RJ Hunter

As the NBA Draft nears, experts are constantly updating their projected selections by teams looking for the next big star. The Portland Trail Blazers hold the number 23 overall pick, and as opined earlier this month, if the team has the opportunity to draft Louisville power forward Montrezl Harrell, they should jump at the chance. If he is off the board by the time their name is called however, there are a number of different directions they could go in, choosing from a variety of players from a variety of positions with a variety of strengths.

Amongst the mock draft world, there isn’t a clear-cut belief as to which position the team should focus on, let alone a specific player. In their latest mock drafts, DraftExpress.com, ESPNNBA.com, and NBADraft.net have the Blazers selecting UNLV shooting guard Rashad Vaughn, Georgia State’s R.J. Hunter, Virginia’s small forward Justin Anderson and UCLA power forward Kevon Looney. Whether any of these predictions come to fruition depends on which holes Portland will try to fill through the draft or through free-agency.

Portland’s weaknesses aren’t solely fixed to a lack of frontline production behind LaMarcus Aldridge; they need help on the wing, too. Therein lies the reasoning behind the inclusion of two guards, Vaughn and Hunter, in Portland’s potential equation. You might think that putting all of the eggs in either of their baskets depends on if you think Wesley Matthews will be brought back, but the question may very well be this: how much depth at shooting guard is too much?

There’s nothing wrong with having an abundance of guards, especially if the other positions are well represented, too. And yet, the Blazers may not be as guard-oriented as previously expected, as Aaron Afflalo’s decision to opt out of his contract and become a free-agent leaves Portland rather thin. If Matthews is re-signed by Portland, the team’s depth at the position would consist of him and 6’4″ 23-year-old C.J. McCollum. McCollum impressed at the tail-end of last season, and has the capabilities to be a sparkplug in the second unit with a jump-shot that showed vast improvement. Despite his success, he has an injury history that dates back to his college days at Lehigh University. Given his inability to remain healthy over the course of a full season and in turn do little more than get his feet wet in the NBA, it wouldn’t hurt to use the NBA Draft as a way to add depth.

This inevitably means a focus on Vaughn or Hunter, if they are still on the board. These two are at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of experience, with Vaughn declaring after his freshman year and Hunter forgoing his senior season after surprisingly defeating heavily favored Baylor in the NCAA Tournament as a junior. And yet despite the age difference, both are among the elite at their position, with deadly shots and unlimited range. They are adept at coming off screens with a quick trigger and can torment defenders by creating their own shot in face-up situations. The question remains: who would be the more appropriate target?

Hunter played under his father Ron Hunter at Georgia State and was given the green light by his dad to shoot at will. He averaged 19.7 points per game last season, but shot only 39 percent from the field and 30 percent from three-point range. Those percentages shouldn’t alarm the Blazers; he had to shoot a lot in order for his team to be successful. If anything, his statistics should be seen as encouraging. While he took and missed many shots, he could be counted on to deliver in the clutch. In addition, he rose to the challenge to pull his team out of shooting funks, and the trust placed in his shooting ability never waned.

DraftExpress.com’s Jonathan Givony raved about his confidence in his scouting report of Hunter:

“He shows great confidence and aggressiveness as a shooter, though, hitting some deep and incredibly difficult looks that only real snipers do. That, combined with his mechanics, the huge volume of 3s he attempts (over 7-attempts per game), and his sparkling percentages from the free throw line (89% as a junior) lead you to believe that he’ll find a way to develop into a very dangerous shooter in the NBA, particularly when he’s drawing less attention from defenses than he did as a marked man every night for Georgia State.”

Similarly to Hunter, Vaughn wasn’t afraid to launch every time the chance presented itself. There are some red flags, however, including the meniscus he tore in February that shortened his season, and a one-dimensional attitude. As DraftExpress.com documented in his scouting report of Vaughn:

“As talented a scorer as Vaughn is, he still has quite a bit of room to improve on becoming a more efficient offensive player. His shot-selection in particular needs a lot of work, as he has a tendency to hoist up tough, off-balance and contested jumpers or floaters in traffic on a regular basis. He doesn’t have a great grasp of what his limitations are at this stage, and is not a willing passer, often going into ball-stopping mode, looking to go one on one when the offense is swung his way.”

That being said, there is a great deal to like about Vaughn’s scoring mindset, adds Givony:

“But Vaughn is more than just a stand-still shooter. The threat of his jumper causes defenses to close out very aggressively, giving him room to attack the basket in a straight line, which he is capable of doing. He has the strength to finish around the rim or draw fouls, and the touch to throw in runners and floaters with very soft touch. If the paint is closed off, he does a great job of creating separation in the mid-range area for smooth pull-up jumpers, which he loves to do out in one on one situations or out of the pick and roll. These are things most 18 year olds simply can’t do, and indicate a high degree of talent as a scorer.”

Cases can be made for either player, but there is a difference between a volume shooter whose eyes are fixed on the basket and an overall, well-rounded scorer. Vaughn appears to be the former; Hunter, the latter. While Hunter loves to hoist his jumper he possesses the ability to create not only for himself but for others as well. He became far more unselfish during his junior season, nearly tripling his sophomore season assist-per-game total, a jump from 1.7 to 3.6.

This is a very important attribute that Portland should consider. The team’s offense goes through a variety of channels: point guard Damian Lillard, Aldridge, Matthews and Nicolas Batum. While much of the focus is on Lillard and Aldridge, the Blazers success is largely dependent on the consistency from their wing players, especially off drive-and-kick scenarios. This means Matthews and Batum, as well as McCollum, and a lot of passing either from the inside out or around the perimeter. That, in turn, makes Hunter’s vision and desire to find the open teammate appealing.

Portland could very well select Vaughn if they’re looking for a shot-maker in the mold of Cleveland’s J.R. Smith, who is the definition of streaky. And yet, they might be better off looking in Hunter’s direction and therefore acquire someone with a more versatile approach. It all depends on what kind of player General Manager Neil Olshey wants to see coming off the bench.

Picking Harrell might be a no-brainer, but if he is already snagged up, there’s nothing wrong with focusing on the next order of business on their NBA Draft priority list. Portland regressed after Matthews’ injury, and if they want to get back to being amongst the elite they not only need Matthews but additional help. That means a scorer, and that means either Vaughn or Hunter could be the answer.

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