In this new series, Sarah Spencer, the AJC's new Atlanta Hawks reporter, gets a few details on how 2019 draft pick De'Andre Hunter is adjusting to his new life in the NBA. (Video by Ryon Horne, Tyson Horne/AJC)

‘We’re going to love De’Andre:’ Hawks already impressed with rookie Hunter

Before talking about rookie De’Andre Hunter after the first day of Hawks training camp Monday, coach Lloyd Pierce took a beat and smiled. 

“De’Andre?” Pierce said, pausing. “We’re going to love De’Andre. That’s all I can say. We’re going to love De’Andre. I’ve coached a couple guys who have played deep into the NCAA Tournament. He’s the first one I can say ‘I see why Virginia won.’ I see why they won. He’s got a poise about him, nothing rattles him.” 

Pierce is already impressed with the stellar defensive player who averaged 15.2 points in 32.5 minutes per game at Virginia last season. Hunter (who was named NABC and ACC defensive player of the year) helped lead Virginia to a 35-3 record and the NCAA championship, starting all 38 games. 

The Cavaliers led the NCAA in scoring defense (56.1 ppg). 

Monday’s practice had good energy but was mistake-filled, per Pierce, as players try to knock the rust off from the summer and build team chemistry. It was a defense-heavy practice, with the team focusing on defending without fouling, transition defense and turnovers. 

The soft-spoken Hunter is learning the Hawks’ system quickly, Pierce said. 

“(Hunter’s) going to come over here, if you guys get a couple words out of him, congratulations,” Pierce said. “He’s not going to say much. He’s very humble, and on the court it’s just all about business. He knows all five spots already. Defensively he’s about as solid as they come. He’s going to make open shots. And he actually puts it on the floor; I’ve got a ton of respect for that kid already.” 

It’s early yet, but that’s a good sign for the Hawks, who gave up plenty to nab Hunter at No. 4 in the draft. 

Playing under coach Tony Bennett at Virginia no doubt helped prepare Hunter for the NBA, particularly on defense, an area where the Hawks need help (they had the third-worst defensive rating in the NBA last season at 113.1). 

“We were a really defensive-oriented team,” Hunter said of the Cavaliers. “That’s what the majority of our practice was. So today was kind of like that. A lot of defensive drills and playing one-on-one and things like that. It really helped me a lot, coming here, because I knew, kind of, the ins and outs of defense already. It was fun, but tomorrow’s going to be something different, so I’ve just got to prepare for that.” 

It’s not just Pierce who’s complimentary of Hunter. 

From the moment Hunter (who said he measured at 6-foot-7.5 without shoes and who is listed at 225 pounds on the roster) stepped foot in the Hawks’ practice facility, John Collins took note of the athletic wing. 

“You could see him, he’s physically ready, he’s physically imposing,” Collins said. “That’s his thing. If you watched him at UVA or watched him throughout his career, you know he’s a beast on the defensive end. I don’t think he’s trying to give any of that up. I feel like body-wise, he’s ready to take that step. Good things I’m expecting from him.” 

Collins also noted Hunter stays in position well, and his physical strength comes across in his play. 

Hunter’s goal is to be a versatile defender, able to help out on- and off-the-ball, and wants to increase team communication on defense. 

For Trae Young, so far, it’s Hunter’s instincts and IQ that stand out the most. 

“We’ve been working out for a while now,” Young said. “You can tell how cerebral he is. He’s a smart player. He’s just a good overall dude. What he’s going to be able to do for us on defense is really going to help us.”

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