In his mind, Jerome Hunter still isn’t the player he was 2 1/2 years ago, and he certainly isn’t anywhere near the player he expected to be in his third year at Indiana.
Hunter arrived as the No. 59 player in the Class of 2018, and by now he expected to be an All-Big Ten caliber player if he was even still playing college basketball. The 6-foot-7, 215-pounder came in with advanced post moves and a gorgeous shooting stroke, and figured to be trouble for opponents to try to match up with.
But as a redshirt sophomore, he’s still coming off the bench. A leg condition discovered in October of his freshman year, the specifics of which remain undisclosed, required multiple surgeries and cost him the 2018-19 season and much of the following offseason. Hunter still doesn’t seem to have fully recovered from all that was lost in that missed time.
But Hunter continues to show flashes that he could become what he and Indiana expected him to be. He had several of those moments on Thursday night in the Hoosiers’ double overtime loss to Wisconsin when he matched a career highs with 12 points and seven rebounds in 26 minutes. He made five of eight field goals and two of four 3-pointers with a couple of ferocious dunks. He might not be starting, but he is generally the first front court player off the Hoosiers’ bench.
“I know the type of player that I can be,” Hunter said. “Me not playing my first year, I think that kind of set me back a little bit. But this year is the year there’s no problem with me. I’m healthy. There’s really nothing wrong with me. So I’m just going out on the court playing my game and playing like I know how to play.”
Andreas James can sense that Hunter is becoming himself again, slow as a process as it may be. James has been Hunter’s trainer at the Columbus-based Nova Village Athletic Club since Hunter was an eighth grader, and he was with him throughout his time at Pickerington (Ohio) North High School when he averaged better than 20 points per game in both his junior and senior seasons. He’s seeing more confidence in Hunter’s shot in the last two games as he’s made four of his last nine 3-pointers, and he generally sees a player who’s enjoying the game again.
His overall numbers this season are just OK. He’s averaging 4.8 points and 3.0 rebounds per game heading into Sunday’s game at Nebraska and shooting 39.7 percent from the floor and 36.7 percent (11 of 30) from beyond the 3-point arc. But James sees good signs in Hunter’s body language that tell him he’s in the right direction.
“He plays his best when he’s not thinking about his field goal percentage, 3-point percentage, he’s just playing,” James said. “I’m starting to see little things like that. The fact that, in his last game he grabbed a board and took two or three dribbles up the floor, he hasn’t done that. He’s having more fun playing the game.”
Indiana coach Archie Miller has said repeatedly that Hunter is one of the players, along with guards Rob Phinisee and Aljami Durham, whose production holds the key to Indiana’s season. With senior center Joey Brunk out indefinitely due to back surgery, the Hoosiers are extremely low on front court depth. Sophomore Trayce Jackson-Davis and redshirt junior Race Thompson start together at power forward and center, but they’re also the only Indiana players who can handle the center spot.
So that means Hunter, who might most naturally be a small forward, has to give the Hoosiers extended minutes at the 4. When he’s on the floor, he allows Indiana to play four-out, one-in, forcing opponents to defend four shooters out to the 3-point line.
The Hoosiers haven’t seen it too much, but he can also take a smaller defender down to the post and score on him when the situation calls for it. Hunter’s turnaround jumper is one of his favorite weapons.
“He’s also capable of scoring in the post,” James said. “He hasn’t showed it, but I know it’s there, and I know it’s gonna come. I just know it. Once he gets comfortable, posts up strong, it’s gonna come.”
What also has to come for Hunter to continue to get extended minutes, however, is his defense.
When he was a high schooler that was never much of a problem. With a combination of quick feet and a big wingspan, Hunter could defend any position on the floor 1-5. James remembers Hunter locking down point guards at a Top 100 camp when he was in high school.
“I thought that would be one of his strengths,” James said. “His ability to defend a number of positions.”
But at Indiana, Hunter hasn’t been trust worthy in many defensive match ups at all, frequently finding himself out of position. On two closeouts against Maryland on Jan. 4 Hunter was called for two three-shot fouls. In the loss to Wisconsin, Hunter was assigned to cover Tyler Wahl in the second overtime and allowed him to knock down 3-pointers on back-to-back possessions to put the game away.
“The thing that I say I’m still lacking in or missing from my freshman year is my defense,” Hunter said. “My defense was a lot better then than it is now. … It was more guarding the ball and having my man on lock, being a lock-down defender. In high school, I barely get scored on a lot. Now I don’t think I get scored on a lot, but they’re getting to the paint a lot.”
Hunter says he sees progress within himself even if it isn’t always evident. He’s figuring out the intricacies in the pack-line defense and learning how to defend bigger and smaller players at the same time. Off-ball defense is drastically different at the college level, and Hunter is slowly picking up an understanding of rotations.
“Each game as I’m playing the 3 and 4, I’m learning how to guard big men,” Hunter said. “Playing all last year guarding guards, that helped me too. It’s just a matter of time. If I’m out there more, there’s more stops I can contribute for the team.”
It’s been and continues to be a slow-moving road back for Hunter, but he believes he’s getting closer, and it helps that he’s getting more minutes. He’s played at least 16 minutes in each of the last five games.
“Archie’s giving me a lot of confidence right how,” Hunter said. “Especially leaving me out there longer. In more minutes I think I can do more things. Him having confidence in me is giving me confidence. I do feel like I’m getting back to my regular self.”
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