For too long now the Jerome Hunter story hasn’t been about basketball.
For an athlete, an injury involves frustration, lonely hours rehabbing, fear and uncertainty.
The Jerome Hunter story over the last year hasn’t been about an injury either.
Instead, Hunter has had to navigate an undisclosed medical condition involving his lower legs.
An injury at least has some definition around it. The recovery timeline is generally known, and there is a history of others before you fully recovering and continuing their careers.
Hunter hasn’t had a lot of known variables over the last year, and when you talk to his teammates, there is a clear sense of relief all around the IU basketball program.
“I’m just happy to see him out playing with us and just a smile on his face really,” junior guard Al Durham said.
Junior forward Justin Smith is also taking comfort in Hunter’s personal well being.
“I mean, we’re just really excited to see him back on the floor and really kind of enjoying himself again and really becoming a bigger part of our team,” Smith said.
Although IU hasn’t disclosed the precise nature of Hunter’s condition citing medical privacy laws, the reaction of his teammates, the prolonged recovery, and the still ongoing close monitoring tells you this wasn’t and still isn’t something to be taken lightly.
After a season full of injuries, no one knows about recoveries better than head coach Archie Miller, and he too of course recognizes that what Hunter has had to deal with has been on another level.
“Jerome went through a very tough freshman year,” Miller said. “A lot of guys go through injuries. A lot guys have to sit, and that’s hard for people. Jerome not only did that, but also had a condition that’s not just an ankle sprain or repair of the knee. It was a little different.”
Hunter has been cleared for six weeks to join his teammates in all activities, but that clearance doesn’t guarantee that the Pickerington, Ohio product will see the floor when Indiana’s 2019-20 season tips off on Nov. 5 against Western Illinois.
In another reminder of the serious nature of Hunter’s condition, a release last week from the IU basketball program on his return to all basketball activities came with this wrinkle: “His return to basketball continues to be monitored by IU’s Men’s Basketball Sports Medicine staff and will be managed accordingly.”
In other words, if the doctors see something they don’t like, Hunter’s return could be put on hold.
The weight of the situation, and the threat of a setback is no doubt frustrating to Hunter, and probably a little frightening at times too.
The 6-foot-7 forward has had to take himself a step back from the big picture and just soldier through each new day.
“I mean, I’m getting better and better each day, so it’s like I’m trying to work through things,” Hunter said. “It’s just a day-by-day thing.”
Prior to Hunter’s day-by-day efforts to return on the floor was a long and uncertain medical process. Again, not dealing with your now seemingly run-of-the-mill torn ACL, a lot of work went on behind the scenes to better understand the condition and make sure that each step along the way was in Hunter’s best interest.
“I am very, very grateful, Miller said. “The doctors and the training staff and just our administration in general how much work and information went into sharing and working towards getting him just back on the floor.”
The recovery process has seen Hunter go from virtually no activity for six months, to light activity, to now just in the last six weeks competing at a level that resembles high major college basketball.
“He’s worked very, very hard to get cleared, and then when he was cleared he did a very good job fighting through the not playing, the rust, getting his legs back under him, his strength, his conditioning,” Miller said.
The jump back into unrestricted basketball hasn’t been seamless for Hunter.
He hasn’t played in a live basketball game since March of 2018 during his senior year of high school, which is another way of saying he has never played this level of basketball.
And Hunter is competing now against elite college athletes that haven’t had to take a year off.
“He hasn’t been comfortable at all,” Miller said.
“He doesn’t obviously look to be the full strength Jerome we inherited as he came off his high school season, but that’s to be natural with any guy that’s taken six, seven months off. He’s got to get his legs under him, get his basketball game back in terms of rhythm, catching, running, contact all of a sudden.”
All of that begs the question — what should Indiana fans reasonably expect on the court in Hunter’s redshirt freshman season?
Hunter appeared to be trending towards a meaningful role, perhaps ultimately even starting at least at times as a true freshman. He was clearly going to see a lot of minutes.
While his condition has no doubt been a major setback in Hunter’s basketball career, there are at least some things that he will be better prepared for now than he was at this time last year.
For one thing, Hunter isn’t going into this season blindly when it comes to the rigors of high major college basketball.
He also understands the expectations inside Miller’s program.
“I feel like I know my role and I know what coach is going to expect from me this year,” Hunter said.
“Last year being a freshman I didn’t really know what I was going to expect, so this year just having experience and being here and just being around everybody just showed me a lot.”
Miller also sees a physical frame that will be better suited for the Big Ten once the stamina returns, noting that Hunter is “bigger and stronger” than he was last year.
At Butler last year, graduate transfer Joey Brunk didn’t see full strength Hunter going into his true freshman season. He only has the perspective of watching Hunter prepare to return, and he sees a lot of attributes that will help the Hoosiers in the 2019-20 campaign.
“He’s been great in our open gyms when we went live,” Brunk said. “He plays hard. He shoots it well. He’s long. He’s a good defender. I think he’s going to be an important piece for us this year.”
Hunter might be the only player on Indiana’s roster that fits the description of a true wing. He has the handles and shot-making ability to play on the perimeter at the three, but also the mix of size and athleticism to guard that position.
“They recruited me for my versatility, and I feel like I’m versatile and I feel like I can just be anywhere on the court that he wants me to be,” Hunter said. “I feel like that can help the team a lot.”
That versatility creates a clear opening in the rotation for Hunter — probably as much of an opening as his body can handle.
With Rob Phinisee, Devonte Green and Al Durham at the guard spots, and Justin Smith, Trayce Jackson-Davis, De’Ron Davis and Brunk manning the power forward / center spots, the opportunity on the wing couldn’t be more clear.
For obvious reasons, Hunter is likely to be eased into the rotation. Because of that, putting numbers around his season is something of a fool’s errand.
Hunter’s most immediate impact will likely be to provide a perimeter shooting threat off the bench. That alone would be a welcomed contribution after Indiana’s struggles from behind the three-point line last year.
Once he gets back to full strength, something along the lines of 10 points and four rebounds per game might be reasonable. Again, those wouldn’t be averages for the season, but instead averages after he is back to 100 percent — whenever that may be.
Indiana fans have likely learned their lesson with setting their expectations too high when it comes to the impact that an individual newcomer can provide the team.
That should especially be the case when it comes to Hunter, who still has a ways to go here.
“I suspect there will be some days he doesn’t feel as good as the other guys,” Miller said.
While there are still a lot of unknowns when it comes to Hunter’s continuing recovery and his contributions to the 2019-20 Hoosiers, Miller added one thing that everyone can agree on.
“We’re all very, very hopeful.”
You can follow us on Twitter: @daily_hoosier
Find us on Facebook: thedailyhoosier
The Daily Hoosier –“Where Indiana fans assemble when they’re not at Assembly”
Seven ways to support completely free IU coverage at no additional cost to you.