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Purdue Basketball: The Resurgence of Eric Hunter Jr.

Purdue’s senior guard is hitting his stride at the exact right moment after a rough start to the 2022 season.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 16 Purdue at Northwestern Photo by Chris Kohley/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Eric Hunter Jr. is in the midst of a roller coaster career at Purdue. The former 4* guard out of Tindley Prep in Indianapolis has played multiple roles for the Boilermakers over the last 4 seasons. He came to Purdue with a well earned reputation as a scorer. He ended his prep career as the all-time leading in Marion County (which includes Indianapolis (for any of my non-Indianacentric readers) and is 7th on the all-time scoring list for the state of Indiana (which I’m told knows a little something about high school basketball). The lanky (6’4”), rail thin (175), lefty came in as a scorer, but hasn’t been able to find the scoring success he enjoyed in high school, but he’s found other ways to help the Boilermakers.

Hunter Jr. was expected to provide an offensive spark off the bench as a freshman in 18-19, but his transition from small school superstar to Big 10 scorer wasn’t smooth. The former volume shooter/scorer was asked to be selective with his shots. He couldn’t find the range from 3, shooting 10/46 (22%) for the season and struggled to finish at the rim, going 17/46 (40%) from inside the arc. Conference play, in particular, was rough. He went the entire month of February without scoring a point and saw his time on court dwindle with each game. Most freshman might pack it in and get ready for the next season, but Hunter Jr. surged late in the season. He contributed 20 critical minutes in Purdue’s overtime thriller against Tennessee in the Sweet 16, and 12 minutes and 5 points in next game which I chose not to speak about.

With Carsen Edwards off to the NBA, Hunter Jr. was asked to step into the lead scoring guard role in 19-20. As we all remember, the 19-20 season was not great. Purdue ended the season at 16-15, and finished 9-11 in the Big 10. Hunter Jr. stepped up and led Purdue guards in scoring, averaging 10.6 points a game (2nd on the team behind Trevion Williams). He had a few outstanding games, including a 17 point performance late in the season to knock off I.U. to make a bad season seem a tad more palatable but he never seemed comfortable in the lead scorer role. His 3 point shooting improved markedly, going 43/121 (35%) but he lacked the explosion to finish off the dribble in the half court, and often relied on his throwback mid-range jump shooting game to score. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s not the most efficient way to put the ball in the bucket as a lead guard.

The 2020-2021 season saw Hunter Jr. in yet another role. The addition of precocious freshman Jaden Ivey, and the improvement of Trevion Williams moved him down the offensive pecking order. He finished the season averaging 8.5 points a game, good for 5th on the team. His struggles on offense weren’t all tied to a reduction in opportunities. Bluntly put, he wasn’t good on offense. He went 22/81 (27%) from deep and 72/194(37%) from 2. Even worse, his offensive game nose dived at the end of the season. Ever resilient, he refused to let his offensive struggles bleed into his defense. He transitioned from Purdue’s lead scoring guard in 19-20 to their shut down perimeter defender in 20-21. Despite his offensive woes, he still averaged 30 minutes a game, and started 23/24 games. He wasn’t scoring, but brought enough outside of scoring to keep him on the court.

That brings us to the 2021-22 season. For the first time in 2 seasons, Hunter Jr. was asked to come off the bench and play significantly fewer minutes. It did not go well. Not only was he not scoring, he was turning the ball over. After a 4 point, 4 turnover performance against Iowa, I wondered if we were going to see even less of him as the season progressed. He didn’t look comfortable or happy on the court. Fortunately for Purdue, if there is any player on the roster capable of pulling himself out of rut, it’s Hunter Jr. He’s seen it all over his career, and continued to plug away, despite decreased minutes (he failed to hit 20 minutes for 5 straight games).

This team needs a good, confident Eric Hunter Jr. in order to reach their full potential. Outside of Ivey, he’s the only guard capable of finding his own shot. Sasha and I.T. are deadly shooters, but they’re not going to take guys off the dribble late in the clock. As we’ve seen over the last few games, Ivey is an amazing, explosive player, but sometimes it takes him a while to explode. Throw in the fact that he’s been battling a hip injury, and the Boilermakers need Hunter Jr. to help fill in the gaps on offense, and he’s done just that. After not cracking double digits in the first 16 games of the season, He’s hit that landmark 5 times in the last 11 games, including a crucial 11 points in the overtime win against Illinois, where he scored 4 clutch points on cuts to the basket down the stretch and a 20 point explosion against Minnesota.

Not only has his scoring improved over the last 11 games, he’s been incredibly efficient. Since the Illinois game, he’s gone 35/57 (60%) from 2 and 14/22 (64%) from 3. He rejoined the starting lineup on January 27th against Iowa, and it doesn’t appear that he will relinquish that position. His minutes have returned to their 20-21 levels. In the last 11 games he’s only failed to hit the 20 minute mark once (I.U.) and has played 30+ minutes 5 times. He’s gone from a guy that didn’t look playable halfway through the season, to a key cog in the Boilermaker attack late in the year, when the team needs him the most.

His last performance against Northwestern is exactly what Purdue will need to pull out the Big10 Conference. Ivey looked gassed. He couldn’t get anything going against the Wildcats. He finished the game going 2/7 from 2 and 0/5 from 3 while only playing 23 minutes. This game had upset written all over it, but Hunter Jr.’s steady play helped Purdue fend off an upset bid by a motivated, homestanding Wildcat squad that played hard and thought they had a legitimate shot to win the game. Hunter Jr. went 4-6 from two, 1-2 from 3, and 2-4 from the line, giving Purdue 11 key points. If Purdue gets early season Hunter Jr. production, they’re flirting with a road loss in Evanston and the end of their Big10 Championship aspirations.

Moving forward, Purdue needs Hunter Jr. to keep it up. When Ivey needs a rest, or is misfiring like he was against Northwestern, Hunter Jr. has to step up and fill the role of late clock scorer. He doesn’t have to hit 20 points, because Purdue has the inside game to take up most of the slack, but when things get late in the clock, they need his ability to break down the defense and put the ball in the basket. Eventually, this team will live and die with Jaden Ivey, but if Hunter Jr. can help Purdue gut out a couple close games where Ivey isn’t at his effervescent best (which tends to happen in at least 1 round of the NCAA tournament) their is no limit on what this team can achieve.