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After redshirt season, freshman De'Andre Hunter has come into his own with Cavaliers

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Hunter

Virginia's De'Andre Hunter (12) celebrates after dunking the ball against North Carolina at John Paul Jones Arena earlier this season. Virginia won 61-49.

When De’Andre Hunter was first presented the option of redshirting his freshman season at Virginia, he called his brother Aaron — 12 years his senior.

De’Andre was not happy.

“He was pretty upset, man. I won’t lie,” Aaron Hunter said. “He was pretty upset. He felt betrayed, to be honest. I kind of felt how he felt, too.”

The way De’Andre Hunter spoke about the decision, he noted that “it was really tough, I wasn’t expecting it. I just had to wait for my moment.”

The moment has come for Hunter, and it’s come in a big way.

After scoring in double figures in just three nonconference games, Hunter has posted at least 10 points in five of No. 2 UVa’s last seven ACC games. He’s averaging 4.9 rebounds over the last seven games after grabbing 2.1 per game in the first 13 contests. He’s averaging 0.57 turnovers per game in the last seven games after averaging 1.23 the first 13 games.

Since the Virginia Tech win, his outside shooting has increased. His confidence has increased.

He’s broken onto the scene in a way that’s increased his playing time, opponent recognition and potential NBA profile. He’ll have his toughest test of the season to date on Saturday at 2 p.m. against No. 4 Duke.

“When we had De’Andre, he was so skilled offensively,” Friends Central School head coach Ryan Tozer said. “I don’t think he realized how good he was at the time. He was doing things as a freshman, scoring anywhere on the floor, hitting midrange jumpers, hitting fallaway 3’s, playing with his back to the basket.”

Hunter isn’t the prototypical player to attend Virginia (19-1, 8-0). He has the type of athleticism that transcends the four- or five-year stars that the Cavaliers typically develop. Playing in the NBA is not a conversation that he’s started yet, Aaron and his mother Priscilla have said, but both acknowledge the possibility of his premature exit from UVa to pursue a lifelong dream.

Right now, he’s somewhere in between UVa’s X-factor and its best player. Head coach Tony Bennett spoke all through the early part of the season about Hunter’s flashes of potential. A thunderous dunk over North Carolina’s Joel Berry, a four-point play to end the half against Georgia Tech and a 3-point shooting spree against Wake Forest have shown that the “flashes” became consistent.

Hunter joked early in the ACC season that his family told him he referenced his confidence too much — literally every time he speaks to reporters.

“It was collaborative,” his mother, Priscilla Hunter, said, chuckling. “We were all sitting around after we got finished eating after the game, and one of my daughters said, ‘Andre, did you say anything about confidence in your interview this time, because every time you do the interview, you say something about your confidence. I believe you’re confident enough already.”

Hunter comes from a family of two sisters and his brother, Aaron. Hunter’s father — Aaron Hunter Sr. — passed away when De’Andre was 7 years old, and his brother Aaron assumed a father-figure role. Aaron took the official visit with De’Andre to UVa — at which point he committed. Aaron said Bennett calls him to talk about De’Andre, including to confirm his safety during the Aug. 12 incidents in Charlottesville. Aaron said he creates his own scouting reports and talks game plans with De’Andre before games.

He said that one of the biggest reasons De’Andre picked Virginia was strength and conditioning coach Mike Curtis. Part of Hunter’s development is in his weight/muscle gain.

“He’s so much stronger [now],” Tozer said. “It looks like he’s put on about 20 pounds since his senior year of high school. It looks like he’s playing great defensively.”

He was 195 pounds on the visit and is listed at 222 pounds today. It’s all to say that the influencers in Hunter’s life — Bennett’s suggestion to redshirt, Aaron’s lifelong advice and Curtis’ weight program — have led De’Andre to where he is now.

“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.”

Hunter has developed defensively. He often guarded the center in high school, and it’s helped him in guarding bigger offensive players this season. After the Wake Forest game, Hunter was hardly surprised that his outside shot started to fall — his success rate from 3 in high school was closer to 50 percent than where it is now (25 percent).

It’s impossible to say whether or not his redshirt year was crucial to these growth areas. He was given the option of whether to take the redshirt, and he took that route, even if it wasn’t the original plan. Part of it was a minor preseason ankle injury, part of it was just doing what the coaching staff felt was right. Now, he’s playing near his best basketball.

“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 redshirt year. You redshirt, 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.”

If Hunter continues down this pace, the question will continue come up. It’s not a matter of if Hunter will play in the NBA, it’s just when it will happen? Could this be his only season at UVa? After next year? Will he stay through until graduation?

By all accounts, De’Andre isn’t thinking of it at the moment. And Aaron was explicit in saying he’d be surprised if De’Andre declared for the NBA Draft after this season, even if it’s not impossible. There’s no denying that he’s playing against future NBA players and he’s playing well.

“I think anything is possible the way he’s playing,” Aaron said. “… No disrespect to the players that are thinking about being drafted, but I think, pound for pound and skill for skill, a lot of those players that are going to be drafted this year my brother has played against, and has did his thing against. If they’re eligible to get drafted and think about getting drafted, I think he could, too.”

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Sam Blum is The Daily Progress' University of Virginia sports reporter. Contact him at (434) 978-7250, sblum@dailyprogress.com, or on Twitter @SamBlum3.

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