Currently residing in the basement of the Hawks’ organizational chart, R.J. Hunter is not about to pick scabs or big-time a teammate. You can, after all, live on one shot for only so long.
In 2015, Hunter made the most famous bucket in Georgia State history – admittedly a short list – when his 35-footer with four seconds left completed an upset of No. 3-seed Baylor in the NCAA Tournament. It literally knocked his father, Ron, the Panthers coach who was recovering from Achilles surgery, to the floor and provided the keepsake scene of the first round.
On the other side of that game, leading Baylor with 18 points and 15 rebounds, was Taurean Prince. Today he is the forward who led the Hawks in minutes played last season. And Hunter is a training-camp extra whose next stop likely is the developmental G League.
“Thank you for reminding me,” Prince said with a thin smile when asked about the connection between the two. “He hit a shot in practice one time that brought memories, too.”
“We laughed about it. I don’t know how weird it is for him. I know it was kind of a crazy moment, so I don’t bring it up,” Hunter said. “I’ll let it die off for another couple years then we’ll really get into it.”
The Hawks brought Hunter home for a look, after his playing rights were acquired by their G League team, the Erie Bayhawks. After that, no guarantees, as the Hawks currently are at their limit in two-way contracts (which facilitate movement between the G League team and the big club).
At least as Hunter tries to jump-start his pro career, he now can enjoy familiar surroundings, with dad still coaching at the downtown university.
“It’s really cool hoopin’ and going home to see my family for dinner. That’s been really comfortable,” he said.
“I don’t take these opportunities for granted anymore. This is a short window for all of us. I’m just grateful to be around here and be at home and compete for a team that I grew up watching.”
After setting the career scoring record at Georgia State, Hunter was taken near the end of the first round by Boston. A year later at the end of Celtics camp, on his 23rd birthday, Hunter was cut. He had appeared in 36 games with Boston, averaging nearly nine minutes and three points per game. A 12-point game against the Hawks in November was his high as a Celtic (he scored 19 the last time he was on a NBA court, April 2018, with Houston).
Hunter has made cameo appearances with Chicago and the Rockets, but has done most of his playing at the developmental-league level. He’s been a Maine Red Claw, a Long Island Net, a Windy City Bull and Rio Grande Valley Viper (for whom he averaged 20 points a game last year).
The NBA is a lot better, he knows. Funny what you miss when you’re not there.
“I came (to the Hawks facility) to shoot a couple nights ago, and they had a bunch of snacks out. Little things like that you appreciate when you’re gone, and the G League makes you grind for that.”
With the Hawks, Hunter will need to demonstrate an ability to consistently get off an efficient shot as well as a tenacity on defense that new coach Lloyd Pierce demands.
It’s a little odd to hear someone who arrived at the NBA from the modest launch site of Georgia State’s walk-up gym talk about taking anything for granted. But that’s Hunter now, telling all the world that he didn’t make his first leap to the pros with the proper attitude.
“I came in as a rookie, and I thought it was all owed to me. I got humbled really quickly,” he said.
“The G League has been huge for me, in that I’ve played well and I’m grateful to be here,” Hunter continued. “Every opportunity just means two times more. I’m two times more focused about it because I know this doesn’t happen often.
“When I came in (the NBA) I absolutely took it for granted. I’m not saying I was cocky or arrogant, but I thought I deserved it. It’s not like that. We’re all grateful to be here, and it’s not normal to be that blessed. I had to realize that and go through those changes to figure that out.
“I’m just looking for an opportunity. And I think this is a good one.”
Hunter always will have that one shot, that he keeps now deep in his back pocket. Returning to the source of that one shining moment, he looks to make a new one, another long shot to be sure.
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