Virginia Cavaliers De’Andre Hunter Propelling Redemption Come March

De'Andre Hunter
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Earlier this month, Virginia Cavaliers De’Andre Hunter was nominated for the 2019 Julius Irving Small Forward of the Year Award. The small forward sophomore is currently averaging 14.7 points per game, 5.3 rebounds per game and 2.2 assists per game. Any time he is on the court, the presence of Hunter makes an impact for the Cavaliers.

But as the team prepares for March, it is dealing with adversity. They have lost to Duke both times this season. There are still questions whether this team can get over the mental hurdle after last season,w here they were upset in the first round by 16th seeded UMBC.

None of this matters to Hunter. His focus is improving every day, ensuring that his play on the court is enabling Virginia to have success.

“I just try to be as versatile as possible,” Hunter said. “I can handle the ball and defend a lot of positions. When I’m on the court, I just try to do whatever I can to stay on the court and do whatever I can to help the team win.”

Hunter Learned Valuable Lessons from being Red-shirt

It’s the news that any aspiring basketball player does not want to hear.

“You are going to be a red-shirt.”

These words blindsided De’Andre Hunter.

“It was really tough, I wasn’t expecting it,” explains Hunter. “I just had to wait for my moment.”

Growing up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and a family that consists of two sisters and his brother, Aaron, De’Andre knew that early on basketball was his calling. His father, Aaron Sr., passed away when De’Andre was seven years old. Brother Aaron assumed the paternal role, guiding De’Andre through the peaks and valleys that exist of growing up in an urban city. Aaron was the one that accompanied Andre on his trip to Virginia, the university he would end up committing to play collegiate basketball. At the visit he was 195 pounds. Today, he weighs 225 pounds, showing his growth and ability to get stronger.

“We actually call him the silent assassin, because he will kill you and not say a word,” Aaron said. “You’ll look up and he’ll have 25 [points], five [rebounds] and five [assists]. And it’s like, ‘What, he just did what?’ Without yelling, without screaming. I just tell him, ‘You grab your lunch, you go to work and you go home, and nobody even knows you went to work.’ He’s always been like that.”

Coming into Virginia, the coaching staff knew Hunter was gifted offensively. He could shoot from anywhere on the court, whether it was a mid-range jumper or a three-point bucket. While the news of red-shirting was disappointing, it allowed Hunter to grow in some key aspects of his game. Passing the ball effectively with purpose is one of those areas. Becoming a better defender was another. Maintaining offensive consistency game to game was the most important.

Hunter Showed Improvements in Sophomore Season

When he got his chance to finally take the court for Virginia, the glimpses of his high school self emerged. The player that was a first team All-State that averaged 23.5 points per game was becoming one of the best small forwards in college basketball. Hunter was guarding bigger opposing players with physicality and playing both sides of the ball with effectiveness, something that impressed Cavaliers head coach Tony Bennett.

“His diversity and his ability to score inside and outside and even defensively has really helped us,” Bennett said. “I couldn’t be happier to see that. He works hard and he’s coming off of a red-shirt year. You red-shirt, sometimes you haven’t played since high school, and then you’re a year away, and you jump into this competition. And he’s found a nice niche.”

Perhaps De’Andre Hunter would have been playing in the NBA by now, if it hadn’t been for an ankle injury he suffered during the ACC Conference Tournament last year. But the small forward is using this year as an opportunity for redemption, to make an even greater leap up the rankings in the NBA Draft.

“I try not to think about it,” Hunter said. “I just want to enjoy the games with my teammates. If I do play well enough to be lucky enough to leave, then so be it, but I’m not playing every game like I won’t be here next year.”

His improvements after his freshman season are quite evident. Hunter’s ability to drive the basket and post up is in a league of its own among the small forwards in the country. This complete arsenal was put on full display when Virginia defeated Virginia Tech in January 81-59, where Hunter put up a game-high 21 points.

Hunter Ready for Redemption with Virginia

The only two losses of the season for Virginia have come to the hands of the Duke Blue Devils. Despite Hunter putting up 18 and 11 points in both games, Duke’s amalgamation of talent was too much for the Cavaliers to handle. The 81-71 victory for Duke on the road was a statement performance, signalling to the rest of the ACC who was the team to beat.

But the very next game on the road against the North Carolina Tar Heels, Virginia showed newfound life. Despite being down for parts of the game, the Cavaliers roared back win by eight 69-61. Their ability to slow down Tar Heels’ Nassir Little and their prolific offense was crucial as Virginia still remains a championship contender. Hunter, who would score 20 points, led the 12-2 run that would propel Virginia to a crucial victory on the road, demonstrating his leadership in the midst of adversity.

“That was huge,” Bennett said. “It was a game of ebb and flow, for sure.”

The questions of whether this team can beat Duke or avenge their first round departure will still linger. But De’Andre Hunter isn’t focused on the unnecessary background noise. The goal is to bring a championship back to Charlottesville and to be the critical x-factor on both sides of the ball in the biggest games.

“We need to stay true to what we do,” Hunter said. “I don’t think we need to change much. We know how talented we are. If we just do what we have to do and believe in each other, we can go as far as we want.”