By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — It’s as bitterly cold on Grounds as it is across much of the country. Even so, De’Andre Hunter is happy to be here and not back home in Philadelphia, where precipitation has accompanied the bone-chilling temperatures.
“I don’t like snow,” Hunter said Thursday at John Paul Jones Arena.
A graduate of Friends Central School in the Philly suburbs, Hunter is a redshirt freshman on the eighth-ranked University of Virginia men’s basketball team. He’s listed at 6-7 but may be closer to 6-8. He weighs a solid 220 pounds and has a 7-2 wingspan.
The Cavaliers’ roster also lists Hunter as a guard, but that’s a fluid situation. In UVA’s most recent game, a 78-52 win over Virginia Tech at Cassell Coliseum late Wednesday night, Hunter played 24 minutes off the bench, almost all of them at power forward.
“During the summer, I [played there] a lot,” Hunter said. “Preseason, not really that much. But [in Blacksburg] we knew we were going against a smaller lineup, and the coaches thought I could use my size and my quickness at the 4.”
In basketball vernacular, point guard is the 1, shooting guard is the 2, small forward is the 3, power forward is the 4, and center is the 5. During practice Thursday, Hunter worked first with the Cavaliers’ big men and later with the perimeter players.
“De’Andre can essentially defend 1 through 4, and for us he’s playing the 2, 3 and 4 [on offense],” assistant coach Jason Williford said. “He’s a versatile player, and we’ve had those in the past.”
Among the Cavaliers who occasionally moved from the perimeter to the frontcourt were Justin Anderson, Evan Nolte and Joe Harris. One of Virginia’s captains this season, 6-5 swingman Devon Hall, played some power forward in 2016-17.
“It’s becoming a positionless game,” Williford said. “The game is moving toward where you’re just putting players on the floor.
“De’Andre can play wherever we want him to. He’s got all kinds of versatility. He’s a really good basketball player. He’s coming into his own, and he’s got to continue to improve and keep working.”
Hunter’s contributions were pivotal in the Cavaliers’ rout of the Hokies. He made 5 of 8 shots from the floor, including 2 of 4 from beyond the arc, and finished with a team-high 14 points. He also had four rebounds.
“What he did was really important for us,” UVA head coach Tony Bennett said.
Williford said: “It was a much-needed offensive burst from the bench.”
Hunter enrolled at Virginia in June 2016 as part of a four-man recruiting class. Two of those players — guards Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy — played last season and helped the Wahoos advance to the NCAA tournament’s second round. The other two — Hunter and 7-1 Jay Huff — redshirted, as such players as Hall, Jack Salt and Mamadi Diakite had before them during Bennett’s tenure at UVA.
Huff has appeared in nine games this season. Hunter, meanwhile, averages 15.6 minutes per game for Virginia (13-1 overall, 2-0 ACC), which takes on No. 12 North Carolina (12-3, 1-1), the defending NCAA champion, at 1 p.m. Saturday at sold-out JPJ. But his role has fluctuated.
After playing only seven minutes in Virginia’s Nov. 17 win over VCU in Richmond, Hunter logged 24 minutes — and scored a season-high 23 points — two days later against Monmouth at JPJ. He played 18 minutes in UVA’s home win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge but only six last weekend against Boston College at JPJ.
“It’s frustrating at times, but I know that my time will come,” said Hunter, who’s averaging 6.6 points and 2.2 rebounds and shooting 46 percent from the floor (22.7 percent from 3-point range).
“I just have to stay patient. I’m just waiting on that moment and taking it game by game.”
Hunter has “post-up moves, he’s got the ability to put it on the floor, he’s a strong kid,” Williford said. “I think it’s just a matter of figuring out where he can help us and what spots on the floor he can get his shots off.”
For most young players in Bennett’s program, patience is required. Hunter is no exception.
“We always say, `Trust the process,’ and De’Andre’s got a great example in front of him in Devon,” Williford said. “This is his freshman year, but he’s helped us. He’s been big in a few games. It’s just a matter, again, of growing each day. But it starts in practice, and being really good in practice every day.
“There’s just got to be some consistency. That’s part of growing pains, and that’s part of the process.”
Williford laughed. “Listen, Devon went through the exact same thing, and look what’s he’s doing in his last year.”
As a redshirt freshman in 2014-15, Hall averaged only 10.6 minutes per game. But he started 20 games in 2015-16 and all 34 in 2016-17. This season, he’s first on the team in assists, second in scoring and second in rebounding.
Virginia’s rotation includes three seniors — Hall, 6-7 Isaiah Wilkins and 6-1 Nigel Johnson — and Hunter figures to take many of those minutes in 2018-19.
“Coach told me that, so I just try to stay as positive as possible,” said Hunter, who lives with five teammates: Hall, Diakite, Jerome, Huff and Justice Bartley.
In the meantime, Hunter is focused on stringing together solid performances.
“The coaches tell me that’s the key to me maturing as a player, just staying consistent,” said Hunter, who turned 20 last month. “I’m looking forward to doing that on Saturday.”
Hunter starred in the Philly Pride AAU program and received scholarship offers from such schools as Maryland, Arkansas, Notre Dame, Villanova, Temple and Saint Joseph’s. He chose UVA in large part because of its affiliation with the ACC.
“I knew Virginia played against the top talent,” Hunter recalled. “I always see North Carolina and Duke on TV, so being able to play against them should be fun.”
In his first ACC game, against Boston College, Hunter missed the only two shots he took and turned the ball over twice. His second conference game came in an arena that traditionally ranks among the ACC’s most hostile for visiting teams, but Hunter looked poised from the moment he checked in at Cassell Coliseum.
“Honestly, I think my first ACC game was more nerve-wracking, just because it was a much different environment than what I was used to,” Hunter said. “Playing in my second one I was more comfortable, and the game came a lot easier.”