By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — He received scholarship offers from such schools as Maryland, Arkansas, Notre Dame, Villanova, Temple, Saint Joseph’s and NC State. But for Philadelphia native De’Andre Hunter, Virginia stood out from his other suitors, in part because of its coaches’ approach during the recruiting process.
“I really just liked the family vibe that they had,” Hunter recalled recently at John Paul Jones Arena. “When I visited, they didn’t tell me I was going to start or I was going to be the best player on the team. They just told me that I was going to have to work for my spot, and I really liked that.”
In particular, head coach Tony Bennett provided a realistic picture of what would be expected of Hunter, a graduate of Friends’ Central School in the Philadelphia suburb of Wynnewood, Pa.
“He just told me how it was going to be, how hard it was going to be,” Hunter said.
A 6-7, 210-pound forward, Hunter committed to UVA in September 2015. He enrolled at the University last month and recently completed the second session of summer school. He’s back home in Philadelphia now but will return to Charlottesville next weekend as the Cavaliers resume preparations for their August trip to Spain.
“This will be my first time ever being out of the country,” Hunter said, “so I’m really excited and looking forward to bonding with the team and playing against older guys.”
Hunter is one of the four freshmen who joined the Wahoos’ program this summer, along with 6-3 Kyle Guy, 6-11 Jay Huff and 6-5 Ty Jerome. Each is an intriguing prospect, and none more so than Hunter, who has a formidable wingspan (7-2), outstanding leaping ability, and a soft shooting touch from 3-point range.
Assistant coach Jason Williford said Hunter has impressed Virginia’s veterans “with his ability to score and his athleticism. He’s a very good vertical athlete. Long-armed. He’ll have to get used to playing defense the way we play it, but that’s true for all of the new guys.”
Williford led the Cavaliers’ pursuit of Hunter, a race in which they initially lagged well behind other programs.
“Quite honestly, we jumped in late, and we had a fight on our hands,” Williford said.
After scouting Hunter, who played for the Philly Pride AAU program, at a tournament in Atlanta, Williford recommended him to Bennett. With Bennett in attendance, Hunter then sparkled at a tournament in Las Vegas, and “Tony was like, `We gotta get him. We gotta get involved,’ ” Williford recalled. “So we cranked it up.”
The Cavaliers’ late push was rewarded. The more the Hunter and his family learned about UVA, the more they liked it. After an unofficial visit to Charlottesville, Hunter returned last September for his official visit. Also in town that weekend were Guy, Huff and Jerome, all of whom had already committed to the `Hoos.
“He just hit it off with those guys,” Williford said.
Hunter has two sisters (Candice and Cheyanne) and a brother (Aaron). Aaron accompanied De’Andre on the official visit to UVA, and they ended up at Bennett’s home one night with the coaching staff and Guy, Huff and Jerome.
“I think we might have been watching a basketball game, or something,” Williford said, “and the brother tapped Tony on the shoulder and said, `Hey, Coach, can I make an announcement?’ And the brother said, `De’Andre has something he wants to say.’ And then De’Andre said, `I want to commit. I want to be a part of this,’ and we all cheered. I’d never seen [a commitment] go down like that. It was pretty cool.”
His brother played a key role in Hunter’s development as a player. Aaron helped De’Andre hone his perimeter skills in workouts on the outdoor courts at the Lawncrest Rec Center near the family’s home in northeast Philadelphia.
“He didn’t know how tall I was going to be at the time,” Hunter said. “So he just took me to the park and taught me how to dribble and shoot, and it just got progressively better and better over the years.”
At Friends’ Central, Hunter occasionally operated out of the low post. At UVA, he’s working on becoming a full-time small forward.
“That’s what he’s got to be for us,” Williford said.
Hunter broke his leg in the fall of 2013 and missed his sophomore season at Friends’ Central. Healthy again as a junior, he averaged 21.6 points and 11.0 rebounds.
As a senior, Hunter posted averages of 23.5 points, 9.8 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 2.6 steals and 2.5 blocked shots and was named Pennsylvania’s player of the year in Class AA.
Hunter spent four years at Friends’ Central, a prestigious Quaker school whose students follow a rigorous academic curriculum.
“When I visited [Friends’ Central], I fell in love, because it was like a small college campus, and I really liked that,” Hunter said.
His experience at Friends’ Central has helped him adjust to life at UVA. Even so, the soft-spoken Hunter acknowledged, college “is a lot different than high school.”
Time management is an essential tool for UVA student-athletes. “You have to know where you’re going to be at this time and where you’re going to be at the next minute,” said Hunter, who’s rooming with Huff this summer. “You can’t really waste time like in high school.”
Prep basketball standouts from the Philly area who have played for UVA include Sean Singletary, Sammy Zeglinski, Jeff Jones and Jason Cain. It’s a basketball-rich area the Cavaliers will continue to target, Williford said.
“Villanova can’t get `em all,” Williford said. “Temple can’t get `em all. There are kids in Philly with some good academics and some good basketball, and they bring a certain level of grit and toughness with them coming out of that city.”
Williford laughed. “I constantly tease De’Andre and say, `Where’s that Philly toughness?’ But I think he’s just got a quiet demeanor and a quiet competitive toughness, so don’t mistake that quietness for being soft.”
Hunter grew up watching Villanova, Temple, Saint Joseph’s, Penn and La Salle play Big Five games in his hometown.
“There’s a lot of good players from Philly,” he said. “I’m just trying to keep the legacy going.”
After committing last September, Hunter followed the Cavaliers from afar, watching them on TV at every opportunity as they put together one of the greatest seasons in program history.
“I was just really excited to be a part of this team,” he said.
What his role will be in 2016-17, Hunter isn’t sure. Still, he’s confident he can contribute as a freshman.
“I just feel like whenever I get time on the court, I could be an impact player, whether it’s on defense or offense,” Hunter said.