By Brian Robb, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Most first-round picks in the NBA don’t find themselves fighting for a roster spot just one year after being drafted. Said player’s potential or a cheap rookie contract is usually enough to buy a top-30 pick a couple of years to showcase his skills and prove he belongs.
In 2016 however, that’s not a luxury that has been handed to Celtics guard R.J. Hunter. The former Georgia State standout was selected by Boston at No. 28 overall in the 2015 NBA Draft and was in and out of the rotation throughout his overall uneventful rookie campaign. His shooting averages (36.7 percent from field, 30.2 percent from downtown) were lackluster, but he displayed enough promise to be kept around for a 22-year-old rookie … on most NBA teams anyway.
Unfortunately for Hunter, Danny Ainge has not constructed a typical roster this year. By hoarding countless draft picks in the past three seasons and refusing to sell them off cheaply via trade to clear roster space, a tough competition has been created for Hunter and other end-of-roster players in the preseason. Instead of fighting for playing time, Hunter and fellow swingman James Young are playing for their Celtic lives with 16 guaranteed contracts in play for just 15 spots at the start of the regular season.
After an uneven start to the preseason, Hunter took a big step in helping himself win one of those final spots on the roster on Saturday night, lighting up the Knicks at Madison Square Garden with 17 points in just 12 minutes in Boston’s 119-107 victory.
Hunter’s versatility was on display throughout the performance, as he did a little bit of everything down the stretch of a tight game for Brad Stevens. With both teams playing their third units, Hunter joined forces with rookie point guard Demetrius Jackson to take command of the offense.
Hunter used his 6-foot-6 frame on a couple of strong takes to the rim, finished a floater in traffic, hit a wide-open 3 in transition and even drew three free throws against a Knicks big with a strong head fake at the top of the key. He capped the effort with a pretty dish to Jackson to set up one final 3-pointer from the corner in an impressive fourth quarter display by the C’s reserves.
“Huge, especially in the Garden,” Hunter told the Boston Herald when asked about succeeding in a crunch-time situation. “When I was a rookie this really felt like a playoff atmosphere, so it’s cool for all of us who don’t really see a lot of reps to see all these reps, especially going against some of their rotation guys. It’s huge but I can’t get too overconfident. It’s one game and a couple shots, so just continue to put up extra reps and continue to shoot. Like my Zen guy (Gerald Green) says, just live and die with the results.”
Hunter’s competition (James Young) has had the better shooting preseason overall (43.8 percent from field, 44 percent from 3-point range), but his defensive limitations still stand out at times, as was the case Saturday night against New York. Hunter also was ahead of Young on the depth chart last season, so a strong all-around output like we saw Saturday night should help Hunter inch a little bit closer to securing that final spot.
With just two preseason games remaining before final cuts, the clock is ticking on both players. Young is going to need to rally down the stretch though to match the work Hunter did on Saturday night. Otherwise, he could find himself playing for a different team on opening night.
Brian Robb covers the Celtics for CBS Boston and contributes to NBA.com, among other media outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @CelticsHub.