For all the talk about his shooting prowess, it might have been a slick pass Wednesday night that best demonstrated why R.J. Hunter could be the most likely of the Boston Celtics' three rookies to earn playing time this season.
Late in the third quarter, after the Brooklyn Nets had rallied within four, Hunter found himself alone in the corner -- the most comfortable spot on the floor for a shooter -- when his man wandered to swarm the ball in the high post. Most rookies might have stayed glued to that spot, but recognizing that defenders would soon be swarming his way, Hunter instead cut along the baseline where he took a feed from Jared Sullinger. Brooklyn center Brook Lopez shuffled over to pick up Hunter and tried to steer him past the end line. Instead, the soon-to-be 22-year-old rookie somehow threaded a backhand bounce pass through two defenders while falling out of bounds and generated an easy layup for Evan Turner.
Logging 30 minutes of floor time in Boston's thin backcourt, Hunter posted 11 points on 3-of-8 shooting -- all his makes coming beyond the 3-point arc -- with four rebounds, four assists, four steals and a block as part of Boston's 109-105 triumph over Brooklyn at the Barclays Center.
"I think it’s pretty obvious, just watching him, he really has a feel," Celtics coach Brad Stevens told reporters in Brooklyn. "It just comes pretty natural -- little passes, simple plays, being able to put the ball on the money to other people, understanding spacing, understanding where his opportunities are going to come. And he’s got a pretty good feel for the game."
Even while at full strength overseas, Stevens raised some eyebrows by making Hunter an early sub during the first quarter of an exhibition in Milan. That's not exactly confirmation that Hunter will see consistent rotation minutes in the regular season, but it suggests that Stevens is confident enough in Hunter's abilities to give him a chance to distinguish himself early in his NBA career.
Hunter got even more floor time Wednesday as the Celtics played without the starting backcourt of Marcus Smart (illness) and Avery Bradley (rest), while fellow rookie first-round pick Terry Rozier sat out with a knee injury. While Hunter said he's still not nearly as comfortable as he'd like to be on the floor -- his head is still spinning a bit as the coaching staff overwhelms him with information in the infancy of his NBA career -- he did admit to feeling as comfortable as he has during Boston's exhibition slate during Wednesday's game.
Hunter downplayed his four steals, suggesting that three of them came as the result of a teammate's deflection. But his four assists -- combined with a general hustle and determination on the defensive end -- hammered home his ability to make good things happen even as he gets his feet wet.
"As he continues to make shots and feels more comfortable, he’s going to be better," said Stevens. "Defensively, he’s way ahead of where I thought he would be. He’s just long and active."
The Celtics have three obvious players for guard minutes in Isaiah Thomas, Smart and Bradley. It's a combination of Turner, Hunter, Rozier and James Young that will battle for whatever is left over at the guard/wing position. Hunter tried to stay grounded after Wednesday's solid outing.
"It’s just next man up," Hunter said. "I was telling somebody earlier, that’s the league. [Injuries are] going to happen throughout the year, so you have to be mentally ready whether you’re going to get in or not, just stay ready, and that’s what we did tonight."
Hunter has plenty to improve on -- including staying consistent with his shot and being able to fight through defensive situations where his lack of strength will put him in tough spots -- but that hasn't stopped him from making a strong first impression.
A few more notes from Boston's win on Wednesday night in Brooklyn:
• Johnson the scorer: Amir Johnson, Boston's biggest offseason splurge in the free-agent market, has endeared himself to the coaching staff early with his hustle-heavy, defensive-minded play. But on Wednesday, he showed he can score the ball as well while putting up 17 of his team-high 19 points in a dominant first-half effort that saw him show nice touch around the basket and bury two open 3-pointers beyond the arc. "Amir was great," Stevens said. "And Amir hasn’t scored it like that every day in practice. But Amir has been a threat to make shots everyday. He’s probably made 40 percent of his 3s in practice and that might only be 4 out of 10 in all of the practices, but he’s very capable. He just knows how to play -- both ends -- he makes easy plays with the ball. Then, on the defensive end, he makes everybody better. We saw a bunch of possessions today where he was the one that kinda held the fort together as other people were scrambling and getting back."
• Typical Thomas: Isaiah Thomas, the catalyst for last season's second-half surge, has been the team's leading scorer this preseason but has done it quietly. On Wednesday, he scored all 17 of his points in the first half (connecting on 6 of his first 7 shots) then seemed content to simply quarterback the offense (putting up a team-high nine assists overall). Thomas has played well in the preseason but looks like he still has another gear to shift to when the games start to matter.
• Loose Balls: After sitting out both tilts overseas, Evan Turner logged 25 minutes in his preseason debut Wednesday and put up 10 points, seven assists, five rebounds, a steal and a block. That sounds a lot like the triple-double-producing Turner we saw at the end of last season. ... Kelly Olynyk found early foul trouble (not that it matters in the preseason) but made up for it with some timely 3-pointers, particularly when Brooklyn tried to rally to make it a game in the third quarter. ... Jonas Jerebko's most notable play of the night might have been absorbing a hard flagrant-2 shoulder charge from Jarrett Jack (who was ejected), but Jerebko was quietly plus-11 in plus/minus over 18 minutes and continues to make good things happen with his hustle when he's on the floor. ... Jared Sullinger, who acknowledged this week that he's in a competition for minutes in an overcrowded big-man rotation, put up a clunker while connecting on just 1-of-8 shots over 12:22. ... Jordan Mickey, the rookie second-round pick who earned high praise from Stevens for his efforts in Tuesday's practice, played a solid fourth quarter with six points, two rebounds and a ladder-climbing block. ... Corey Walden was the first of Boston's training camp bodies to see floor time this preseason, playing the final 10 minutes. ... The Celtics were without David Lee (rest) for Wednesday's game.