CLEMSON — As freshman point guard Dillon Hunter negotiated the challenges of his first Clemson practices, he heard an echo.
Of course, coach Brad Brownell was standing just behind the action, interjecting whenever a Tiger erred. But standing just behind Brownell was Dillon’s older brother, point guard Chase Hunter, who added frequent reminders.
“Coach told you not to do that,” Chase would say.
“You’re not listening,” Chase added.
For Brownell, it was good to hear those words from the ordinarily quiet Chase, because it was an outward expression of everything Brownell hoped the redshirt junior had absorbed. But there was no ambiguity in this situation.
Chase made sure Dillon understood what his coaches wanted, and what would get him on the court.
“Chase tells me every time, just play hard on defense. That’s how you’re going to stay in the game,” Dillon said.
Sure enough, Dillon played meaningful minutes in a 51-50 win over Virginia Tech on Jan. 21, coincidentally because Chase was out with a foot injury. While Dillon came into the weekend just 4-of-27 from the field, he had just one turnover in 79 minutes of court time, and the 6-foot-4, 193-pound guard was more mature on the defensive end than most freshmen.
In a game with the thinnest of margins, the Tigers needed Chase’s little brother to play another 23 minutes of turnover-less basketball and to flash some offensive capability with a 3-of-5 effort from the floor.
“Honestly, I would take him over his brother,” Clemson forward PJ Hall joked postgame. “He’s a sparkplug right now.”
The next Hunter was always an intriguing prospect. He was, at one point, a Baylor recruit. He competed for USA Basketball and played on the national prep circuit at Sunrise Christian Academy in Kansas. But his stock took some knocks as a senior, when he shot worse than 30 percent from the floor.
The Hunter family witnessed Chase’s journey at Clemson. A broken foot as a freshman, followed by a broken finger as a sophomore, buried Chase’s confidence. So low, the high-flying guard was “hung” on a fast-break dunk during the 2020-21 season, the ball smacking against the front of the rim.
But Chase had a supportive coaching staff, building him back up by removing the pressure to score, refocusing his energies on setting up teammates and suffocating opponents defensively. It wasn’t until last season that Chase broke through an invisible ceiling, rising up for his first college dunk at Duke and figuratively announcing his arrival as a scorer.
Chase lived it. When transfer guard Jaelin Llewellyn backed out of his commitment to Clemson in April, opening up a spot for a guard, Dillon had a chance to be at Chase’s side.
“What’s really best for him, going 12 hours away to Baylor, now you hit a little adversity, and now you want to come home, and now you want to transfer? That’s not what we want,” Chase said. “I felt like him coming to Clemson under Coach (Brownell), learning the game, learning from me, I felt like that would benefit him.”
The brothers are, separately, chilled-out personalities. But when Chase and Dillon are together, they are more animated. Along with their older brother Jaden, who became a linebacker at Western Kentucky, they put a hole, or two, in the wall of their mother’s house, roughhousing. Controllers have been tossed after matches of Madden and NBA2K.
They butt heads, but they are also close. Chase and Dillon had many conversations as Dillon struggled shooting at Sunrise. Chase just told him not to give up.
Sidelined again by a foot injury, Chase is heeding his own words. But even from the bench, he remains in Dillon’s ear.
“It’s really cool to see that dynamic, an older brother who has been through trials and trials and trials through his career, and now he’s upon another one, and he’s still guiding (Dillon) through,” Hall said. “It’s not easy to go in and play as a freshman. You can go in there and wet yourself a little bit, and Dillon’s held his own.”
Brownell has been impressed with Dillon’s poise; he’s turned the ball over just once in 100-plus ACC minutes. On the defensive end, Dillon’s length and size allows Clemson to switch freely. A lack of shooting success is excusable given Dillon’s lack of consistent playing time, but Brownell need only point to Chase’s journey to encourage the freshman.
Chase hit just 31 percent of his shots in his second season at Clemson, but he has connected on 45 and 41 percent, respectively, his last two campaigns.
“We talk about that,” Brownell said. “Chase wasn’t a great shooter when he got here and has worked really hard at it, and Dillon’s working on it every day … (but) he takes care of the ball, he guards very well, he’s tough. He’s gonna be a good player.”
That allowed Brownell to entrust the younger Hunter with 23 minutes in a close ACC game. Brownell acknowledged the day before a Jan. 24 contest with Georgia Tech that he might consider starting Dillon if Chase isn’t back.
Dillon has listened to his brother’s advice.
“If you play hard,” Chase has told Dillon, “you’re gonna play.”