CHICAGO | He's encountered the wrath of Greg Oden and Dwight Howard and come away with high-fives and a schoolboy smile on his face.
NBA rookie Chris Hunter has shown he has the talent and desire to play at this level.
But can he stay healthy?
There were the numerous foot and ankle injuries at Michigan. And as much as the Knicks loved his potential this preseason, they waived the 6-foot-11 Gary native because summer rehabbing from surgery had hampered his conditioning.
Friday night, Hunter was wearing a Golden State uniform as the Warriors continued their five-game road trip with a stop in Chicago against the struggling Bulls.
"It was a different situation (in New York), but I continued to work and luckily I got another opportunity," Hunter said before tipoff.
It didn't take long for him to become a fan favorite at Golden State, a team currently depleted by injury.
Called up from the Developmental League's Fort Wayne Mad Ants, Hunter made his pro debut against the Portland Trail Blazers at Oracle Arena on Nov. 20. In just 14 minutes, he scored four points, grabbed three rebounds and blocked a shot.
Those aren't SportsCenter-worthy stats, but the West Side grad provided an inside presence the Warriors were missing against Oden and Joel Przybilla -- held to just five points and six rebounds combined in the second half of Golden State's 108-94 win.
That earned Hunter a standing ovation from the home fans when he left the game.
"Yeah, it may seem like a dream come true, but as a basketball player you don't want to think of it like that," Hunter said. "You want to think of it as you belong at this level because you know you can play."
Veteran Warriors coach Don Nelson, still recovering from pneumonia, did not make the road trip but interim head coach Keith Smart said the organization is quite impressed with Hunter.
"Chris has done a good job since he's been here. He's been a worker. When given an opportunity to play, he's produced pretty well," Smart said. "Our staff and the front office has been real happy with how he's performed."
Hunter had appeared in eight games prior to Chicago, averaging five points and 2.4 rebounds in 14 minutes. The matchups on game night often determine his playing time.
"First time against Portland and he was able to play against Oden so well by himself in the post," Smart said. "He brought something to our team that we didn't have -- one big guy who is a post defender.
"He's still learning our pace and how we play, but everybody's been happy."
That "pace" includes racehorse basketball and an obsession with the 3-point shot.
In the 126-118 loss to Orlando on Dec. 5, the Warriors turned to Hunter early in the second quarter after center Mikki Moore picked up three fouls in eight minutes against the All-Star Howard.
Hunter's physical, push-and-shove style prevented the explosive Howard from bowling over defenders. Moments later, 6-10 Anthony Randolph checked in and combined, their length and athleticism gave Howard fits.
"Dwight Howard's really strong and athletic. It's a tough matchup but a good matchup," Hunter said. "You've got to be on your toes at all times. You've got to keep him off the glass; keep him from getting to his spots on the floor.
"There was no pressure on me. I'm a basketball player just like he is. He's been working hard. I've been working hard trying to get to this level. I come to compete. You see him on TV and you respect his game -- but you can't wait to compete against him."
Hunter said he gets a bit homesick and though his parents were at Friday's game, he was more focused on the minutes he's been getting early out of necessity.
"Add energy. Play defense. Rebound. Get our shooters open -- basically come in and do what got me here," Hunter said. "I believe I belong here. I worked hard to get to this point. I deserve this.
"We have a lot of guys out; a lot of guys banged up. So this is a great opportunity for me to give 'em a little taste of what I can do, put it in their minds that I can play, and maybe stay around."
The Bulls hope to snap their four-game losing streak by beating the Warriors. PAGE B2