De’Andre Hunter could be X-factor for Hawks

De'Andre Hunter

After finishing last season with a first-round exit, change was coming to Atlanta. Travis Schlenk and Tony Ressler made it known too. On multiple occasions, both men told reporters that the Hawks would upgrade the roster. And boy, did they.

They made a splash before free agency began by trading multiple first-round picks and Danilo Gallinari to the Spurs for Dejounte Murray. Since then, the team has only made a couple of minor moves. Atlanta traded Kevin Huerter to the Kings for Justin Holiday, Mo Harkless, and a 2024 lottery-protected first-round pick. They also signed Aaron Holiday, an under-the-radar signing but not spectacular by any means.

The roster is beginning to take shape despite there still being multiple spots open. The Hawks could make another big swing if they choose to acquire Deandre Ayton from the Suns, but the point of this article is to highlight a different De’Andre. Even if the team doesn’t make another splash, the squad is in an excellent position to get back to the Conference Finals, and one of the biggest factors in that happening is De’Andre Hunter taking the next step in his development.

As the team stands, Trae Young and Dejounte Murray will be the No. 1 and 2 options, while John Collins, who is still rumored to be a trade candidate, will be the No. 3 option. First and foremost, JC, as a third option, can be a championship-caliber team. However, if they part ways with him, expectations will be sky-high for Hunter, who will have to step up in his absence.

Regardless of the Hawks moving Collins, Hunter should be looking to take a massive step forward in his fourth season. Last season, he didn’t quite take the next step we all had hoped for coming off an impressive end to the 2020-21 campaign.

The former No. 4 overall pick dropped 36 in the team’s closeout game against Miami and was the only reason Atlanta had a chance to push it to Game 6. Still, the Game 5 performance was atypical; it isn’t who he’s been for most of his career. Hunter is an above-average defender and a poor ballhandler. His shot from beyond the arc was decent this year, but the rest of his game was mediocre.

Hunter averaged 13.4 points and 3.3 rebounds per game while shooting 44.2% from the field and 37.9% from beyond the arc. However, if his performance against Miami is a glimpse into the future, it should have Hawks fans salivating. He averaged 21.2 points and 3.8 rebounds per game on 55.7% shooting from the field and 46.2% from three-point range in the series against the Heat.

Hunter’s three seasons with the Hawks have been up and down. During his first year in the NBA, the coronavirus pandemic hit. His sophomore season was hampered by knee injuries, and the most recent season was riddled with inconsistent play.

Hunter has been most successful when driving to the basket. His shot needs to be more consistent, and his court vision could also use some fine-tuning, but most importantly, Hunter needs to improve his ball handling. Entering a contract year, this could be a make-or-break season for the former top-five pick.

Reports indicate that Hunter will command somewhere between $12 and $15 million per year on the open market. If his representatives agree to a four-year, $48 million extension, I think it’s a no-brainer for Schlenk. Atlanta’s front office should be ecstatic to get a player of his caliber at $12 million AAV; that is pennies in today’s NBA.

Hunter is a restricted free agent next offseason, so even if the two sides don’t agree on an extension, the Hawks should be able to retain him if he proves worthy this upcoming season. However, these reports seem to indicate a new deal is looming. Schlenk hasn’t handed out a bad contract yet, so I doubt he overpays for Hunter.

If the Hawks are to make it back to the Eastern Conference Finals, De’Andre Hunter must take another step forward and be the team’s X-factor.

Photo: Austin McAfee/Icon Sportswire

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