By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE– He’s not oblivious to the buzz about his potential as a basketball player. He knows NBA scouts have been – and will continue to be — fixtures at his games this season. Still, De’Andre Hunter says, he’s able to block out the external noise when he takes the court for Virginia.
“At the end of the day, you just have to play,” Hunter said Monday at John Paul Jones Arena. “I just try to play and not think about the outside stuff while I’m on the court. I just think of the game, and that’s it.”
His next game comes Wednesday night in College Park, Md. At 7:30, fourth-ranked UVA (6-0) meets 24th-ranked Maryland (6-0) at Xfinity Center. ESPN is televising this ACC/Big Ten Challenge game.
A 6-7, 225-pound forward from Philadelphia, Hunter averaged 9.2 points and 3.3 rebounds as a redshirt freshman last season. He did not start any games – Hunter was the ACC’s Sixth Man of the Year — but as the season progressed many NBA mock drafts began projecting him as a first-round pick.
After considering his options, Hunter decided he wasn’t ready for the NBA, and on April 20 he announced on Twitter that he would return to UVA for the 2018-19 academic year.
His stock continues to rise. Hunter leads the fourth-ranked Wahoos (6-0) in scoring (16.8 ppg) and rebounds (6.3 per game) and is third on the team with six steals. With a 7-2 wingspan, he’s capable of guarding multiple positions, and that adds to his value in head coach Tony Bennett’s trademark Pack Line defense.
“Every year you learn more about the defense,” Hunter said. “I’m just spreading out. I don’t want my man to score, and that’s basically my mindset going into every game.”
He’s coming off the best stretch of his college career. At the Battle 4 Atlantis in Nassau, Bahamas, Hunter was named the tournament’s MVP after averaging 19.3 points, 7.7 rebounds and 3.3 assists in UVA’s victories over Middle Tennessee, Dayton and Wisconsin.
“That was really encouraging to see,” Bennett said, “and I think he enjoys himself out there, and that’s even better yet.”
Hunter’s performance in Nassau earned him another honor: ACC Player of the Week. He shot 61.8 percent from the floor and 81.3 percent from the line in the tournament. In the championship game, Hunter had 20 points and nine rebounds in a 53-46 win over then-No. 25 Wisconsin.
“He’s taken his foot off the brake, as we like to say, and we need that,” Bennett said.
As he did last season, Hunter splits time between small forward and power forward. He’s shooting 61.3 percent from the floor and 46.7 percent from 3-point range.
“I think he’s improved in almost every area,” Bennett said. “He understands who he is. He’s playing with an assertiveness. He’s worked hard on his shot, his body … I think his ballhandling and his catching and passing, all that’s going in the right direction. He seems to have taken a step [with] year under his belt of experience.”
Hunter’s 2017-18 season, as UVA fans know all too well, ended before the NCAA tournament. In the ACC tournament semifinals, Hunter broke his left wrist after being hit on a dunk attempt in a 64-58 win over Clemson in Brooklyn, N.Y.
He played through the injury the next night, totaling 10 points and four rebounds in top-seeded UVA’s 71-63 win over North Carolina in the ACC title game at Barclays Center. But after the team returned to Charlottesville, Virginia’s medical staff determined that Hunter’s injury was too serious for him to continue playing.
Without Hunter, top-seeded Virginia had a short stay in the NCAA tournament, losing to No. 16 seed UMBC in the first round. He missed the team’s spring workouts while recovering from surgery but returned for the Cavaliers’ summer practices.
In August, Hunter was one of 25 college standouts invited to participate in the Nike Basketball Academy in Los Angeles. Others included Oregon’s Bol Bol, Syracuse’s Oshae Brissett, Iowa’s Tyler Cook, Gonzaga’s Rui Hachimura and Virginia Tech’s Nickeil Alexander-Walker.
“It was really cool getting to see guys that you probably wouldn’t get to play against [during the season] and seeing how good they actually are and playing against them and playing with them,” Hunter said. “It was good competition, and being in L.A., of course, was cool, with nice warm weather. It was a great experience.”
Hunter starred at Friends’ Central School in Philly. Among the colleges that extended scholarship offers to him was Maryland. He’s been to a football game in College Park but not a basketball game, and so he’s not sure what to expect Wednesday night at Xfinity Center, which seats 17,950.
“I just know that [Maryland is] a rival, and they just say it’s going to be a crazy atmosphere when we go there,” Hunter said.
This fiercely contested series dates back to 1912-13. When the Terrapins were members of the ACC, they faced the Cavaliers twice each season in basketball. The teams’ most recent meeting was on Dec. 3, 2014, when UVA prevailed 76-65 in an ACC/Big Ten Challenge game at Xfinity Center. That improved Bennett’s record against Maryland to 7-4.
Of UVA’s current players, only center Jack Salt was on the team in 2014-15, and he redshirted that season.
“I don’t know if [the players] understand it to the extent that those of us who’ve been around have,” said Bennett, who’s in his 10thseason at UVA, “but there will not be a lot of love lost, and the crowd lets you know what they think of you the moment you step on the floor.
“It’s a good venue to play in, for sure.”
Maryland is coming off a 104-67 rout of previously unbeaten Marshall, which advanced to the NCAA tournament’s second round last season.
“They really played terrific,” Bennett said of the Terps. “They played fast, their perimeter was on, their interior is a threat. They just showed a completeness with athleticism that was good, and they worked defensively.
“They’re off to a great start, and what they did to Marshall of course caught everyone’s attention.”
Virginia’s first three games this season were at JPJ, followed by three at a neutral site. Now comes the Cavaliers’ first road game.
“Another opportunity to forge our identity and be good in a tough setting,” Bennett said.