Could RJ Hunter work his way into the Celtics' starting five?
With a team high 30 minutes last night, RJ Hunter looked like he belonged. Sure, Smart and Bradley and Rozier were all out, but the rookie certainly made an immediate impact. Less than a minute after he came off the bench, Hunter drilled a 25 footer without hesitation. All his field goals last night were from beyond the arc, and Hunter finished with 11 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 steals, and a block. After the game, Stevens raved about his defense and the kid's ability to make plays.
Early returns suggest that RJ Hunter might be taking to heart words of wisdom from another skinny sharpshooter a wee bit more established: Reggie Miller. In a CSNNE piece by A. Sherrod Blakely, Hunter told the story of how he got some advice from Miller during a chance meeting in an elevator at last year's Final Four:
“You always have to be crafty when you’re skinny,” Hunter recalled. “You have to be smarter when you’re skinny.”
So, could the rookie be crafty enough to work his way into the Celtics' staring lineup? Sounds crazy. The rookie really should be concerned with cracking the rotation. But giving it a little more thought, is it possible that Hunter fills a need for the starters more-so than Jae Crowder or Evan Turner?
After last night's 19 point, 6 rebound performance and continued defensive presence, Amir Johnson needs to start. So say a more conventional starting lineup is Smart/Bradley/Crowder/Johnson/Lee. Of that bunch, Bradley spaces the floor and Johnson proved last night he can space the floor, but that won't be his primary roll. The offense will run through Smart and Lee, and Crowder hasn't proven he can consistently hit the three.
Now look at the starting lineup with Hunter. You have Smart/Bradley/Hunter/Johnson/Lee. Now there's Hunter and Bradley spacing the floor, giving Smart and Lee more room to operate. Bradley, Hunter, and Johnson are all threats from beyond the arc, and Smart has that range too. And on the defensive end, you still have plus defenders at three of the five spots in Smart/Bradley/Johnson.
The second unit would be Thomas/Turner/Crowder/Olynyk/Zeller. Or a bigger lineup that could be interesting would be Thomas/Crowder/Jerebko/Olynyk/Zeller. Either way, that's a unit that has good size, the team's best offensive player in Thomas, the team's best returning rim protector in Zeller, and a big who can space the floor in Olynyk.
Jae Crowder's physicality and energy on the defensive end could be more needed with the diminutive Thomas out there than with fellow ball hawks Smart and Bradley. If the team's three best perimeter defenders are Smart, Bradley, and Crowder, does it really make sense for all three of them to be in the starting unit on a team that's going to have a ten man rotation?
Maybe not. So maybe there will be an opportunity for RJ Hunter to carve out a spot for himself in the first team as the season wears on. For now, the rookie will be hoping to continue to earn minutes this preseason and keep making his case to be a part of the rotation when the season kicks off against the Sixers on October 28th.