Hunter looks to turn a corner in freshman season

As Indiana coach Archie Miller rewatched the Rutgers loss, he visually measured the distance between Jerome Hunter and the Scarlet Knight tasked with guarding him.

There was a substantial gap, which wouldn’t align with Miller’s initial expectations for the 2018 recruit, a 6-foot-7 forward from Ohio billed as a bucket-getter. But the gap that defender allowed was a reflection of everything that’s changed from late 2018 to early 2020.

In November 2018, Hunter went from tantalizing prospect to a complete unknown, when surgery for a lower-leg condition sidelined him indefinitely. After sitting out his true freshman season, it wasn’t until July that Hunter resumed basketball activities. When the season got underway, Hunter hit just four of his first 28 shots from 3, just 17-of-55 overall.

That created the gap between Hunter and his defender, a lack of respect that only one thing could fix. Somehow, Hunter had to hit some shots. And while coach and player watched the Rutgers film, a challenge was levied.

“Hey look, man, when we recruited you, when we brought you here, I didn’t ever think I’d see a guy standing that far away from you,” Miller said Monday on his radio show. “He sort of looked at me like, ‘I got you on that one.’”

At Nebraska, the redshirt freshman “knocked the lid off,” as Miller put it. Hunter hit 2-of-3 from 3-point range, both critical shots early in the contest, which helped build the Hoosiers’ confidence in a key road win.

Those two shots weren’t just big for the game itself. There was a noticeable reaction on IU’s bench because of what Hunter’s progress meant to his coaches and teammates. Just a few months earlier, it wasn’t so clear what Hunter would be able to provide this season. Bringing him back to full activity was a cautious process, making sure he passed each step without having a physical setback.

His comfort in the game was another matter. It’s hard not to play for a season and then start cold in the Big Ten. Finding a rhythm is that much harder for a bench player who has to find his way in a game already in progress.

At Nebraska, Hunter looked ready.

“I thought as he came into that one, he had that chip on his shoulder, that when that ball comes moving around, I’m going to be ready for that ball to hit my hands,” Miller said. “That first one that went in, that felt good for our entire bench. I know how I felt. I know looking down the bench, when he made it, everyone was excited for him.

“It wasn’t like it was a one-shot, oh boy, can you believe he made that? It was like ‘Alright, boom.’”

There’s increased optimism in Hunter’s trajectory as he continues to make his way back from a difficult first year. At the same time, Miller reinforces one point.

“He’s a freshman,” the third-year coach said Monday, resisting the temptation to label Hunter as more mature because he’s a “redshirt” freshman. In some ways, Hunter came into this season behind where a normal freshman would be because of the year off.

To work his way back, the “bucket-getter” had to slightly reorient his mindset. Shots were bound to be hard to hit early in his comeback, which can be hard for a player who defines success via point totals. Instead, Miller has told Hunter to focus more on the defensive end, where his effort would keep him on the floor.

Hunter’s performance in a win over then-No. 11 Ohio State was, in Miller’s opinion, the best of his college career. He was just 0-of-1 from the field in 19 minutes, but he found five points at the free throw line. More importantly, he displayed an improved understanding of how to defend off the ball, providing energy and physicality.

He was finding a comfort level on the floor, defense first. The offensive end would come later.

“I’m out there more and I’m experiencing more,” Hunter said before the Nebraska game. “As I keep getting more and more minutes, I think I should start getting more comfortable and start finding my scoring angles. Just trying to find ways for me to be productive on the floor.”

With an eight-point road effort under his belt, Hunter has to now prove a level of consistency, which will reduce that gap between him and his defender.

As a group, IU’s outside shooters are trying to prove themselves as threats, which would stretch opponents. To this point, the Hoosiers’ leading scorer, forward Trayce Jackson-Davis, has found himself frequently doubled.

IU’s post players, including junior Joey Brunk, are more than willing passers.

“When you can play inside and you do have some frontcourt players that command attention, you have to collapse the defense,” Miller said. “Our perimeter guys should be basically like a tee-ball hitter. Once it’s in there, if they are ready, they have a great chance of getting it back out, because of the unselfishness.”

In Hunter, Miller sees a player gaining comfort in the batter’s box. There is a reason why Miller could poke Hunter as he did watching the Rutgers film, and why Hunter responded as he did during the Nebraska game.

The redshirt freshman — just a freshman, really — could be shaping back into the bucket-getter Miller recruited.

“Now you are starting to see him, as he’s growing up, as a freshman — he’s a freshman — you are starting to see some of the things he can do,” Miller said. “Hopefully, he continues to, knock on wood, … stay with it, and, hopefully, as we get better and he gets better here, you are starting to see a guy evolve into a guy who Indiana is hopefully going to see become a big part of the future.”