Hunter’s surgery successful; Hawks have options in his absence

Nate McMillan spoke to De’Andre Hunter on Sunday, ahead of Hunter’s surgery to repair a tendon in his right wrist Monday.

One of the toughest parts of Hunter’s most recent injury is that he was just coming off a different injury, still getting in the swing of things after meniscus surgery in June.

“Just a tough blow to come into the season after having injuries last season, to have something like this happen again,” McMillan said Monday, before the Hawks’ win over the Magic. “And it’s going to keep him out for a few weeks, eight weeks is what they’re saying. That’s a tough blow, so he was down about that, but the good thing is it’s early, he’ll have time to recover and get back to playing ball.”

Hunter’s surgery went well, and he’s on a recovery timeline of approximately eight weeks. That would put him back playing with the Hawks the second week of January, provided there are no setbacks. Until then, though, they’ll have to get by without Hunter, who to start the season wasn’t playing at the level he was before suffering his first knee injury in January of last season, but was still a key defender for them and ranked fifth on the team in scoring (10.8 points per game).

Hunter had started all 11 games he played in this season, averaging 27.8 minutes per game. Battling knee issues last season, Hunter played in only 23 regular-season games, so this isn’t the first time the Hawks have had to account for his absence. Or simply deal with frustrating injuries, which plagued them last year, with Bogdan Bogdanovic and Cam Reddish missing extended time, as well.

“It’s always tough to lose a guy who’s in rotation like that, but it’s a part of the game,” McMillan said. “This is something we had to deal with a lot last season, so it’s really next man up for us, and we hope that that recovery is really soon. … Injuries, it’s going to happen to someone on the team, and you have to adapt, you have to make that adjustment, guys have to keep themselves ready to play because you just never know when it’s going to happen.

“It’s something that unfortunately we did have to deal with last season a lot with our guys and guys stepped up, they were ready to play and we were able to have some success with that. Right now, we’re in that same situation, where we lose Dre but we have guys who can step in and play, and it’s an opportunity for them.”

Although he hadn’t reached full-force yet, a healthy Hunter playing at the level he did last season, when he showed significant progress in handling the ball and scoring, would have been huge for the Hawks and their lofty playoff goals. Without him as an option, they’ll likely look to Kevin Huerter to step up much as he did last season, blossoming on defense and filling in where the Hawks needed as injury after injury hit them.

Huerter was coming off the bench to start the season but started (alongside Trae Young, Bogdan Bogdanovic, John Collins and Clint Capela) in Hunter’s absence the two games Hunter missed Sunday and Monday. Although, Huerter himself may be banged up, as he didn’t play the second half of Monday’s win because of left hamstring tightness.

With Huerter out in the second half, the Hawks looked to Solomon Hill, though Hill playing heavy minutes isn’t ideal for the Hawks. Reddish is averaging 11.4 points in 22.3 minutes per game (though he’s only adding 0.9 assists and is often rushing shots), and McMillan seems to like bringing him off the bench and leading the defense for the second unit. There’s also rookie Jalen Johnson, though he’s not in the rotation right now, still adjusting to the league and garnering experience in the G League.

Whatever the formula McMillan follows, the biggest area the Hawks will have to compensate for Hunter’s absence will be on defense, Capela thinks. Through their 6-9 start, the Hawks have a 111.3 defensive rating, which ranks fourth-worst in the NBA.

“It’s going to be tough,” Capela said. “We’re going to have to figure it out because Dre brings that length defensively. … It’s definitely defensive. Offensively, create good shots, better shots for us. But mainly defensively, because I feel this is where we struggle the most, so as long as defensively, the next guy can bring it, that’s going to help us a lot.”

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