2019 NBA Draft: De’Andre Hunter’s return to Virginia made the class stronger

(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images) /

With just about everyone declaring for the 2018 NBA Draft so far, De’Andre Hunter is arguably the biggest name to return to school.

Last year it was Miles Bridges and Robert Williams. This year the big names returning to school aren’t quite on that level. Daniel Gafford of Arkansas was the first to skip out on the NBA this year. Soon after the Gonzaga big man duo of Rui Hachimura and Killian Tillie followed suit.

More guys will return after testing the waters, but those were the biggest names. That was until the ACC Sixth Man of the Year De’Andre Hunter announced he was coming back to Virginia. Hunter was in a similar boat to someone like Texas Tech’s Zhaire Smith — very raw but blooming with potential. You could justify either guy leaving or staying this year. Smith left and Hunter stayed.

Hunter had an amazing season as a redshirt freshman, not only winning Sixth Man of the Year but also by arguably being his team’s best offensive player. He also was the only rookie to get any votes, albeit just one, over Marvin Bagley III for ACC Rookie of the Year. Hunter’s combination of shooting, creation and monstrous defense helped Virginia become a juggernaut. It would’ve been much harder for UMBC to pull that upset had he played.

At 6’8″ with a monster wingspan and quick feet, Hunter can swallow up almost every player in the college game. From the quickest of guards to largest of centers, you’ll have a tough time scoring on him. He’s an excellent help defender and coupled this with some intriguing offensive flashes. Though he’s 20 years old, he showed an ability to pull up from mid-range. That could be a game-changer for his NBA prospects.

He’s not pulling up from 3 yet, but he made 38 percent of 55 attempts. Not bad. We’ll need to see a lot more this fall to believe in the jumper. That being said, he showed a strong nose for the glass and feel for the game as well. Hunter made reads you wouldn’t expect freshmen to make. There’s definitely some high basketball IQ in him. Assisting on 11 percent of UVA baskets is impressive, especially with how poor their offense was at times.

Sure he’s still raw and can play out of control, but this is a nice return for the potential 2019 NBA Draft class. It’s not necessarily that the 2018 high school seniors are a poor bunch, we’ve just been spoiled by 2016 and 2017. They’re more likely to be an average class than below-average like many believe in NBA circles. That being said, the returns of players like Gafford, Tillie and now Hunter help a lot.

Unlike the two other aforementioned names, Hunter’s really the only returnee, for now, with top-10 upside. In a lot of ways, there’s some Mikal Bridges in him. They’re not the same player, but they’re developing fairly similarly. Touted for defense initially, Hunter is showing shooting promise both from deep and in the variety of jumpers he can make. That’s exactly what we saw from Bridges this year. On top of that, Hunter looks the superior athlete as well.

Don’t expect Hunter to be a volume knockdown guy this fall on that alone. Yet, we can’t count it out entirely either. Bridges also redshirted, meaning he’s an older prospect like Hunter. Should Hunter get drafted in 2019 he’d be 22 in December of his rookie year. That lines up for Bridges. This isn’t to say they’re the same, but it can give us a bit more hope with Hunter — both for him and the 2019 class.

Some may view that as limited upside, but Bridges looks like a top-10 pick in this year’s draft. That’s with how loaded the top 5-8 players are. NBA teams clearly value an older guy who plays incredible defense and has shooting upside. Hunter looks to be on his way to at least a lesser version of that. In a weaker class, there might be one extra prospect to really be enamored with, and that’s always a good thing.

Next: Full two-round 2018 NBA Mock Draft

Hunter’s development is going to be arguably the most interesting to track next fall. Don’t sleep on him having top-10 upside, especially in a weaker 2019 NBA Draft.