Purdue Basketball: The resurgence of Eric Hunter Jr.
Eric Hunter Jr. is in the midst of a roller coaster career at Purdue. The former Tindley Prep 4* guard at Indianapolis has played multiple roles for the Boilermakers over the past 4 seasons. He came to Purdue with a well-deserved reputation as a goalscorer. He finished his prep career as the all-time leader in Marion County (which includes Indianapolis (for all my non-Indianacentric readers) and is 7th on the all-time scoring list for the state of ‘Indiana (who I’m told knows a little about high school basketball) found other ways to help the Boilermakers.
Hunter Jr. was expected to provide an offensive spark off the bench as a rookie at 18-19, but his transition from small-school superstar to Big 10 scorer hasn’t been smooth. The former volume shooter/scorer has been asked to be selective with his shots. He couldn’t find the 3 range, shooting 10/46 (22%) for the season and struggled to finish at the edge, dropping 17/46 (40%) from inside the arc. The conference game, in particular, was difficult. He went the whole month of February without scoring a point and saw his time on court diminish with every game. Most freshmen could pack up and get ready for next season, but Hunter Jr. pounced late in the season. He contributed 20 critical minutes in Purdue’s overtime thriller against Tennessee in the Sweet 16, and 12 minutes and 5 points in the next game which I choose not to discuss.
With Carsen Edwards departing for the NBA, Hunter Jr. was asked to play the primary guard role at 19-20. We all remember it, the 19-20 season was not great. Purdue finished the season at 16-15 and finished 9-11 in the Big 10. Hunter Jr. stepped up and led Purdue’s guards in scoring, averaging 10.6 points per game (2nd on the team behind Trevion Williams). He had a few standout games, including a season-ending 17-point performance to knock out IU to make a bad season a bit more palatable, but he never looked comfortable in the leading scorer role. His 3-point shooting improved markedly, rising to 43/121 (35%), but he lacked the explosion to finish the dribble in the half-court, and often relied on his jumping shot game at half distance to score. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s not the most effective way to get the ball in the bucket as a point guard.
The 2020-21 season saw Hunter Jr. in another role. The addition of precocious freshman Jaden Ivey and improved Trevion Williams moved him down the offensive pecking order. He finished the season averaging 8.5 points per game, good for 5th on the team. His difficulties in attack were not all related to a reduction in opportunities. In short, he was not good in attack. He went 22/81 (27%) from deep and 72/194 (37%) from 2. Worse still, his attacking game took a dive at the end of the season. Always resilient, he refused to let his offensive struggles bleed into his defense. He went from Purdue’s main guard at 19-20 to their closed perimeter defender at 20-21. Despite his attacking issues, he still averaged 30 minutes per game and started 23/24 games. He wasn’t scoring, but brought enough off the scoreline to keep him on the pitch.
This brings us to the 2021-22 season. For the first time in 2 seasons, Hunter Jr. was asked to come off the bench and play significantly fewer minutes. It didn’t go well. Not only did he not score, but he returned the ball. After a 4-point, 4-rotation performance against Iowa, I wondered if we were going to see even less of it as the season progressed. He didn’t look comfortable or happy on the pitch. Luckily for Purdue, if there’s one player on the roster who can pull himself out of a rut, it’s Hunter Jr. He’s seen it throughout his career and continued to pull through, despite minutes reduced (he failed to reach 20 minutes for 5 straight games).
This team needs a good and confident Eric Hunter Jr. to reach their full potential. Apart from Ivey, he is the only guard capable of finding his own shot. Sasha and IT are lethal shooters, but they’re not going to take the guys off the dribble late in the clock. As we’ve seen over the past few games, Ivey is an incredible and explosive player, but sometimes it takes him a while to explode. Add to that the fact that he’s out with a hip injury and the Boilermakers need Hunter Jr. to fill the gaps on offense, and he’s done just that. After not hitting double digits in the first 16 games of the season, he has reached that landmark 5 times in the last 11 games, including a crucial 11 points in the overtime win over Illinois, where he scored 4 clutch points on cuts to the basket. the stretch and a 20-point explosion against Minnesota.
Not only has his scoring improved over the last 11 games, he’s been incredibly efficient. Since the game against Illinois, he has gone from 35/57 (60%) to 2 and 14/22 (64%) to 3. He joined the starting lineup on January 27 against Iowa, and he won’t does not seem that he will give up this position. . His minutes returned to their 20-21 levels. In the last 11 games, he only managed to reach the 20-minute (IU) mark once and played over 30 minutes 5 times. He’s gone from a guy who didn’t look playable midway through the season to a key cog in the Boilermaker’s offense late in the year, when the team needs him most.
His latest performance against Northwestern is exactly what Purdue will need to pull out of the Big10 conference. Ivey looked gassed. He couldn’t do anything against the Wildcats. He finished the match with 2/7 from 2 and 0/5 from 3 playing only 23 minutes. That game had been upset all over the place, but Hunter Jr.’s consistent play helped Purdue fend off a thwarted bid by a motivated, independent Wildcat team that played hard and thought it had a legitimate chance to win the game. Hunter Jr. went 4-6 from two, 1-2 from 3 and 2-4 from the line, giving Purdue 11 key points. If Purdue gets Hunter Jr. production early in the season, they flirt with a road loss at Evanston and the end of their Big10 championship aspirations.
To move forward, Purdue needs Hunter Jr. to keep going. When Ivey needs a rest or misses like he was against Northwestern, Hunter Jr. has to step in and fill the late scorer role. He doesn’t need to score 20 points because Purdue has the inside game to pick up the slack, but when things get late they need his ability to break down the defense and put the ball in the basket. Eventually this team will live and die with Jaden Ivey, but if Hunter Jr. can help Purdue knock out a few close games where Ivey isn’t at his effervescent best (which tends to happen in at least 1 round of the NCAA Tournament ) there is no limit to what this team can accomplish.