De'Andre Hunter was a top-100 recruit as a high school senior, Pennsylvania's Player of the Year and recipient of numerous scholarship offers. He chose Virginia, assuming, as most high-level recruits do, that he was make an immediate impact.
Virgina coach Tony Bennett had other plans.
Hunter suffered a sprained ankle near the start of the 2016-17 season. Even if he had been healthy, Bennett couldn’t promise much playing time based on the roster makeup.
A decision was made to redshirt Hunter, who was less than thrilled with the plan.
“It was a tough conversation for me,” Hunter said. “I was mad, of course. But I just thought about it, and it was the best thing for me.”
It certainly appears so. Hunter has become one of the most versatile players in college basketball, a likely NBA lottery pick this spring and an integral part of Virginia’s first Final Four team since 1984.
From redshirt to sixth man to lottery pick in three years is an unusual path, but Hunter is not a typical player.
“He’s easily, in my opinion, the second-best player in the country, if not the best,” Virginia’s star guard Kyle Guy said.
Hunter was named third-team All-America by several publications, as well as the ACC Defensive Player of the Year. His versatility is reflected in his statistics. He led Virginia in scoring, was second in rebounding, third in blocks, fourth in assists while shooting 44.6 percent from three-point range.
He ranked third in the ACC in field-goal percentage (52.9 percent) and seventh in free-throw percentage (78.9), and he’s one of the best defensive players in the nation.
“It’s kind of scary to see what he can do offensively and defensively just because there’s not many people that can do that in the country,” Guy said. “There’s no wonder he’s projected to go [in the lottery] in the NBA draft. Whoever gets him is getting a steal.”
He’ll be perhaps the toughest matchup for Auburn, in Saturday’s first Final Four semifinal at U.S. Bank Stadium. Hunter doesn’t have a set position. At 6-7 and 225 pounds, he’s listed as a guard, but he is as comfortable playing on the perimeter as he is posting up smaller defenders.
On defense, Hunter guards every position from point guard to power forward. He occasionally gets matched up on a center.
“I can battle him,” Hunter said.
Hunter’s versatility is what Bennett envisioned when he first saw him as a skinny high school player in Philadelphia.
“There’s some guys you just watch and you say, they have a chance to touch greatness,” Bennett said. “There’s something in them. I saw him and thought, boy, he could be a guy that could really keep taking this program to a good spot.”
The process took longer than Hunter expected with the redshirt season. He used that year to gain weight — he’s added about 25 pounds since arriving — and develop his perimeter shooting. And learn to play defense the way Bennett’s system requires.
“I thought I played pretty good defense in high school and then I got here …” he said, smiling.
Sitting out as a redshirt tested his patience, especially when he saw former AAU teammates starting for other programs.
“Everyone’s path is different,” Hunter said.
He didn’t start a single game last season, coming off the bench as the sixth man, yet there was chatter in NBA circles that he still could have been a first-round pick. Any temptation of leaving school basically ended when Hunter suffered a broken wrist in the ACC tournament. The injury meant he watched Virginia’s historic loss to No. 16 seed Maryland-Baltimore County from the sideline.
“I don’t really think about what I could have contributed to the game because it doesn’t matter,” he said.
What matters is his impact on the team this season. He’s a unique player, and a difference-maker, and the Cavaliers will need Hunter’s best at both ends to win two games at the Final Four.
“It starts on defense. He’s a great on-ball defender when he’s not fouling out,” junior guard Ty Jerome said with a laugh. “He guards [every position] for us. He can block shots. Offensively, he can make open threes, he makes catch-and-shoot threes, he’s a great isolation player, he can pass the ball. He’s as complete as they come.”