Before this all started, when Kevin Huerter was still a sophomore at Maryland, still a college basketball player and still a normal 19-year-old by many metrics, he was, more than anything, curious.
Huerter wanted to know what NBA teams thought of him. He wanted to see how he stacked up against the country’s best players. He wanted to toss his name into draft consideration, gather feedback across a few weeks and pluck it out in time to be back in College Park for summer workouts.
That was the plan. Then the plan changed.
“The downside was minimal,” Tom Huerter, Kevin’s father, said Tuesday of his son entering the NBA draft back in April. “But the upside was huge. I think Kevin is realizing that now.”
Now Huerter is a professional basketball player after the Atlanta Hawks selected him 19th overall in the NBA draft on Thursday night. Huerter was the Hawks’ second addition of the night, after they nabbed Oklahoma point guard Trae Young with the No. 5 pick, and he becomes Maryland’s first first-round pick since Alex Len was selected fifth overall by the Phoenix Suns in 2013. The Hawks finished with the worst record in the Eastern Conference last season, but Huerter and Young give them two sharpshooting guards to build around heading into the future.
Huerter, a 6-foot-7 guard with solid ballhandling ability, was called “one of the best shooters in the draft by ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas. Many NBA scouts agreed. The Hawks must have, too. Huerter worked out for the Hawks during the pre-draft process and interviewed with them at the NBA Combine in May.
He was also the first of two now former Maryland players selected in the draft, with Justin Jackson going to the Denver Nuggets with the 43rd overall pick in the second round. Jackson, a 6-foot-7 forward, left Maryland after two seasons and will have to earn a roster spot with the Nuggets without a guaranteed contract. Huerter, as a first-rounder, will get a guaranteed two-year contract and the Hawks will have the option to tack on a third year in the future.
“When Mr. (Adam) Silver walked out there was still a little bit of doubt of whether I’d be there,” said Huerter, who watched the draft in his hometown of Clifton Park, New York, of being picked 19th. “But when he finally said my name there was a lot of relief.”
All of this, to some degree, is a surprise to the sharpshooter. Huerter knew he was more athletic than most thought. He was confident he could impress teams at the NBA combine. He felt comfortable interviewing with coaches and general managers and was ready to show off his basketball knowledge.
Yet he was not supposed to be a two-and-done player, and he only found out he could be because of a three-year-old rule that allows players to test the draft process without forfeiting their college eligibility. That gave Huerter — and other once-unsure players like Villanova guard Donte DiVincenzo (who was selected a pick ahead of Huerter by the Milwaukee Bucks) and Tulane guard Melvin Frazier — the chance to gather information, see where teams projected him and make an informed decision to stay, and soon be selected, in the NBA draft.
Huerter had surgery on the torn ligament (in a knuckle below his right pinkie finger) earlier in June, and he is expected to be sidelined for at least another month. He injured it during a road game at Northwestern in February and dealt with nagging pain during the pre-draft process. His right hand is in a splint, and he has not been able to shoot or participate in last-ditch workouts for interested teams. But his trajectory never dipped, and he officially achieved his dream while surrounded by family, friends and former Maryland teammates at a country club near his childhood home.
“That they allow you to do this I think is really, really beneficial,” Huerter said Tuesday of being able to test the process. “Right now, this process has the players’ best interest in mind. You can just go out, work out and figure out where you are. I don’t know why more players don’t do it, and I don’t know why people criticize players for doing it, either. I was expecting to go back to college, and then this became an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”
Leaving Maryland was a tough decision for Huerter, who waited until the morning of May 30 (the deadline to declare for the draft or return to school) to announce his next step. He chose the Terrapins over scholarship offers from Villanova, Notre Dame and Virginia, among many other top programs, and averaged 14.8 points as a sophomore this past season. He also shot 41.7 percent from three-point range and collected 5.0 rebounds and 3.4 assists per contest.
That was enough to make declaring for the NBA draft, without an agent at the time, seem like a smart decision. It was not enough, however, to make professional basketball seem like a part of Huerter’s foreseeable future. Then came the NBA combine in mid-May, his one chance to play in front of all 30 teams, and his name buzzed as much as any prospect’s. He wowed scouts in shooting drills despite a torn ligament in his dominant right hand. He shined in physical testing. He interviewed with more than half of the league and stood out in the event’s first five-on-five scrimmage.
Those four days in Chicago changed his life. He left the city as a surefire first-round pick. One NBA scout said, “I don’t think there was any player who helped himself more than Kevin Huerter just did.” Eleven days later, he had signed with agents Andy Shiffman and Mark Bartelstein of Priority Sports, and he was headed straight for the NBA.
“I think it’s hard for teams to find shooting, either in free agency where it will likely cost you, or in the trade market where you have to give up something,” ESPN front office analyst Bobby Marks said this week of Huerter’s stock heading into the draft. “And to find value in the draft, if it’s in the 20s, on a player that’s going to make $2 million for the next four years and you’ve got him on a controllable contract, I think that outweighs a team [wanting] to go out and spend $5 or $6 million on a veteran shooter.”
A deadeye shooter and versatile defender, Huerter is entering the NBA at the perfect time: The best teams launch three-pointers on offense and ask their players to guard multiple positions on the other end of the floor. The rest of the league is trying to copy that model. Huerter, the curious teenager turned coveted prospect, can certainly help the Hawks catch up with the times.
And finally, after months of speculation and work, he knows where basketball will take him next.
“It was crazy,” Huerter said late Thursday night of the moment he was drafted. “It really felt like after the 10th pick that every single player that was picked there was a big ‘aww’ from everyone that was behind me. So waiting nine picks, it was the longest nine picks, 45 minutes of my life. Just every single team you didn’t know if you were going to be called. When it finally did happen, when I got word of the pick, and then when he said my name it was an unbelievable feeling. One of the best feelings I’ve had in my life.”
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