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Year in Review: Eric Hunter Jr.

The freshman came out of high school as a scorer, but secured his spot in the rotation by doing the little things.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-South Regional-Purdue vs Virginia Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

Eric Hunter Jr.

12.6 mpg, 2.2 ppg, 1.4 rpg, 1.1 apg

His shot and scoring never fully came around, but Eric Hunter Jr. was something of a revelation on the defensive end.

For a freshman that barely broke the 150 lbs mark, Hunter made his mark for Coach Painter’s squad by playing tough, relentless defense.

Hunter was never spectacular this season. That wasn’t the point. Despite finishing his high school career with over 2500 points, his scoring never really popped. He struggled shooting the ball from three - 10 of 46 - on the year, and turned the ball over at a nearly 20% clip.

Hunter gave Purdue fans one game of scoring explosiveness that might have teased what his future would hold. Against Ohio he scored 13 points in just 19 minutes, going 5 of 6 from the floor, knocking down 2 threes, and showing the potential explosiveness the quick guard can use going forward to attack in transition and get to the rim.

But he saved his best game for last. In an all-timer, Virginia and Purdue traded haymakers. Both teams run offenses that are patient, smart, and full of shooting. They have two of the best coaches in the country and both teams and programs were playing to exorcise demons and get to the Final Four.

If you weren’t ready for the best competition, you weren’t playing.

Eric Hunter Jr. was ready. He played just 12 minutes, but those were vital 12 minutes. He was the only reserve guard Coach Painter had that could keep up with Virginia’s bevy of guards. He played tough defense, getting into his man, and making the offense work to just bring the ball off the court. He made 1 of his 2 threes, and had a beautiful off-hand lay-up in transition.

There’s not many freshman that are ready for that kind of stage against that kind of team. He had one of his most complete games.

He might have been even better against Tennessee two nights before in the Sweet Sixteen, another over time game, but this time Hunter played his tough defense and distributed the ball. He played 19 minutes against the Volunteers, racked up 3 assists, grabbed 3 boards and had a block. His ability to keep up with ultra-quick guards is something that Coach Painter hasn’t always had off the bench, but now he does for the foreseeable future.

And that future is particularly bright for Purdue in the back court. Hunter, as seen this year, is the perfect partner next to Nojel Eastern (presumed to return) in the back court. While Eastern can guard anyone, and I mean anyone, his size makes him a more obvious candidate to take on shooters and bigger guards. Hunter has a nice wing span, and played bigger than his weight, but he’s best as a water bug defender, scurrying back and forth, holding quick guards in check.

If Hunter can make the jump most freshman do, particularly freshman point guards, he should also start to show more consistent flashes of his offensive game that had him leave high school as one of the top-10 scorers in Indiana High School basketball history.

His jump shot isn’t broken, it’s just slow, but Hunter’s game really flourishes when he gets into the open-court. He’s got a devastating euro-step, and a tricky pace to his drive game. He knows what to do on the floor, he just needs to get more comfortable with the speed and length of the college game. He’ll see an expanded role next year as a ball handler and a shooter. Purdue is losing both Carsen Edwards and Ryan Cline, who controlled the ball and shots for most Purdue possessions.

This year, the Boilers will have to lean on their size and athleticism, and the expansion of Hunter and Eastern’s play as pick and roll guards, driving and creating looks for other players.