.

The lone part of Hunter’s game that didn’t improve last year was his 3-point shot, which will be a critical part of his fit in Atlanta’s offense. Even as his overall efficiency rose, Hunter shot just 32.6 percent from distance last season thanks to a slightly larger share of pull-up jumpers and a drop in catch-and-shoot accuracy. The latter figure will be particularly important in his and the Hawks’ offensive growth next season, given how many open shots Young creates, and a key part of Hunter’s job is to pay off those looks.

It would be great if Hunter could eventually give Atlanta another dynamic on-ball creator, but it may be more important, at least next season, for him to master the basics of his role — a complementary piece for now, with a world of possibilities to explore.

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