The failure to take advantage of a great opportunity still gnaws at him. The Celtics needed a shooter and R.J. Hunter was tabbed a shooter when he decided to bypass his senior year and enter the 2015 NBA Draft out of Georgia State.
Hunter lasted just one season with the Celtics. He never developed. He didn’t consistently knock down shots, and he lacked confidence despite his gregarious personality.
Three years later, the 24-year-old Hunter is still plugging away, still trying to make an NBA team. He has spent most of the past two years in the G League. He played three games with the Chicago Bulls, who claimed him off waivers from the Celtics two years ago, and then five with the Houston Rockets last season.
At the Las Vegas Summer League, Hunter appeared more confident in his game. He admitted that the pressure to perform as a first-round pick affected him in years past.
“It is my fourth summer league,” he joked, when asked about his comfortability and recent success. “It’s probably a combination of that and just getting older, getting mature and trying to find the love for the game, again. I think that’s the biggest thing.”
Hunter played timidly in Boston. After his rookie season, he struggled in summer league. Entering training camp, the Celtics had one roster spot open and two underachieving first-round picks to choose from: Hunter or James Young. Believing the younger Young had more upside and had worked harder in camp, the Celtics kept Young.
Of course, that decision didn’t work out either as the Celtics eventually allowed Young to become a free agent. Hunter played for three G League teams and is now on a two-way contract with the Rockets.
“I think just not sticking [bothered me] and listening to too many voices,” he said. “Then you’re getting pulled either which way and so your focus is not on what you really are there to do. It just takes some time to bounce around, and fall a couple of times and figure it out.
“It’s been extremely tough because I think the biggest thing is putting my ego aside and just getting back to playing basketball. I’ve needed everything that I’ve went through and it’s made me a better person, better player. My focus is better. I can bounce back during games. I’m just trying to appreciate every opportunity.”
The Celtics experience definitely affected him. Usually teams give first-round picks more than a season to develop, but Boston’s situation was different because of the influx of draft picks from the Brooklyn trade. So everybody couldn’t stick around.
“I think I just got caught in a vortex,” Hunter said. “They had a lot of assets, a lot of moving parts, and I was just kind of part of that. It took me some time to figure that out. It’s not what I was doing wrong. I was beating myself up for things I wasn’t even doing wrong. Instead of worrying about that opportunity, I was blessed to be there and I got so much love for Boston. I focus on the good of that situation.”
Hunter said he has become more of a student of the game. Because he was such a prolific scorer in college, Hunter said he was obsessed with scoring. Now, in his quest for a roster spot in Houston, he is trying to figure out what other things he can provide to a franchise with championship aspirations.
“Whenever I’m on the bench, just see what they need on the court,” he said. “I think it’s more of a thinking game. Houston’s old. A lot of their players are vets, so they’ve been teaching me how to think the game and be patient.”
The G League isn’t glamorous. Hunter has played in Maine, Long Island, Windy City, and now Rio Grande Valley. The league is still made up of former first-round flameouts or players from smaller colleges just looking for a 10-day contract. This is not the path Hunter envisioned for himself but it’s his reality.
“I have a lot of appreciation for it; of course you don’t stay in the finest hotels or eat the best food, but it gives you a great appreciation for the league,” he said. “When you get up there, you’re so hungry on keeping that spot because you don’t want to go back. I’ve had a chance to go back and develop and get my mind right and appreciate what I’m really doing for a living.”
In considering the most important thing he’s learned during this journey, Hunter said, “Love myself. I think this business wants you to fit a mold and fit a criteria and you kind of get away from being yourself and I’m trying to learn to use my downtime wisely. A lot of this stuff is coming together piece by piece. I think that’s a major part.
“I don’t know if you can explain it but nobody is superhuman. LeBron [James], you’ve even seen him struggle with confidence. You’re getting tugged in so many different ways, you don’t really know what’s going on with yourself. I think I’ve matured. I’ve taken every opportunity to learn from my experiences and keep moving forward.”
Silver major force in the betting deal
The NBA this past week became the first professional sports league to align with a sportsbook casino, signing a contract with MGM Resorts, which will become the league’s official gaming partner. Commissioner Adam Silver has always been at the forefront of adding sports betting, which is now legal in four states.
MGM will have the right to use NBA logos in their sportsbooks, and on their betting apps.
“I think what was very important for the NBA was that we were able to establish through a commercial relationship that we should be compensated for our intellectual property and for our official data,” Silver said. “I think ultimately it was on us to convince MGM that there was a commercial benefit to compensating us for that data, that this wasn’t just about doing the right thing in terms of intellectual property, but that through this relationship with the NBA and the WNBA, that [MGM CEO] Jim [Murren] could indeed differentiate his business from his competitors, No. 1, with this official gaming status designation that MGM and its properties will have, but also by creating better user experience for gamers so they know, whether they’re a brick-and-mortar casino or whether they’re using his app online, that it’s going to be an experience that both MGM and the NBA have worked on together where the consumer is first and foremost.”
Honestly, the agreement is just another way for the league to make money and embrace sports betting. Gamblers can still bet on NBA and WNBA games at other casinos and it’s unlikely that MGM will have more specialized betting on games.
“The only thing that is exclusive about this deal is the designation, the official gaming partner of the NBA,” Silver said. “I will say Jim very well understood, and he was someone who used to run the American Gaming Association. Of course, he has both sort of competitors and friends. There’s a common interest in the entire industry in ensuring there will be an experience of integrity for all sports bettors regardless of what operator they happen to be doing business with. So Jim well understood that we also would be in the business of licensing our intellectual property, specifically our real-time data feed, to other casinos as well.”
“In fact, I would say because Jim, by going first and establishing the value that it is appropriate to pay for that intellectual property, I think he actually should be rooting for his competitors to do deals; otherwise, he may be at a competitive disadvantage because he has a higher cost structure.”
The NBA reportedly will earn $25 million over the three years of the deal. It serves as yet another revenue stream for the league. Silver also approved advertisements on game uniforms last season. This deal with MGM displays Silver’s forward-thinking tenure as commissioner.
“I think then in terms of the data we’re providing, we have a sense of the magnitude of his current business, and a sense of where things may go over the next few years,” he said. “We generally, I would say, tried to approximate, in a sense to come up with what we thought was fair compensation. I will say we do feel that we’re being adequately compensated. At the same time, again, to echo what Jim was saying, I think there was a recognition here that it’s a leap of faith on both sides.
“It’s a deal moderate in length where I think we can both step back and assess as we go and see, is this working, is this deal fair, are we providing the consumers with the right type of experience?” said Silver. “I would just say that to me there’s many different ways to skin the cat, so to speak. We decided here, rather than sort of relitigating the integrity fee, which is still being hotly discussed state by state, let’s find an approach which is unique to us and where we both feel we’re being fairly treated.”
Embiid sets his sights on MVP
According to a league source, the Celtics will host the Philadelphia 76ers on opening night, Oct. 16, the first of four clashes between the two Eastern Conference powers this season. It’s been a healthy summer for Philadelphia center Joel Embiid, who is a legitimate MVP candidate.
He was set to participate in the NBA Africa Game on Saturday and said he’s prepping for what is expected to be a successful season as the cornerstone of his franchise.
“It’s the same approach,” Embiid said. “Last year, we had a goal. Our goals throughout the season change. First it was to make the playoffs. We had a run at the end of the year. We were like, we have a chance. We get to the first round, which was pretty, I would say, easy. Then I felt like we had a pretty good chance against Boston, too. They kind of caught us off guard, but they’re a really good team. They have a lot of talent. From thereafter, our goal was to go to the Finals.
“I feel we had the right pieces. We kept telling each other, we can do this. We’ve come a long way. We won 52 games, which nobody thought would happen. We won 16 games in a row. We just thought that we had a chance to go to the Finals. The approach doesn’t change. Still the same. We’re just going to do our thing.”
The 76ers have made some changes in the offseason but not the major one that was expected. Philadelphia had enough salary cap space to sign LeBron James and enough pieces to trade for Kawhi Leonard, but neither happened. The 76ers re-signed J.J. Redick and Amir Johnson, traded for Wilson Chandler, and drafted Zhaire Smith and Landry Shamet. They will likely be the biggest challenger to the Celtics for the conference title.
“I don’t think it matters, big free agent or not. My goal going into the offseason was to get better. I want to win the MVP,” Embiid said. “I feel like at the end of the day it might be an individual award, but when I play better, the team also does. I feel like if I’m an MVP candidate or if I win the MVP, that means we are on another level.
“When my season ended, there was a lot of talk about adding guys. I literally did not really care because I want to get better. I want to be better than those guys that were mentioned, if I’m not already better than them. That was my message, just going into the offseason, finally the first one healthy and able to do whatever I want. That was my goal regardless.”
WNBA players seek higher wages
While the WNBA celebrated itself and its players at the All-Star Game last week in Minneapolis, the disproportionate salaries compared with NBA players continues to be a major issue. The WNBA schedule is 34 games compared with 82 for the NBA, and the league doesn’t earn nearly the revenue, but many WNBA players took notice of the exorbitant salaries given to NBA players in free agency.
“I wish I had a crystal ball and could say, I think [salaries] should be X,” WNBA president Lisa Borders said. “I think it would be premature for me to do that. What I want our players to understand — not just our fans and you guys here in the room— is that they have no stronger advocate for higher salaries than myself. No stronger advocate. Our players are all college educated. They are world citizens. They are incredible athletes. They deserve more.
“In society, women deserve more, period, full stop. So sports is not the only place where things are not as equal as we would like for them to be or as comparable as we would like for them to be. So we want to take a leadership role here, and so we challenge ourselves, but we also challenge society to support this league and support these women because top-line revenue and top-line growth is part of the answer to the entire question. We are very much focused on that, growing the business, so the players can get more, so there’s more all the way around. I don’t want to forecast today, but trust me, we are all in on this.”
The Celtics essentially sealed their roster by signing second-year guard Jabari Bird to a two-year contract, the first year guaranteed, the second conditional. The club could have easily just waived Abdel Nader, who struggled in the second half of last season, but instead pulled off a nifty trade of Nader to Oklahoma City for guard Rodney Purvis. With the Celtics over the cap and paying luxury tax, moving Nader’s $1.4 million salary instead of waiving him saved money. They acquired Purvis’s nonguaranteed contract from the Thunder and waived him. Just waiving Nader would have meant the Celtics would be responsible for the $600,000 guaranteed on his contract. Nader’s contract was fully guaranteed on Aug. 1, meaning he will be part of the Thunder roster and waiving him would still count against their salary cap . . . Encouraging news for the Celtics regarding Kyrie Irving, who was able to participate in light workouts and one-on-one play in Team USA training camp this past week in Las Vegas. Irving is recovering from two left knee procedures and is expected to be 100 percent by training camp. The question is, how much will coach Brad Stevens allow Irving and Gordon Hayward to play during the preseason? The Celtics released their preseason schedule and will open Sept. 28 against the Hornets in Chapel Hill, N.C. The Celtics will play Charlotte twice and Cleveland twice in the preseason . . . There are a couple of more contract issues for the Celtics regarding their core players. They will have until opening night of the regular season to agree to a contract extension with guard Terry Rozier or he becomes a restricted free agent next summer. If the Celtics feel Irving is going to stay long term, it’s unlikely they would commit a lucrative contract to Rozier, who wants to be a starter someday and knows it likely won’t be in Boston. Meanwhile, center Al Horford has an opt-out clause in his contract at the end of this season. Horford is scheduled to make $31 million in the final year of his contract, but if he decided to opt out he may sign a more financially feasible contract for the Celtics in exchange for a longer-term deal. Horford doesn’t seem to be slipping from his production, so there’s a good chance the Celtics would want him back for the long term and he could sign a multiyear deal for perhaps less than the maximum . . . The Celtics will have to sign Jaylen Brown (next summer) and Jayson Tatum (summer of 2020) to extensions that will put them deep in the luxury tax. So the club will have to devise ways to shave salary cap space to allow for those Brown-Tatum contracts.
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.