Looking Back: Lindsey Hunter represented the Pistons in the first-ever Rookie Challenge

Greg Monroe was chosen to represent the Pistons in this year’s Rookie Challenge at All-Star Weekend, a bit of good news in a season short on it. But this isn’t the first time the Pistons were playing poorly and one of the lone bright spots was an intriguing rookie.

In 1993-94, the parallels between that team and this year’s version of the Pistons were striking: They had headstrong, but rapidly declining, veterans policing the locker room (Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer) who clearly represented a direction the team was moving away from; they had an in-over-his-head coach in Don Chaney who often seemed unsure on whether he should scrap it and play the young guys or stay true to the veterans; they had a high profile acquisition who absolutely didn’t fit the roster in Sean Elliot; they even had a power forward more comfortable shooting threes than playing down low in Terry Mills.

The team won 20 games, and the season was brutal to watch. But that team did have rookie Lindsey Hunter. And Hunter? Well, he was exciting.

Now, because Hunter became the epitome of ‘role player’ for most of his career, many may not remember how pumped the Pistons were to get him. They took him with one of their two lottery picks that season (using the other on Allan Houston) and certainly made no bones about what they thought his ceiling was: heir apparent to Isiah Thomas.

And for that rookie season, Hunter looked like he’d deliver. The first time I remember watching him that season was in a preseason game (can’t remember the opponent, but I want to say it was the Rockets). Hunter was an absolute blur, using his speed to push the ball, playing ball-hawking defense on opposing guards and, most impressively, fearlessly attacking the basket. One play, in particular, I remember Hunter jumping in the lane with nowhere to go, looking like he was trapped as he lept into the opposing big man, then all of a sudden wrapping a pass around that defender’s back and finding one of the Pistons’ many non-descript bigs (we’ll just say it was Cadillac Anderson, since he was the king of those mid-1990s terrible big men the Pistons ran out there) for a layup.

Even with the bad basketball the team played on a nightly basis, Hunter offered hope. He was backing up Isiah, hopefully learning Isiah’s knack for big moments while Isiah taught Hunter to reel in his occasionally overly enthusiastic play and run the offense as a point guard should.

Though neither shot the ball well (Thomas at 41 percent, Hunter at 37), they combined to give the point guard spot about 25 points and 11 assists per game between the two of them. Plus, Hunter gave them a dimension the great Thomas never could. Isiah was a formidable defender. But Hunter was a demon. Isiah never had the hands or quickness defensively that Hunter exhibited (not to mention Hunter’s uncanny ability to catch guys on breakaway layups and block their shots from behind).

Hunter’s performance was so impressive it landed him in the NBA’s first-ever Rookie Challenge. The game mercifully replaced the previous All-Star Weekend tradition, the old-timers game. The NBA figured out that perhaps it wasn’t very aesthetically pleasing to watch 47-year-old men run up and down the court, narrowly avoiding serious injury on just about every play. The Rookie game would give fans get to know players who would be the league’s future. Much better idea.

Check out the rosters from the game, you might find a name or two who escaped your memory. I always loved Dino Radja for some reason.

Hunter performed like the erratic yet exciting rookie Pistons fans watched all season in the game. Playing with Chris Webber, it seemed like they tried to connect on alley-oops on every other play. A few were successful. Hunter finished with 11 points and five assists. Those five assists were the second highest total in the game behind Nick Van Exel’s six. Hunter was also tasked with guarding the game’s eventual MVP, Penny Hardaway, at times. That was no easy task considering Hunter gave up about seven inches in height to Hardaway.

The game also offered a bit of foreshadowing. Hunter’s team was coached by then-TNT commentator Doug Collins, who would take over as head coach of the Pistons and coach Hunter, who became one of his favorite players, two seasons later.

Now clearly, we have the benefit of knowing that Hunter peaked as a true point guard that rookie season. He took over as a starter when Thomas suffered a career-ending injury and he’d never eclipse the five assists per game mark he hit that season. Under Collins, he became more of a shooting guard who guards point guards defensively and then post-Pistons, a situational defender on some very good teams and good locker room guy.

Much the same way that Hunter made a horrible season watchable as a rookie, Monroe is having that type of impact this season. No matter how much the off-court squabbling is annoying, no matter how poorly the chemistry has been, it’s hard to completely look away because of the curiosity about Monroe’s future.

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