ATLANTA — R.J. Hunter ensured his legacy at Georgia State by hitting one of the most memorable shots in the NCAA tournament.
His next shot will be in the NBA.
Georgia State’s junior guard announced Monday he is entering the draft, saying he had reached all his goals at the college level. The former Pike High School standout plans to sign with an agent shortly and has been projected as a mid-to-late pick in the first round.
“Once I felt like my time was up and the script was written, it was time for me to move on,” Hunter said. “I just felt like I gave all I could possibly give at this level.”
The move was expected after he won his second straight Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year award and led the Panthers to their first NCAA appearance since 2001, all while playing for his father, Georgia State coach Ron Hunter.
In the opening tournament game against third-seeded Baylor, the Panthers trailed by 12 points with less than 3 minutes left. Hunter struggled much of the contest but suddenly got hot, capping a remarkable comeback by hitting a long 3-pointer that gave the Panthers a 57-56 victory.
The shot sent the elder Hunter tumbling off the rolling chair he was forced to use on the sideline after tearing his Achilles tendon while celebrating the Sun Belt title, an image that turned both father and son into huge celebrities during the early days of the tournament.
Georgia State’s season ended two days later with a 75-67 loss to Xavier.
Ron Hunter, a former longtime IUPUI coach, broke down in tears while talking about the joy of experiencing the tournament with his son. The coach, still using a push scooter to get around on his injured leg, said Monday that he looks forward to being solely R.J.’s father after coaching him the last three years.
“The next time he plays a game, I can go cheer,” the coach said.
Hunter said his son likely would have returned to school for his senior season if the Panthers had missed out on the NCAA tournament. They barely got in, beating Georgia Southern 38-36 in the Sun Belt championship game.
“That was something we wanted to do together,” the coach said.
As it turned out, R.J. had some qualms about leaving Georgia State after the hoopla generated by the win over Baylor.
“The tournament made it hard because I felt so connected to the school,” he said.
But R.J. had pretty much decided last week he was entering the draft, and he made it official by telling his parents at dinner Sunday night. He shed some tears Monday morning when he broke the news to his teammates.
Ron Hunter compared his son to long-range shooters such as Golden State stars Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, but added that R.J. needs to improve his defense and ballhandling, as well as put more muscle on his slender 6-foot-6 frame. He is listed at 190 pounds.
After averaging 19.7 points a game this season and 18.4 for his career, Hunter plans to finish the semester at Georgia State and has assured his parents he will complete his degree in human growth and development. Standing on the court at the GSU Sports Arena, he looked up toward vacant spot in the corner of the roof, where there’s room to put up a banner for his No. 22 as long as he gets his degree.
“I always felt like that space was there for me,” Hunter said.
Even though Georgia State is losing its two leading scorers, Hunter and Ryan Harrow, pretty much everyone else returns next season. They will be joined by a couple of prominent transfers, including former Indiana player Jeremy Hollowell, which should help the Panthers remain one of the top teams in the Sun Belt.
“They don’t need me here,” Hunter said. “Seriously. There are some good players here.”