CLIFTON PARK — The other day, Kevin Huerter came across a photograph of him wearing a Vince Carter jersey from the NBA star’s time playing for the New Jersey Nets.
Huerter was in the fourth grade when that photo was taken.
He’s a couple weeks removed from finishing his rookie season with the Atlanta Hawks whose roster also included Carter.
Naturally, the 20-year-old Huerter sent the photo to the 42-year-old Carter after the Shenendehowa High School graduate found it.
“Man,” Huerter messaged Carter, “you’re getting old.”
Months ago, when Huerter first met Carter, he was somewhat star-struck. As his rookie season went along, though, he became more used to the sight of seeing Carter — and other NBA stars he’d previously only seen on TV — every day.
“It’s normal now,” Huerter said Tuesday at Shenendehowa.
Since becoming a first-round pick last June, the last 10 months for Huerter have been about growing comfortable with his new life playing in the NBA and everything that comes with that. Huerter averaged 9.7 points per game and shot 38.5% from 3-point territory during his rookie campaign in which he started 59 games and averaged 27.3 minutes.
“I’m, overall, pretty happy with it,” Huerter said. “You can always get better.”
Huerter helped form a young core of players for Atlanta that helped the Hawks exceed expectations during the 2018-19 season. Still, the Hawks finished 29-53 after going 24-58 the previous season, and then starting to rebuild around Huerter, fellow rookie Trae Young and second-year player John Collins.
At times, Huerter said it was awkward to play for a losing team that received near-unanimous praise for the progress it showed.
“That was one thing [where] everybody . . . is telling us how great we’re doing, and we’re building for something and next year, and guys are doing great — but, then, on the team, we were frustrated with how much we were losing still,” Huerter said. “We’re competitors, and everybody who is at that level is used to winning at a high level, so you get in there and it’s kind of humbling.”
Huerter said it took time to adjust to constantly playing against stars he’d cheered for in the past.
“Every single time we played a team for the first time, you had a new star to play against. That was always cool,” said Huerter, who listed a back-to-back early in the season that saw the Hawks play against LeBron James’ Los Angeles Lakers and reigning champion Golden State Warriors as his top “Welcome to the NBA” moment.
Going through an 82-game season, Huerter said, was grueling. Until he went through it, though, he didn’t quite understand how tiring the lifestyle is of being an NBA player.
“Going into the year, one thing all the veterans always said is how long of a year it is,” Huerter said. “You’ve got to take care of yourself off the court. You’ve got to keep your body right. Mentally, you’ve got to keep yourself in the game.”
There were enough moments of excitement and fun, though, to help fuel Huerter. Tops on that list was the Hawks’ March 4 game against the Miami Heat, after which Miami’s Dwyane Wade — for whom the 2018-19 season was the last of his career — exchanged jerseys with Huerter on the court.
“That was unreal,” Huerter said.
After that game, Huerter initially had started to head off the court, disappointed with a one-point loss. He remembered, though, that the game was the Hawks’ last that season against the Heat.
“So I turned back to the court just to go shake a couple of their guys’ hands,” Huerter said, “and [Wade] was right there on the edge, kind of looking for me.”
Wade had found out he was one of Huerter’s boyhood idols, and took a moment to exchange jerseys and talk with Huerter.
“That was crazy, and something I’ll always remember,” Huerter said.
Huerter returns next week to Atlanta, and May and June will include workouts. In July, Huerter will go to Las Vegas for NBA Summer League, but not to play in games; instead, he’ll spend more time working out as he prepares for his second NBA season.
By that time, the Hawks will have new rookies — which means they will take over responsibility for making sure the team’s veteran players are supplied with Krispy Kreme doughnuts, a task Huerter was partially responsible for during the 2018-19 campaign.
“Basically,” Huerter said, “every single game day or every single day we were traveling, we [rookies] had to bring doughnuts to whatever event it was.”
He added: “Our training staff was trying to change that all year.”
Beyond eliminating off-court rookie responsibilities, Huerter said he’s looking forward to next season to see how much progress the Hawks can continue to make. Watching this year’s NBA playoffs, Huerter said, has provided extra motivation.
“You have to work that much harder to get better [to] reach the point that all the teams that are still playing now are at,” Huerter said.