DeAndre Hunter: ‘I’ll be ready for the playoffs’

Clint Capela and De'Andre Hunter guard Wizards' Robin Lopez in the second half of an NBA basketball game Monday, May 10, 2021, in Atlanta.

Credit: AP Photo/Ben Margot

Credit: AP Photo/Ben Margot

Clint Capela and De'Andre Hunter guard Wizards' Robin Lopez in the second half of an NBA basketball game Monday, May 10, 2021, in Atlanta.

In his second NBA season, De’Andre Hunter has become an integral part of the Hawks’ roster.

Hunter’s ability to find his own shot and score on offense - while essentially guarding positions one through four on defense - has been quite noticeable in the year since the former Virginia star was selected fourth overall in the 2019 NBA draft. And although he missed 49 games this season with a knee injury and is still ramping back up his activity, the Hawks know having him back for their first-round playoff series against the Knicks could give them a boost at the right time.

“Having Dre just changes our whole dynamic defensively,” power forward John Collins said. “As well as offensively. So we’re just looking for him to knock all the rust that he has off, that he possibly has, off him, and have him ship-shape and ready to go because he’s a big part of our team.”

Interim coach Nate McMillan said Tuesday he assumes the minute restriction on Hunter, who played 24 minutes in last Sunday’s win over the Rockets, will increase by this weekend - though it might not get to the point where his restriction goes away altogether. The return of Hunter, who was averaging 17.2 points and 5.4 rebounds in 32.2 minutes per game before he got hurt, means the Hawks are finally getting healthier after an injury-plagued season.

Under McMillan, they went season 27-11 from March 1 to the end of the regular season, having started 14-20 under Lloyd Pierce. Although they finished strong, they could have used Hunter’s physicality and shooting at several points.

On both ends of the floor, that will certainly be the case against the Knicks, as the Hawks will need another weapon against one of the best defenses in the NBA (New York holds opponents to 104.7 points, the fewest in the league) and another guy capable of guarding Julius Randle (who averaged 37.3 points in New York’s regular-season sweep of the Hawks).

“I think he gives us another ballhandler, another option out on the floor, another defender that can defend multiple positions, basically one through four, possibly some fives,” McMillan said. “It gives us a lot of versatility with him being out on the floor, both offensively and defensively. We can put the ball in his hands and allow him to play with the ball. Putting him in the starting lineup, which we did last game, it gives you another option. Now that you have (wing Bogdan Bogdanovic), who’s doing some really good things for us, you can put the ball in De’Andre’s hands and allow him to play with the ball. It gives us another option defensively, it gives us versatility where we can match him up one through four.”

As is often the case, Hunter has understandably had to slowly ramp back up after returning from injury. He played 14 minutes in the win vs. Washington May 10, 15 minutes in the win vs. Orlando May 13 and got up to 24 minutes in the win vs. Houston May 16. The game against the Rockets was the first time he started to look like his old self, finishing with 14 points and two rebounds, though he’s still trying to find a shooting rhythm again (4-11 FG, 0-3 from 3-point range, 6-8 FT). He hasn’t hit a 3-pointer since returning.

Even when he’s not at full force, Hunter’s presence was noticeable on defense against the Rockets.

“I felt good,” Hunter said of Sunday’s win. “My knee, it didn’t really bother me. Just trying to get my wind back up, get my rhythm back up… Just trying to get my rhythm back, get some shots to fall. Practice is a little different than games, so you’ve just got to, you know you’re going to have your bad games coming off injury, so you’ve just got to get used to it and I’ll be ready for the playoffs, for sure.”

Hunter started Sunday, along with Trae Young, Solomon Hill, John Collins and Onyeka Okongwu. Since playoff seeding had already been determined, the Hawks rested several of their go-to guys, including starters Bogdanovic and center Clint Capela.

It stands to reason Young, Bogdanovic, Hunter, Collins and Capela will start for the playoffs, with wing Kevin Huerter able to slide in if necessary. Because of long-term injuries to Hunter and Bogdanovic (who missed most of January and February with an avulsion fracture in his right knee), that group has only played 16 minutes together all season, across five games.

That’s certainly not ideal, but to help drum up some chemistry, McMillan played Young, Collins and Hunter together for the first half of Sunday’s blowout win.

“I wanted that combination of players to play together, so they got an opportunity to play the first half... I just really wanted to take a look at that, so it was good to see (Hunter) out there,” McMillan said after the win.