Hunter scoring, but points harder to come by

Georgia State’s R.J. Hunter thinks it was in high school at least three years ago the last time a team ran a box-and-one defense against him before Arkansas-Little Rock attempted the scheme on Saturday.

Designed to try to limit one scorer, the defense sort of worked. With one player chasing Hunter while four more play a zone defense, he didn’t score his first points until the final minute of the first half. Still, he finished with 14 points and the Panthers won 82-69.

“It’s a sign of respect,” he said.

The box-and-one wasn’t the only novel tactic the Trojans tried. Arkansas-Little Rock also tried the rarely used triangle-and-two defense with one man guarding Hunter and another guarding Ryan Harrow, with the three remaining defenders playing zone. Georgia State coach Ron Hunter said no opponent has run those defenses against them for an entire game before Little Rock did so Saturday.

It’s another sign of what opponents are trying to do to slow Hunter, the Sun Belt Conference preseason player of the year and possibly an NBA draft pick should he leave one year early.

Hunter said he feels the intensity of the defenses are two times what they were last year when he averaged 18.3 points per game in leading the Panthers to the Sun Belt’s regular-season title.

This year he is averaging a team-leading 20.2 points, slightly more than his career average of 17.7 points. But he is working much harder for those extra points. A career 38.2 percent 3-point shooter after his first two years, Hunter is hitting just 30.8 percent of his 3-pointers this season. His field goal percentage of 41.8 percent is also the lowest of his career.

It’s tough to hit the bull’s-eye when are you the bull’s-eye.

Hunter said can hear the opposing coaches call out what they think he’s going to do on every possession as he runs through the maze of screens teammates set to try to free him for the split-second he needs to get off a jumper.

“It’s a lot of hard work to get a bucket now,” he said.

As he’s cutting right, cutting left and sprinting the baseline, those chasing him are holding, clawing, pushing and talking. Watch when Hunter tries to run around a screen. Most of the time you will see a hand grab his jersey to slow him. On several occasions in Saturday’s victory Hunter drifted over to the officials to explain what was happening. They called what they saw, resulting in Hunter hitting nine of 10 free throws.

Hunter said the key for him will be maintaining patience. If he tries to rush shots he is playing right into what opponents want for him. Hunter is at his best when he can set his feet and go straight up. When things are rushed fundamentals can break down.

“It’s definitely frustrating because you can’t get a rhythm and that’s the worst part, but it’s part of the game and part of being a great player,” he said. “If you can’t handle that then you shouldn’t be that good of a player.”

Opponents and teammates aren’t the only eyes watching him to see how he handles the pressure and defenses. There are scouts from most NBA teams at every game making notes as they try to decide if Hunter is worth a multi-million dollar investment.

Hunter said he would be lying if he didn’t occasionally think about the NBA, but he said it’s the defenses he’s seeing – and not his future – that are affecting his shooting. To help keep his vision on the present, he said he speaks to a sports psychologist.

And, of course, there’s dad.

“R.J. is about more about winning than the numbers and when your leader cares more about winning than your numbers you are going to be good,” Ron Hunter said.

The defenses used by Arkansas-Little Rock are seen so infrequently Ron Hunter said the Panthers have rarely practice against it. After the game Hunter was grateful because he said the move opened up the court for other players. Harrow, in a bit of a scoring slump the previous two games, scored 22. Kevin Ware, who hadn’t scored more than 15 points in a game this seasonyear, took advantage of the open spaces on the floor to attack the basket and score a career-high 21.

Hunter wouldn’t mind seeing more teams try the box-and-one and triangle-and-two defenses to stop R.J. Hunter because it leaves good players open.

“I hope so because that means we will score 80-plus points a game,” Ron Hunter said. “We won’t lose if we score in the 80s.”