Tony Bennett saw his most talented player get down on himself midway through Virginia’s Final Four game against Auburn. De’Andre Hunter was struggling, coming off three straight subpar performances in the NCAA tournament by his own lofty standards as UVA entered Minneapolis. Now he was going cold again in the biggest game of his life, missing a three that would have tied the score at the end of the first half as the ‘Hoos fought for a spot in the national title.
Bennett delivered a simple message in the locker room.
“Be free, man. Go after this. We need you. Be a player.”
Positive reinforcement has been a key for Hunter since he arrived on campus as a long-but-skinny recruit. Bennett knew a string of missed shots would get in Hunter’s head. A string of mediocre games was even worse, especially when the stakes were this high.
On the first possession of the second half, Hunter streaked to the basket for a dunk. He splashed a jumper a minute later. He finished an offensive rebound for a putback, and then hit a layup. Virginia had unlocked Hunter, and with it, their chances at a national championship.
The ‘Hoos would survive on another miracle finish, setting the stage for a showdown between two projected lottery picks on the wing in the final game of the season. Hunter’s assignment was Jarrett Culver, one of the few players in the country with the size and skill to match him. Hunter was named Defensive Player of the Year just a few days earlier, and this would be his biggest test yet.
All he did was turn in the performance of his life to finish with 27 points.
Hunter was money from three-point range, canning 4-of-5 attempts from behind the arc, including the biggest shot of the game, to the tie the score with 15 seconds left. He crashed the glass all night to finish with nine rebounds. He also consistently found his way to the foul line to give his team easy points when every possession felt like a war.
Best of all, Hunter blanketed Culver, holding him to 5-of-22 shooting that included forcing multiple stops in the final seconds with the game on the line. Culver is a master at finishing at the rim, but Hunter forced misses by giving him no room to breathe when he did drive. More often, Culver couldn’t even get to the rim, instead settling for tough jumpers. When Texas Tech forced a switch, Hunter stymied the other Red Raiders scorers, too.
Three years at Virginia did so much for Hunter. It helped him grow into the best point-of-attack defender in college basketball. It made him something close to a knockdown shooter. It also put a national championship ring on his finger.
Now Hunter is ready for his next step. He’s entering the NBA Draft, where he’s a lock to go in the top 10 and might even sneak into the top five. It’s been an incredible rise for a player Bennett kept on the sidelines his entire first year on campus with a redshirt.
“In this game and this setting, and he saved his best for last,” Bennett said of Hunter in the glow of his championship press conference. “That tells you there’s something in that young man. He’s got more — he’s scratching the surface.”
There’s an alternate universe where Hunter never arrived at Virginia.
Bennett had four scholarships when he was putting together the 2016 recruiting class that would change Virginia basketball forever. One went to Kyle Guy. Another went to Ty Jerome. A commitment from center Jay Huff followed. UVA only had a spot for Hunter because their biggest recruit decommitted.
Sacha Killeya-Jones was a five-star recruit and McDonald’s All-American. He committed to Virginia early before seeing his stock blow up on the grassroots circuit the next spring and summer. Killeya-Jones decommitted from UVA in June of 2015. Hunter accepted Virginia’s scholarship offer three months later.
Killeya-Jones would choose Kentucky, where he’d get lost in a loaded front court as a freshman and ultimately chose to transfer. He picked NC State, where he lasted only a few months before leaving the program in February.
Losing one of the highest-rated prospects in program history in Killeya-Jones felt like a huge blow to Virginia at the time. Ultimately, it was one of the best things to ever happen to them.
Hunter felt betrayed the day Bennett told him he was going to redshirt. Hunter was the lowest-rated member of Virginia’s incoming class, but he was still a consensus top-100 prospect out of Philadelphia. Recruits of that caliber typically don’t redshirt, but Bennett had a plan in mind.
The first issue was one of available minutes. Virginia had Marial Shayok, Devon Hall, and Isaiah Wilkins all set for heavy playing time at the three and the four. Bennett also thought Hunter needed to gain strength after showing up on campus at only 195 pounds. Virginia put him on a strict diet and weight lighting program, led by strength and conditioning coach Mike Curtis.
Patience eventually paid off. Hunter showed flashes in the non-conference season the next year, then hit his stride in ACC play. By the end of the year, Hunter was named Sixth Man of the Year in the conference and there were whispers he could be a fringe first rounder if he entered the draft. Virginia was rolling, going from unranked in the preseason to the No. 1 overall seed entering the NCAA tournament at 32-2 overall.
That’s when disaster struck: Hunter broke his wrist in the Cavaliers’ conference tournament title game win, which sidelined him for the big dance. You already know this story ends with the biggest upset in college basketball history.
With his wrist on the mend and his team in need of redemption, Hunter announced he was returning to school without even testing the draft waters. Virginia now belonged to the 2016 recruiting class, with Hunter, Guy, and Jerome forming arguably the best perimeter trio in the country.
Hunter wasn’t sneaking up on anyone this season. He was circled as one of the best players in the country and a potential lottery pick on every preseason scouting report. That type of focus from the opposition and the pressure that comes with multi-million dollar hype could have cracked a lesser player. Instead, Hunter kept getting better.
All Hunter did this season was turn into college basketball’s most terrifying man defender while also being ruthlessly efficient in every offensive opportunity he got. Now weighing 225 pounds while standing 6’7 with a wingspan of at least 7’1, Hunter had the strength to match his skill. It all coalesced to turn him into one of the best players in the country.
Hunter is the ideal man defender. He has the length and quickness to potentially guard four positions at the next level, but it’s his balance and technique that makes him special. Hunter is a master at getting over screens, at using his feet to deny driving lanes, and at closing out on any shot from the perimeter. There aren’t many players in the world who have a prayer against the NBA’s biggest, baddest wing scorers, but Hunter’s physicality, focus, and defensive fundamentals gives him a chance.
Offensively, Hunter was efficient without operating at a high volume. He hit nearly 44 percent of his threes, took smaller defenders in the post, and even showed some capability playing both sides of the pick-and-roll in limited opportunities. His statistical breakdown paints the picture of a complete player:
Hunter fits the prototype of the 3-and-D wing NBA teams covet. His story tracks similarly to Mikal Bridges, another long wing who redshirted when he entered college, blossomed into a national champion at Villanova, and then became a lottery pick.
Scouts will wonder if Hunter’s man defense will translate to a modern NBA that places more emphasis on helping and recovering. For all of his defensive ability, Hunter’s block and steal rates were still curiously low. He’ll also have to quicken the release on his three-point shot, and prove he can beat a closeout by creating off the dribble.
Hunter is the best kind of college basketball success story, the player who had to grind for three years before enjoying the ultimate breakthrough both for his team and individually. At 21 years old, he already looks like a finished product, though those close to him like Bennett swear he’s still just scratching the surface.
Hunter has already accomplished so much as he enters the draft. If this really is just the start, one lucky NBA team is going to get a productive, two-way wing for the next decade.