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Maryland's Kevin Huerter realizes NBA dream, is drafted 19th overall by Hawks

Steve Dagostino had seen snippets of Kevin Huerter's burgeoning basketball skills as the former Division II All-American’s business as a local trainer began to grow in upstate New York.

One afternoon, when Huerter was in 10th grade at Shenendehowa High, the skinny red-headed youngster did something that made Dagostino think the ceiling was a lot higher for Huerter than he previously believed.

At the time, Dagostino had been working for a couple of years with Huerter, who had just gone through a growth spurt to reach about 6 feet 3, but he barely weighed 150 pounds.

“I came into the gym and he made this pass — it was like a crosscourt, fullcourt, left-handed pass on a dime, and I turned to the person next to me and I said, ‘Kevin is going to be a pro. He’s going to be in the NBA,’ ” Dagostino recalled Thursday. “The guy kind of laughed and I’m like, ‘What are you laughing at?’

“He was like, ‘OK, Kevin is going to be in the NBA.’ I said, ‘He’s going to be 6-7, he’s got unbelievable vision and he shoots the crap out of the basketball.’ I said, ‘Forget that it’s little Kevin from Clifton Park.’ I said, ‘That’s the profile of an NBA player.’ ”

Four years later, and two years after leaving Shenendehowa High as the school’s most celebrated player and New York State’s Mr. Basketball, the now 6-foot-7 Huerter fulfilled Dagostino’s prophecy and his own childhood dream in Thursday night’s NBA draft.

As Dagostino and more than 200 others from the small, sports-crazy community near Albany, along with Maryland coach Mark Turgeon, joined Huerter and his family to watch the 2018 draft unfold from the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., the former Terps standout officially began his NBA career as the first-round pick of the Atlanta Hawks.

Huerter, whose stock after his sophomore year in College Park soared from being considered a possible early-to-mid second round pick to having several teams reportedly interested in him in the first round, was chosen 19th overall by Atlanta.

Calling the wait between the Philadelphia 76ers at No. 10 and hearing NBA commissioner Adam Silver call his name as “the longest 45 minutes of my life,” Huerter described his emotions at that moment as “a lot of relief.”

Huerter, 19, became the first Maryland player chosen in the opening round of the NBA draft since center Alex Len went No. 5 overall to the Phoenix Suns after his sophomore year in 2012-13. Huerter will receive a guaranteed three-year contract worth nearly $6 million overall.

Huerter, who worked out for the Hawks before the NBA draft combine last month, was the second of Atlanta’s three first-round selections. The Hawks picked forward Luka Doncic of Slovenia at No. 3 and then traded him to the Dallas Mavericks for Oklahoma point guard Trae Young, who Dallas picked at No. 5, and a future first-round pick. Atlanta also had the last pick in the first round at No. 30.

“They’re a young team with a new coach [former Philadelphia assistant Lloyd Pierce]. I think they’re looking to be more successful in years to come,” said Huerter, who played with Young on an under-18 national team in Chile three years ago. “I think there’s going to be a lot of hungry guys, a lot of guys that are ready to get better.”

ESPN color analyst Jay Bilas recalled on the telecast of the draft how Huerter had initially put his name into the draft in order to “test the waters" and get feedback from NBA scouts and general managers on how to improve his game.

“The water must have felt awfully good for Huerter,” Bilas said. “He is an NBA-level shooter. He has an excellent stroke … He may have the best footwork of any shooter in the draft.”

Tom Huerter had the second-oldest of his four children return to his high school recently to talk to a group of summer campers and sign autographs when he was back in town recently. The campers, more than 100 of them, chanted the younger Huerter’s name as he came into the gym.

“Tom wanted Kevin to see how much it means to everyone else around him,” Shenendehowa High coach Tony Dzikas said Thursday.

Dagostino said that the player who showed a maturity on and off the floor beyond his years fell off the radar among many NBA scouts because of Maryland’s struggles, which is one of the big reasons why Huerter was considered such a revelation at the league’s combine last month in Chicago.

“This year at Maryland he took a more prominent role. He averaged 14[.8] points a game, and in Maryland’s system he wasn’t really like a playmaker — he struggled with turnovers and all that stuff — but when he went to the combine, all of a sudden there’s a ton of space on the floor,” Dagostino said.

"He’s making those passes again. He’s coming off pick and roll. And people are saying, ‘He’s a 6-7, 200-pound playmaking wing that also happens to be a great shooter. To me that’s the whole process. For the college guys, it was his body and growing. For the NBA guys, it was, ‘He’s not just a shooter.’ ”

Dzikas recalled how he was criticized when he promoted Huerter to the high school freshman team as a seventh-grader.

“Somebody wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper, complaining that Kevin was taking time from freshmen," Dzikas said. “Here we are, fast forward from seventh grade to finishing his sophomore year at Maryland, going from age 13 to 19 and he’s getting drafted tonight.”

Dzkias laughed.

“I don’t think there will be any admission of being wrong in the letters to the editor in tomorrow’s paper,” Dzikas said.

Dagostino said that he can see Huerter being around the NBA for decades.

“He’s a 10-year NBA player and a 20-year NBA front office [executive] or NBA coach,” Dagostino said.

Said Dzikas, who, before Huerter even went to Maryland, predicted his former star would become a Division I head coach: “I think he will have a very productive, long career in the NBA. When this happens [being a first-round NBA pick], that opens the door for you to coach at the NBA level.”

Dzikas said that whoever drafts Huerter would learn that he is much more than a one-dimensional player.

“People have compared him to a Kyle Korver, and it might be unfair because Korver is playing against NBA players, but I can see Kevin being more than a well-rounded player,” Dzikas said. “I think Kevin is a better passer than Korver is, and he can get his shot off faster.”

Huerter credits Dzikas, Dagostino and his father — the elder Huerter played in college at Siena and also coached his sons (older brother Thomas also plays for Siena) on the Amateur Athletic Union level— for helping him improve his game both in terms of his skills and basketball IQ.

It started when Huerter was barely able to get the ball up to the hoop.

“Getting coached at a young age by someone who played and knows the game was extremely important,” Hueter texted last week about his father. "It allowed me to be coachable, it humbled me, and allowed me to take criticism from any future coach I may have.

"The best thing my dad, and then coach Dzikas and Shen did for me, is that they were hard on me. The were constantly challenging me, and told me when I screwed up or played bad, but then also told me when I played well. This allowed me to keep getting better.”

don.markus@baltsun.com

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