NEW YORK — De’Andre Hunter slips through a side door into the Grand Hyatt’s Manhattan Ballroom on Wednesday, staring deep into his cellphone, with his older brother, Aaron, to his side. The 2019 NBA Draft is Thursday, and a league staffer is directing traffic at a predraft press conference:
“De’Andre Hunter, you sit right over here!”
Hunter, wearing a crisp white button down shirt and navy blue dress pants, plops himself down at the podium with the placard bearing his name. A dozen pairs of eyes study him, waiting for his cue. He flashes a soft grin.
“I always told him,” Aaron says, standing on the outskirts of the scrum, recalling past drafts he watched with his brother. “If you work hard enough, that could be you.”
Now, it finally is him.
Hunter, the NABC National Defensive Player of the Year who led Virginia to its first NCAA Tournament championship in program history, is expected to be a lottery selection in Thursday’s NBA Draft. And yet, Hunter has been relegated to a supporting role in the lead-up to the draft, as have many of his contemporaries.
This, after all, is the draft of Zion.
It didn’t take long for Zion Williamson to captivate the United States, the nation transfixed by the 6-foot-7, 285-pound freshman’s intoxicating blend of speed and power, and the former Duke forward is expected to be taken No. 1 overall by the New Orleans Pelicans. On Wednesday, more than 30 minutes before he was scheduled to speak, Williamson’s table was crawling with reporters, with a scrum four times the size of the one surrounding Hunter.
Hunter was asked about Williamson nearly as often as he was about himself.
“He’s a great player,” Hunter said over and over, and he hardly seemed to mind.
A mellow kid from Philadelphia who hadn’t created a Twitter account until after he left UVa, Hunter is an archetype of Coach Tony Bennett’s blue-collar program, more likely to celebrate his successes with family and close friends than broadcast his feelings to the world.
Aaron joined his little brother in New York on Tuesday, and their mother, Priscilla, was scheduled to get in Wednesday afternoon along with Hunter’s two sisters, Candice and Cheyanne.
Hunter was 7 when his father died but has kept his memory close. Tuesday, Aaron gifted him a chain affixed to a circular pendant bearing a photo featuring an infant De’Andre in his father’s arms.
“He’s going to see it all with me,” Hunter said, beaming, proudly pulling the pendant out from underneath his shirt. “That’s how I look at it.”
In the wake of their dad’s passing, Aaron, who is 11 years older than De’Andre, took on a father figure role in the family. De’Andre leaned more on his mother too.
“She means so much to me,” Hunter said. “I definitely would not be here if it wasn’t for her support, or her uplift, treating me as a son and not as a basketball player.”
To be fair, Hunter is a basketball player, and that’s how he’s known to much of the world. But often draft prospects’ humanity is lost against the backdrop of mock drafts, combine measurables, trade rumors and talking head agita. Hunter is kept grounded by his family.
“They don’t care how good I do on the basketball court,” Hunter said. “They’re just there for me.”
Hunter joked Wednesday that he wasn’t good enough to go one-and done in college, as Williamson did. The guard, in fact, redshirted his first year on Grounds, then built himself into an elite defensive wing by his redshirt sophomore season. It’s his defensive spirit, combined with his expanding 3-point range and quiet confidence, that’s made him attractive to league executives and scouts.
One of the favorite games of fans and analysts leading into the draft is comparing prospects to current players. Hunter is often mentioned in the vein of Kawhi Leonard, the superstar wing who led the Toronto Raptors to the 2019 NBA championship and who is known as one of the elite two-way players in the game. Wednesday, Hunter named Leonard when asked of his favorite NBA player at his position.
The similarities are clear from a basketball perspective. Both Leonard and Hunter prioritize efficiency and nuance over flash, winning fans for their hard-nosed defense and clutch shooting. Aaron insists his brother has not consciously modeled his game after that of Leonard, and is instead intent on carving his own legacy. The similarities are striking, though, especially when considering both players’ personalities.
“He’s a man of few words,” Aaron said of his brother.
Indeed, Hunter kept his answers short Wednesday, declining to disclose all of the teams for which he worked out, and stood up from the table after about 25 minutes. On the other end of the room, a growing crowd was forming around Williamson’s section. Cameramen had congregated near the adjacent doorway, bracing themselves for his arrival.
The door opened, and the camera lights flicked on. No Zion. Instead a league staffer passed through. “Just me again!” she said.
Hunter didn’t pay the mob any attention. He sneaked out the same door he came in, Aaron by his side. They had a more important item on their agenda. Mom was on her way to New York.