The NCAA Tournament’s Cinderella story can now cash in.
R.J. Hunter capped off a phenomenal junior season by leading the Georgia State Panthers to an improbable upset over the Baylor Bears last Thursday, in which he hit a deep game-winning three as coach/dad Ron Hunter fell off his chair. The 14-seeded Panthers lost to the Xavier Musketeers on Saturday, but the shot will be one of the indelible images of March Madness.
It is now decision time for the 21-year-old from Indianapolis. Will he stay with his father and return for his senior year, or will he declare for the NBA Draft?
Sorry pops, it’s time for your son to head to the league.
Most people will only recognize the 6-foot-6, 190-pound shooting guard for his “one shining moment” because his team plays in the Sun Belt, but his career numbers have been outstanding. In his three years he has averaged 18.4 points and 4.8 rebounds a game as the Panthers have recorded a 65-35 record.
He has also earned some positive reviews by NBA scouts. Two unnamed scouts told Doug Roberson of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Hunter is a potential first round pick, praising his IQ, instincts and character. His shooting (30 percent from three-point range) was cited as a concern, as well as his strength and quickness.
There are some knocks on Georgia State’s hero, but past drafts indicate that he is going to hear his name called in the first 30 picks. 2014 NBA guard first round draftees averaged 16.2 points a game in their final college seasons, so Hunter is right on pace in the scoring category. As the league becomes more and more guard-oriented, NBA general managers are going to continue picking guys who can fill it up night after night, and Hunter scored double-digit points 90 out of the 99 games he played in his college career.
Another major plus for Hunter’s stock is that he made the tournament. Eight of the nine guards selected in last year’s first round made the NCAAs, boosting their draft stock by starring in March. If Georgia State had not made the Big Dance, he would not have made the game-winner and the casual college basketball fan would not have known who he was. Making the tourney is of vital importance.
Weber State alum Damian Lillard showed that a small-school player can still make a major impact in the pros. He averaged 18.6 points a contest in his college days, 0.2 more than Hunter. Hunter won’t be the sixth selection like Lillard, but he can look to the Portland Trail Blazer’s success if he needs any more vindication that he can be an NBA player.
No one is denying that the decision Hunter is making is a difficult one; he has it good at Georgia State. His family is close-by, he’s the big man on campus and Kevin Ware is returning for his senior season. The Panthers will still be competitive next season, so there’s a lot going for Hunter if he chooses to stay.
In today’s day and age in college basketball, however, you almost have to go with the money while your stock is up. There’s always the option to go back to class and earn your degree in the offseason, but the window to play in the National Basketball Association can close without warning. The shelf life of an NBA player is simply too short due to injury and the rising skill level of the competition.
If I’m coach Ron Hunter, I’m encouraging my son to enter his name into the NBA Draft. After all, there is truly no better time for R.J. to take the leap.