Who was the most improved player in 2019-20? In a year where Purdue regressed from a Big Ten title, 26 wins, and a near Final Four it is hard to say. We unfortunately had some regression in a few major players, one mostly due to injury in my opinion. We had some small improvements in others and some “incompletes” due to a few others playing their first season in West Lafayette. It is almost by process of elimination that we have a “most improved” player, but even in a normal year I think this player stands out.
Eric Hunter Jr. – Junior in 2020-21
2018-19 Stats: 36 Games played, 1 start. 12.6 mpg, 2.2 ppg 1.4 rpg, 1.1 apg, 30.3% FG, 21.7% 3FG, 71.4% FT
2019-20 Stats: 31 Games played, 30 starts. 31.5 mpg, 10.6 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 2.6 apg, 41.5% FG, 35.5% 3FG, 76.1% FT
We started to see hints of this during Purdue’s magical NCAA Tournament run last season when Hunter was a freshman. He only scored 79 points all season, but had nine in the four tournament games and five in the Virginia game. This was after making a spot start in the tournament opener against Old Dominion because Nojel Eastern turned an ankle in warmups. He also dished out eight of his 39 assists during the four tournament games and provided solid defense.
That was just a preview of this season, when Hunter exploded onto the scene as Purdue’s top guard. In 2018-19 he was only in double figures twice: against Fairfield (10) in the season opener and against Ohio (13). This year he arguably only had one bad game, a 2-point outing at Wisconsin, but he was also in foul trouble in that game and limited to 17 minutes.
For the most part Hunter was extremely consistent all season and he even had a few “whoa” moments. He added to the Pantheon of “important dunks on IU” with his steal and score just before halftime. His sneer afterwards, adding some much needed attitude to the proceedings, was even better. He followed that up with 19 at Iowa a few days later. He averaged 14.5 points in the two Indiana games, had 13 in the win at Northwestern when no one was playing well, and had 16 in the double OT win over Minnesota.
Hunter is probably Purdue’s most complete guard right now. He can distribute pretty well, defend, rebound moderately well, shoot the three, score going to the rim, and hit free throws (the Rutgers game notwithstanding). There is no question he took a massive leap this year when every major statistical category took a big leap forward. We shouldn’t be surprised by his scoring surge, either. He finished his high school with 2,583 points, seventh in state history. As he gains more and more confidence he is only going to get better.
What I would like to see out of Hunter is him hitting the weight room and finding a way to add about 15 pounds of muscle. He is listed at 6’4” and 175 pounds, while another versatile Purdue guard is listed at 6’4” 190 pounds: E’Twaun Moore. I don’t think his ceiling is as high as E’Twaun’s, but there are some similarities to their games. Here were E’Twaun’s sophomore stats:
37 games played, 36 starts. 33 mpg, 13.8 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 3.0 apg, 42.2% FG, 33.7 3FG (166 attempts to Hunter’s 121), 76.2% FT
E’Twaun had a higher volume of attempts in his second season than Hunter did, but still, the percentages are really, really similar. Hunter was even a better 3-point shooter percentage-wise. E’Twaun had a pretty big jump in his final two seasons, which is obviously why he is now a nine-year NBA veteran, but if you can have Hunter be 75-80% of the player that E’Twaun was that is still really, really good.
Year three saw E’Twaun play fewer minutes (119 less, but we also played two fewer games overall) but become more efficient. His rebounding and assist numbers took a hit, but his shooting percentages and scoring numbers went up another level. I would love to see that out of Hunter and I think he is fully capable of that. A reasonable goal for him is 13 ppg, getting the 3-point percentage into the high 30s, and attacking the rim more to get to the line. He was also second on the team in assists so his distribution numbers can continue to stay strong as well.