MIAMI — In 2016, the Celtics entered training camp with 16 players on guaranteed contracts, one above the league maximum. So before the regular season started, Boston had to let someone go that it probably would have preferred to keep.
President of basketball operations Danny Ainge ultimately decided to stick with James Young rather than R.J. Hunter, and on Thursday, Celtics coach Brad Stevens called parting ways with Hunter “one of the toughest things I’ve been a part of over the last six years.”
But now Hunter is back with the organization that selected him in the first round of the 2015 draft. The 6-foot-5-inch shooting guard on Thursday officially signed his two-way contract.
“[When we released him] we thought he was a high-upside player that had really gotten better, that was going to work hard to be better,” Stevens said. “So I think we’re all really excited that we’re able to have him back. He’ll be up in Maine [in the G-League] as he gets retransitioned to us, but I’m sure he’ll spend whatever time [he] can with us, as well. So we’re excited to have him.”
As a two-way player, Hunter will be eligible to spend up to 45 days with the Celtics this season. He will spend the rest of the time with the Maine Red Claws. Hunter appeared in three games with the Bulls in 2016-17 and five games with the Rockets in 2017-18, but has spent most of the last few seasons on G-League rosters.
Hunter could have received a lucrative contract overseas, but he has been determined to chase his NBA dream. He even took part in the NBA Summer League last August, a rarity for a player entering his fourth pro season. This season, he averaged 22 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 4.3 assists per game for the Erie BayHawks. On Dec. 29, Hunter scored 46 points in a game.
“He always was a guy that really knew how to play,” Stevens said. “I thought he got better defensively in our time. And then he’s really been knocking down shots. So he’s never going to be the strongest guy in the world, but he is stronger than probably people give him credit for, and he can use that length and his mind to really affect the game on the defensive end.
“And then on the offensive end, if he’s making shots, he’s a really hard guy to guard, because I think probably his best attribute offensively is passing off actions. So the shot-making really opens that up, and he’s been making them for the last two years.”
Hunter is not with the Celtics on their three-game road trip, which began here on Thursday.
The Heat have played a good deal of zone defense this season, but the Celtics have had some recent preparation against the scheme that remains rare in today’s NBA. They faced a zone in games against the Mavericks and Nets over the past week.
“You’ve just got to do what you do best,” Stevens said. “Spread the floor and make plays and be in attack mode. I think one of the things we all do sometimes when you face defense you don’t see all the time is settle. You’ve got to really work to attack the rim.”
Stevens said the Celtics do not work on facing a zone very often in training camp or regular-season practices. The basic principles of a zone offense, he said, are rather simple.
“Ultimately it’s, here are a few small actions we want to use,” Stevens said. “But generally here’s the spacing we want, here’s what we want to do to attack the teeth of that zone, and then make the right read out of it, just like anything else.”