LAS VEGAS -- How is summer league going for Boston Celtics rookie R.J. Hunter? Depends on when you ask.
This is a time of year when everyone tends to make knee-jerk reactions to somewhat meaningless games, so taking the temperature on Hunter is like what Mark Twain used to say about not liking the weather in New England: Just wait a few minutes. The Hunter we saw the past week in Utah doesn't much resemble the player here in Vegas.
"I think he just needed to see the ball go in the basket one time," said Celtics assistant Micah Shrewsberry, who is coaching the team in Vegas. "He knows what he can do. He played with a lot of confidence in college. And then you kind of doubt yourself when you start 0-for-5 or 0-for-8, whatever he was. A little bit of doubt creeps in, 'Am I ready for this?’
"Then he sees the ball go in the basket, and now he’s like, ‘This is what I do. I’m a little more comfortable.’ Now you see him attacking the basket more off the dribble, drawing fouls, making good passes. Now his total game is starting to come out a little more."
Maybe it's the fact that he's the son of a coach, but Hunter has stayed even-keeled -- and maintained his sense of humor -- throughout the infancy of his NBA career. With returning veterans Marcus Smart and James Young sitting out Sunday, Hunter started against the 76ers and put up 21 points on 5-of-15 shooting (3-of-11 beyond the 3-point arc) with four rebounds, three assists and a block over 29 minutes. He followed it up with 13 points on 4-for-7 shooting Tuesday in a win over the Miami Heat.
Hunter smiled widely after his big game on Sunday and admitted he might have had a few too many heat checks without Boston's more veteran players on the court. But it's also a sign of where his confidence is after the rocky start.
"I thought I was in my own head early," Hunter said. "Then I figured out it’s just basketball -- just play your game. I thought that helped me out."
Asked to rank his comfort level after five games on a scale of 1 to 10, Hunter said he's probably a 6 or 7. Where was that confidence before his debut in Utah, when he missed all five shots he took?
"Probably a 0.6," he said with a smile.
The Celtics needed more shooting and scoring the past season, and Hunter will eventually compete to provide those off the bench. But the backbone of all Brad Stevens' teams is defense, and Hunter must commit himself to that.
He's going to need to bulk up to handle NBA wings, though his length (6-foot-11 wingspan) will help him disrupt passing lanes and contest shots. He must adjust to playing man-to-man defense and learn Boston's help-heavy philosophies.
Hunter acknowledges the strides he must make on the defensive end. Asked the biggest difference at the NBA level, he was quick with a response.
"You can’t get exposed," he said. "I think in college, like I always say, you can kind of take some plays off. It’s kind of bad to say that, but you do. Here, you take plays off, and you end up on SportsCenter. You gotta stay engaged."
How has Hunter been, defensively, this summer?
"He’s gotten better and better each game," Shrewsberry said. "I don’t know if he was totally comfortable, but now he’s getting into the ball, he’s keeping guys on the side, he gets his hands on a lot of balls. That’s one thing we saw in practices: He has really good instincts, got really long arms, so he can get deflections and steals. Now he’s doing a better job on the ball."
The Celtics see Hunter as a player who can make plays with the ball in his hands and could play point guard at times down the road. What the Celtics love most is Hunter's feel for the game; he's got a good basketball IQ and knows what he should be doing on the court. Now he's just got to do it and do it consistently.
Boston has a pretty solid three-guard combo that will eat many of the minutes in the backcourt in Smart, Avery Bradley and Isaiah Thomas. But Hunter, first-round pick Terry Rozier and Young are going to have the opportunity to compete for what remains. Rozier's NBA-ready defense would seemingly give him an early edge, but there will be good competition in camp for roles.
The opinions on Hunter will probably morph plenty of times again. It's just your typical ride on the rookie roller coaster.