Hawks’ Hunter focused on improving as rookie contract extension looms

Hawks forward De’Andre Hunter wants to take full advantage of having a healthy offseason by improving his skills on the court.

But there’s an off-the-court matter – the potential upcoming extension of his rookie contract – that can’t be avoided as he prepares for the 2022-23 season.

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The Hawks and the 24-year-old Hunter have until Oct. 17 to reach an agreement on his rookie contract extension. If they don’t, Hunter will become a restricted free agent in July. He will be able to explore options with other teams and can sign an offer sheet with any team. But the Hawks can retain him by matching the terms of that offer.

Hunter said he isn’t dwelling on it. When asked about it during media day last Friday, he said he leaves the negotiations to his agent and following Saturday’s practice, he added that he is focused on basketball.

“See, I don’t even think about it,” he said. “I just come out here and play basketball. I’m confident in my abilities that everything else will take care of itself.”

Hunter has worked on improving his ballhandling skills to give the team another option to bring the ball up court. It will take some of the pressure off of Trae Young and Dejounte Murray. It will also free them up to attack defenses off the ball and keep opponents off balance.

“As I told all of our guys, I want all of our guys to bring their ego,” Hawks coach Nate McMillan said. “What I mean by that is, bring your game. So, the ball handling is something that he felt that he needed to work on and get better at. And that will certainly help us. Adding Murray to the rotation and having Trae and, you know, Dre being able to handle the ball, it really will allow us to do a lot of things on the offensive end of the floor. So, looking forward to these guys showing their improvement.”

McMillan said that he and Hunter spoke about the things that he wanted to add to his game at the end of last season. In addition to potentially handling the ball more, it included giving him the ball in certain situations.

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“This is the time that now he gets to work on it live in our practices, so that when he’s in the game, he’s comfortable, handling the basketball,” McMillan said. “So it’s just something that I think all players, each year, they want to try to add something to their game. And one of the things that he and I talked about in our exit meetings last year was handling the ball, giving him the ball in certain positions on the floor, and creating opportunities in those positions.”

Hunter worked on different drills, including those in the pick and roll, to increase his comfort with having the ball in his hands. He made sure to work with opponents guarding him and hassling him in ways that would force him to lose the ball.

“That’s the biggest thing,” Hunter said. “And I feel like the biggest thing that comes with that is just having confidence with the ball. And I feel confident with the ball now. So if they need me to bring it up or handle it, I can do it for sure.”

Over the summer, Hunter tried out what he worked on in pick-up games and it gave him a chance to test out the confidence that has grown from practice.

“Definitely, when we were playing pickup, just handling the ball a lot more than just being able to do a lot of things, using screens, bringing the ball up, stuff like that,” Hunter said.

So, he plans to lean on the lessons he has learned over that time to try and remain healthy throughout the upcoming season. Hunter said that he wants to strike the right balance between how much he works out and recovery.

“Just maintaining my body, I found that was the biggest thing,” Hunter said. “You know, still working out but knowing when not to (and) when to, when I can go really hard and when I can, you know, relax. I feel like that’s the biggest thing. My first two years you don’t really know. You’re just trying to work, work, work, work, work, and you see what happened. But I feel like just learning my body, that was the biggest thing.”