COLLEGE PARK — In an age when players try to find the Amateur Athletic Union team that will give them maximum exposure to college coaches, Kevin Huerter’s move to leave the Albany Rocks to join a less elite team filled with other players from Shenendehowa High was viewed skeptically around upstate New York.
Some believed the skinny red-headed guard was going down a level or two in competition by joining Shen Pride, and that he might have thought he wasn’t good enough to play for a high-major college program.
In reality, the move had two purposes: to have the team jell for what turned out to be a state championship run during Huerter’s junior year, and to get the ball in Huerter’s hands as a point guard in order to show college coaches there was more to his game than a textbook jumper.
He showed as much during Sunday night’s home opener, finishing with 10 points in just 22 minutes in a 96-43 over UMES, which nearly constitutes a night off for a player who logged close to 30 minutes a game as a freshman. Huerter hit four of five from the field, including two of three 3-point attempts.
“I think I was playing out of position [with the Rocks]. I wasn’t developing the way I wanted to,” Huerter recalled last week. “At that time, we didn’t think I needed to be at a showcase level. I thought I had a lot of time and I didn’t need to be in front of college coaches all the time.
“We knew we were going to be really good, and had a chance to win a state championship. Going back and being able to have the ball in your hands, and having a responsibility on you, playing your position, which was point guard, I really learned a lot that year and developed.”
By the time Huerter returned to the City Rocks team the summer before his senior year, he had nearly grown to his current height of 6 feet 7 and had led his high school team to a state title. By the time he finished at Shenendehowa High, Huerter was New York’s Mr. Basketball.
The skills he had developed during his year with Shen Pride, and subsequently during his last two years of high school, have been on full display nearly from the day he arrived at Maryland, where Huerter was probably the team’s best all-around player as a freshman.
While fellow sophomore Anthony Cowan Jr. is the team’s point guard and so far Maryland’s leading scorer — he had a team-high 16 points Sunday night — the offense will go through Huerter much more often than it did a year ago.
“I think any of us at this level are used to playing with the ball in our hands. We all played with the ball in our hands in high school and AAU,” Huerter said during the Big Ten’s media day in New York last month. “Anytime that your coach trusts you to try to make decisions, make plays, and have the ball in your hands, any player would like that.”
Huerter’s game is sometimes overlooked, partly because he doesn’t have statistics that pop off the page. A year ago, he was second on the team in rebounding (4.9), third in assists (2.7) and fourth in scoring (9.3) while also being its best on-the-ball defender.
Asked if Huerter doesn’t get the recognition he deserves — he isn’t mentioned on any NBA mock drafts, though several scouts have spoken highly of Huerter’s court awareness and 3-point shooting range — Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said he is confident that will happen.
“I think Kevin will continue to shine. He’s a much better player than he was last year and he had a heck of a freshman year,” Turgeon said in New York. “He’s so comfortable with himself. Unfortunately [the three sophomores] cancel each other out [in terms of Big Ten recognition].”
Unlike many players who seemed consumed on making the NBA, Huerter seems not to care about getting that kind of hype.
“Recognition has never been one thing that’s motivated me,” Huerter said. “You see some of that stuff, and it just makes you want to go at the people who are on those lists and you’re going to be matched up with in our league or other leagues.”
Tom Huerter, who played at Siena, said that the younger of his two sons (older brother Thomas plays for his father’s alma mater) “just wants to play and win. The only thing that will bother him is if they’re playing the wrong way and not playing together.”
Turgeon, who is in his seventh year at Maryland and 20th season as a Division I coach, said he hasn’t had many players who see and understand the game as well as Huerter.
“He’s pretty special,” Turgeon said. “He really sees things. He’ll see mismatch things that a lot of kids don’t see, and he sees it quickly. He helps me. He sees a lot of things on the floor, and I trust him because he’s smart. If he stays healthy, he’s going to have a terrific year.”
Said Huerter, “When I was growing up, I played with guys two or three years older than me, so it was always harder to score. … Some of the easiest things for me, being able to still shoot a 3, is pass the ball and get other guys involved.”
That seemed to be the case at times last season, when 175 of his 264 field goal attempts were 3-pointers and Huerter went to the free-throw line just 28 times, the second-fewest among those in Maryland’s rotation.
Huerter finished the year hitting six of six free-throw attempts in an NCAA tournament loss to Xavier, when his 19 points were a team-high. It reminds Huerter of what happened back in high school, when he didn’t get to the free-throw line on regular basis until his senior year.
“You have to develop it, you have to get stronger. It’s something I worked on a lot this summer,” said Huerter, who played on the United States 19-and-under national team in June and July. “Getting to the basket, finishing over guys, through guys more. Getting to line will make things easier on myself.”
Huerter’s sophomore season began with a quiet first half in Friday’s opening-game victory over Stony Brook at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y.
After not taking a shot for more than 11 minutes — he hit a 3-pointer with 8:58 left in the half and had five points on three shots at halftime — Huerter finished the game with 13 points on five of 10 shooting with four assists, three rebounds and two steals in 34 minutes.
“I think our whole team kind of started off slow,” Huerter said. “In the second half, I started getting the ball in my hands more, so that was kind of part of it. I definitely tried to get a little more aggressive. Our whole team was playing really well, and I was just trying to do my part.”
While fellow sophomore Justin Jackson was named preseason first-team All-Big Ten by the media, Huerter barely got any votes. Big Ten coaches have a different feeling about Huerter, as evidenced by former Indiana coach Tom Crean saying last season that only Melo Trimble received more attention in the pregame scouting report.
“I just love his demeanor,” Northwestern coach Chris Collins said at Big Ten media day. “He brings a lot. He’s an underrated defender. His shooting range is unlimited. He’s a sneaky athlete. With another year under his belt, you’ll see him be one of the elite guys in the conference.”
Michigan coach John Beilein, who recruited Huerter heavily when he was in high school, compares him to former Wolverines star Caris Levert, now with the Brooklyn Nets.
“I wish we could have gotten him,” Beilein said. “He’s a high, high major versatile guard. He might lead the team in assists one year. He might lead them in 3-point shooting.”
As he was in high school, Huerter doesn’t appear to be in a hurry, preferring to have his body and his game grow naturally.
"I came to Maryland expecting to be here four years and I still do, so any of that stuff [NBA mock drafts or getting invited to the NBA combine] doesn’t matter to me, at least not yet,” he said. “I’m thinking about this season and trying to win a national championship.”