By J.J. MARSHALL JR., Journal Sports
Kenny Hunter is a role model. The former Huntington standout was the top-rated recruit in Shreveport for his class and committed to Louisiana Tech early in his recruitment process.
After a year learning the ropes of D-1 basketball from the bench, he’s become a lynchpin of the second unit for Tech following the early season-ending injury of preseason All-Conference star Isaiah Crawford.
Hunter and the Bulldogs tip off a two-game homestand tonight in Ruston at the Thomas Assembly Center with a 6:30 matchup against UTEP; Saturday’s UTSA game is at 6 p.m.
“Since Isaiah went down, we really had to come together more as a team,” Hunter said. “He made a lot of things easier for us on the floor. We had to find a different way, we had to become even closer.”
His impact isn’t always necessarily felt in the box score. Hunter has found the key to success quicker than most athletes: know your role and be a good influence.
“It was a humbling experience coming from my time in high school, where I’d never come out of the game and had started since I was a sophomore,” Hunter said. “When I came to Tech, I really had to work for what I got.”
It helps that coach Eric Konkol has built such a stable program at Tech. Hunter valued learning through osmosis. Being around great players showed him the right way to approach the game.
“To play with so many other great players, I just got to sit back and learn my first year,” Hunter said. “Then, I worked my butt off when the summer came.”
Former team captain JaColby Pemberton took Hunter under his wing and showed him the way. That first year for high school studs entering college and adjusting to a lack of playing time can be a make-or-break juncture in their careers.
“JaColby told me to just keep working,” Hunter said. “It can be frustrating, but he told me that my time was coming and I had to be ready. He told me that everyone gets their shot.”
Hunter’s lack of insecurity is not an act, something clear after only a few conversations with the 6-10, 235-pound 4A All-State and All-City big man. He is quick to praise his peers, he loves to hoop, and he just wants to win. He’s the ideal teammate for this Tech team, and fitting into the team the way he has should set him up for great success as his career continues.
“I had to find a way to stand out, do something special,” Hunter said. “So I knew that my rebounding helped me; it’s something I do that makes me stick out. Playing hard on the defensive end helps fuel my game, and that can turn into offense for me.”
Tech hopes to break through into the NCAA Tournament this season. With an All-American stud like Kenny Lofton Jr. at the helm, quality coaching and a capable, deep roster, the Bulldogs currently sit at 18-6 (9-3), good for third in Conference-USA West, two games back of leader North Texas. The Bulldogs are in the top 90 for RPI with six games left to go as they work to position themselves for a postseason bid. It’s been a successful season, without a doubt — the sort of culture-defining set of circumstances that propels programs into the next echelon.
Fans focus on Lofton, but the dirty work is often performed by guys like Hunter.
“I do whatever the team needs me to do: rebound, block shots, finish plays,” Hunter said. “Whatever it takes, whatever I need to do to get on the floor, I’ll do it.”
Good advice to any high school player who wants to play at the next level?: Just watch Kenny. He fights. He rebounds. He laughs and smiles when he’s on the court. His personality is infectious.
He waited for his chance. He didn’t bolt for the transfer portal at the first sign of struggle. He is a kid of his word, and it shows.
“I’m learning a lot from (Lofton) about the keys to being a great post player,” Hunter said. “I’m learning footwork from him. Taking moves from his game helps me a lot. But right now, I’m a role player; that’s my job.
“I’m going to come in, give great energy, and do whatever it takes to help us win,” said Hunter, defining his role. “I don’t care about points right now. Even if I’m just setting screens to get someone else open, that’s a win for me. I just want to be a difference maker.”
Photo by DARRELL JAMES