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R.J. on the Hunt to ‘enjoy basketball again’

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Boston Celtics v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

Redemption? Payback?

Not necessarily, RJ Hunter just wants to have fun again.

The 2015 first-round NBA draft choice has watched his career turn in a number of unexpected ways over the last few months.

After a season with the Boston Celtics, who selected Hunter at 28th overall, the Georgia State alum was waived at the 11th hour, on his 23rd birthday no less, and was picked up by the Chicago Bulls, just days later, getting a $425,000 guarantee in the process. But after playing (barely) for the Bulls and spending time with their Windy City affiliate, Hunter was once again let go in late December. The Long Island Nets acquired him in early January.

How did he get here? You can thank now former Long Island Net, Yogi Ferrell. I know right!?

“I played with Yogi when I was really young, that’s a lot of the reason why I came here,” he said in an exclusive sit-down with NetsDaily earlier this week at Barclays Center. “He’s kind of been through the same situation as me, and mentally he’s trying to get back to where he wants to be. He’s about 95% of the reason why I came. Once my agent told me (about L.I.) I didn’t even talk to anybody but Yogi about it. He said it’s a great situation and I trusted him on it.”

Hunter had an up and down rookie season in the NBA, playing 38 games with the C’s and an additional eight with the Maine Red Claws in the D League. This season, he played in three Bulls games he played and another five with Windy City before finding his way to Brooklyn.

Translation: Hunter’s played with five different teams in three organizations since just last year, an uneasy spot to be in.

“Mentally, I feel like I’m tested,” he candidly told Netsdaily. “I still have the same expectations to be a great NBA player and have a long career. I knew there would be some bumps in the road and I didn’t think they’d come this early, but it’s cool, you see how it is right away. It helps you interpret it differently.”

NBAdraft.net pegged Hunter as ‘quite possibly best pure shooter in college’ coming out of Georgia State, where he starred on a Panther squad that won the Sun Belt title and earned a second-round NCAA Tournament bid.

In college, Hunter averaged 18.4 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.4 assists in 99 games over three seasons. As a junior, the 6-foot-5 guard posted 19.7 points on 4.7 boards and 3.6 dimes while breaking several school records.

But he admitted after Friday night’s game vs. the Erie Bayhawks, a game where he scored a game-high 25 points, that he had lost his shot and a bit of the joy. Now, he believes, both are back.

"I've actually been struggling shooting for like a year and a half now," said Hunter. "It was my best day in a while. I was just being more aggressive. I think (in the past) I was too laid back, and waiting for the ball to get to me. So I was just trying to go get it, and trying to make something happen."

The quote is significant for a number of reasons, many of which seem obvious, but since this glorious time in Atlanta, Hunter hasn’t consistently played in games, and insists his biggest goal is trying to re-discover his rhythm.

“Obviously I’ve never been in the situation, but I can’t imagine playing for so many different teams in a relatively short period,” noted L.I. Nets head coach Ronald Nored. “But RJ’s done a good job while he’s been here and handled it really well. He definitely wants to improve. The thing I really like about him is that he’s not treating this like he doesn’t want to be here.”

As part of the Nets organization, Hunter is looking to find said consistency, which he referred to as ‘the common denominator’ watching guys like Isaiah Thomas and Jimmy Butler up close; it gave him an idea of ‘what it takes’ in this league.

Hunter, 23, still has time to demonstrate he has that, and his time in L.I. can be a quality springboard to winning spot in Brooklyn or elsewhere. The Nets only hold his D-League rights. Any other NBA club can come in and snatch him.

More 25-point performances like one he had in a victory on January 27 would also be helpful.

“It’s the best D League situation around,” Hunter said of the Nets. “Brooklyn is in a developing situation because they’re letting guys play and a lot of guys are getting a lot of minutes. I’m just trying to get back to enjoying basketball. It was probably the best situation for me.”

Coach Nored offered further praise on how Hunter is handling the scenario dealt him. it could, have served as a blow to his ego … a first-round draft pick like Hunter (or teammate Chris McCullough, who was selected immediately before him in the same draft). Instead, Nored says Hunter doesn’t view his time with L.I. as a negative.

“He doesn’t see it as a step back but at the same time he’s not comfortable because he wants to get better and be back in the NBA,” Nored told NetsDaily. “He’s doing everything he can to get better and we’re trying to help him understand the small things that he can continue to improve on.”

One of those things is Hunter’s playmaking ability, which the new Net actually says is the best part of his game despite his reputation as a shooter. Nored agreed calling it Hunter’s “most underrated” attribute. After all, he is a coach’s son.

“My dad has always taught me ‘when your shot’s not falling, try to do other things that help,’ Hunter said of advice given to him by his father Ron Hunter, who coached him at Georgia State. “I’ve always thought passing is my best basketball quality. I really enjoy passing to other guys and getting assists – I think it’s my best trait honestly because it’s my most consistent. A shot doesn’t always fall but I feel like I can always make the pass.”

Moving forward, Hunter says he’s just looking to have fun, which he did at practice Thursday, playfully clowning around with teammates in drills.

Kidding aside, Hunter knows his focus has to be helping his team. If he can, an NBA return isn’t impossible

But first, it’s all about victories.

“I think I need to figure out how to help a team win,” Hunter said. “In the league it can be so individual and selfish sometimes that you kind of lose sight of basketball. I’m just getting back to playing basketball and helping teams win … Once you do that the basketball Gods take care of your numbers. I’m going to continue trying to get my rhythm back like I said earlier, and just enjoy it, man.”