RJ Hunter returns to Atlanta, trying to get back to NBA

College Park Skyhawks guard R.J. Hunter defends against the Capital City Go-Go at Gateway Center Arena on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020, in Atlanta.  Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

College Park Skyhawks guard R.J. Hunter defends against the Capital City Go-Go at Gateway Center Arena on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

After nearly a year away from Atlanta, RJ Hunter has found his way back to the city closest to his heart. It can get lonely halfway across the world.

“It’s always good to come back (to Atlanta),” Hunter said. “Even during a season that I’ve been in the United States and I get to come back home, it’s always good. I’m going to live here for a long time so, I call it home.”

Hunter, a two-time Sun Belt Player of the Year at Georgia State, returned to Atlanta last month and signed with the College Park Skyhawks, the G League affiliate of the Hawks, on Feb. 7.

In his three seasons at Georgia State, Hunter became the Panthers’ all-time scoring leader, with 1,819 points, and all-time leader in 3-pointers made (253). He elected to forego his senior season and was selected with the 28th pick in the 2015 NBA draft by the Celtics. He appeared in a total of 45 NBA games with the Celtics, Bulls and Rockets over the previous four seasons.

Earlier this season, Hunter played for Turk Telekom, a team based in Ankara that plays in the Turkish Basketball Super League. He spent about six months overseas, appearing in 16 games and averaging 9.8 points and 3.3 assists per game.

“Any league over here is going to be more fast-paced and the more you go towards Europe the more it slows down,” Hunter said. “It’s more about quality possessions over there (in Turkey). They really take each possession and each play very seriously.”

Hunter appreciated the style of play, acknowledging that being more efficient and intentional every time he touched the ball helped his own game.

But not every learning experience in Turkey was easy. While thankful for the opportunity to learn about a culture different than his own, Hunter struggled at times without family or close friends nearby. It was during these moments that he learned the most.

“Just imagine that you’re by yourself halfway across the world. When your family is asleep, you’re up and when they’re going to sleep, you’re up. So, you’re not really talking to anybody outside of your apartment or anywhere else, because not a lot of people speak English,” Hunter said. “It’s an island. Basketball is two hours of your day and then you have twenty (hours) to be somewhere where you have no idea what’s going on. That vulnerability teaches you a lot about yourself.”

So, Hunter jumped at the opportunity to return to the U.S., especially when the chance was with the local Skyhawks.

Coming back to Atlanta meant a chance to live closer to family and specifically his mother, Amy, and his sister, Jasmine. His father, Ron, formerly coached at Georgia State from 2011-19 before accepting the head coaching job at Tulane University. Still, the father-son pair text or call daily and spend time together when Ron gets the chance to travel to Atlanta.

RJ also found familiarity with the G League, having spent time on the rosters of the developmental teams in the Boston, Brooklyn, Chicago, Houston and Atlanta organizations. Understanding the demands of the league allowed him to exercise patience when joining the Skyhawks after the season’s midway point.

“Fitting back in is probably the hardest part. I’ve been in the G League, so I know the sacrifices and the lack of resources and the travel and things you have to do,” Hunter said. “So, I have to be very cautious with infiltrating things that (the Skyhawks) have already established. It takes a lot of just sitting back and looking and seeing where you fit in and going from there.”

Hunter is still looking to find his footing in College Park after a shaky start. Over the last month, Hunter appeared in seven games, averaging 7.4 points and four rebounds per game. He’s struggled shooting the ball, connecting on just 31% of his shots from the field and 28 percent from beyond the arc.

But Hunter remains upbeat about his play. He credits the comfortable relationship he’s already built with the Skyhawks’ coaching staff, a group that he met last year through his previous stint inside the Hawks organization.

“We both just have mutual respect for each other,” Hunter said. “At a time and point in my career when I didn’t have a lot of confidence and I was kind of stuck, they helped me out and gave me a lot of responsibility and free reign. That helped me a lot at a point where I didn’t know where I was heading.”

As Hunter looks to the future, getting back to the NBA remains the primary goal. In 45 games at basketball’s highest level he averaged just three points per game.

But throughout his time playing professionally, both in the G League and in Turkey, Hunter realized the abundance of basketball opportunities. As a result, he’s found solace in working on his own game and trusting wherever the sport takes him.

“The NBA is always the goal. At this point, I’m just trying to maximize my talent,” Hunter said. “There’s elite players worldwide that are living great lives, making great money and making a great name for themselves. As much as the NBA has grown, the global game is also crazy. There’s a lot of really really good players overseas.

“Wherever (basketball) takes me it takes me. I’ve been in the playoffs in the NBA, I’ve started NBA games, I’ve had really good games in the NBA. I have an idea of what that is and if that doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out. But there’s a lot of other opportunities out there.”