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Kris Dunn: The Roller-Coaster Rookie

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The 2016 fifth overall pick experienced a rookie season full of ups and downs.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Minnesota Timberwolves Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Kris Dunn
23 years old
Guard
Contract status: $3,872,520 in 2016-17
First year of rookie contract

Numbers (per game): 17.1 minutes, 3.8 points, 2.1 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.5 blocks, 1.1 turnovers

Shooting: .377 FG%, .288 3PT FG%, .610 FT%

Kris Dunn was drafted to be Tom Thibodeau’s point guard of the future. After Dunn’s rookie campaign, it’s a safe assumption that the label “point guard of the future” will have to wait. But that doesn’t mean Dunn can’t become great player for the Timberwolves.

In a game that glorifies offensive prowess, Dunn’s dominance as a rookie took place on the defensive end. Part of the reason Thibodeau drafted Dunn was for his unlimited defensive potential, and it appears as if Thibs was accurate in that aspect.

The offensive side of the ball is where questions remain for the former Providence Friar. As the season wore on, Thibodeau began taking the ball out of Dunn’s hands and play him at shooting guard with either Tyus Jones, Ricky Rubio or even Andrew Wiggins running the point.

After a roller-coaster rookie season, the jury is still out on what Dunn’s potential holds.

The Good Stuff

The positives in Dunn’s game lied squarely on the defensive end of the floor in 2016-17. He was a flat out menace for opposing guards and wings to deal with.

At 6’4” with a wingspan just shy of 6’10”, Dunn’s size allows him to defend multiple positions. His size and length is excellent for a point guard, and this helps make him a versatile defender capable of guarding numerous guards and wings across the league.

In his rookie season, Dunn showed he was more than capable as an on-ball defender of both point guards and shooting guards. He was able to dodge screens well and his quick feet kept him in front of opposing guards on the regular.

But what elevated Dunn to a high level at the defensive end were three traits that were a lethal combination when all working at once: instincts, hustle and quick hands.

Each of those traits are evident in the clip below. Dunn’s instincts kick in when he notices Gary Harris being cut off by Zach LaVine. The hustle factor then pops in as Dunn races to meet Harris just as he is crossing back to his left. And finally, Dunn’s quick hands are able to poke the ball out and force the turnover.

Dunn had a bit of a tendency to “risk it for the biscuit” in his rookie season to make that type of play, often resulting in a turnover or at the very least forcing the offense to make decisions at a faster pace than it anticipated.

The quickness at which Dunn is able to sneakily pull these tricks from his sleeve is what makes it so difficult for the offense to anticipate. In the below example, Dunn leaves his man and swiftly swipes the ball from the attacking Memphis player in one motion.

For as disruptive as Dunn is stealing the basketball, he might be as good as a shot blocker. He can play much larger than his 6’4” frame when he wants to. He could soon earn the title as the shortest rim protector in the NBA.

Dunn’s ability as a shot blocker stems from the same instincts he uses to get steals. He has an innate ability to see plays develop faster than anyone else on the court. This allows him time his jump perfectly with the release of a shot, much like the best shot blockers in the business do.

Below are two examples of Dunn blocking shots due to his ability to read and play help defense like a big man.

In each example, Dunn is keying on the the penetration, calculating at what exactly millisecond he should leave his man to make the block. Dunn then plants his outside foot and explodes toward the ball, having timed the jump perfectly, to swat it away.

Dunn’s performance on the defensive end of the floor went largely unnoticed by national media and fans — as is the case with most strong defenders. But more context is required to understand just how dominant and versatile Dunn was in his rookie season.

Dunn recorded a steal percentage of 3.0 and a block percentage of 2.3 in 2016-17. Only 29 times in NBA history has a player recorded a steal percentage higher than 2.9 and a steal percentage higher than 2.3 in the same season (minimum 40 games), and Dunn is the fourth youngest in the group. He’s also the fourth rookie to reach those numbers.

Very little doubt remains about Dunn’s potential as a defender in the NBA. He’s athletic. He’s gritty. He’s intense. He’s instinctive. He’s pretty much everything Thibodeau could dream of in a defender at the guard position.

As for the offensive end, well, that’s another story.

What Can Improve

Simply put, Dunn has plenty of room for improvement on the offensive side of the ball. In particular, his efficiency as a shooter and his high turnover rate will need to be his focus this offseason.

Dunn’s wasn’t a sharpshooter by any means at Providence, but he appeared capable of spreading the floor once he joined the NBA. He was a 35.4 percent three-point shooter in his college career, including 37.2 percent in his final season. Overall, he shot 45 percent from the floor at Providence.

He didn’t come particularly close to matching those numbers in his rookie season. He only managed 37.7 percent from the field and just 28.8 percent from beyond the arc.

The potential of an offense in the modern NBA relies on floor spacing, and reliable perimeter shooting is prohibiting Dunn and Minnesota as a whole from reaching the next level. This is even more true for Dunn if he continues to play off-ball as often as he did down the stretch of his rookie season. Eventually, teams will be able to sag off and give more help support like they did for so long with Ricky Rubio.

Dunn’s change in role from backup point guard to a combo guard role player was sparked by his high turnover rate. He posted a 20.8 turnover percentage, which was the highest among rookies and seventh-highest among all players who played 40 games.

Many of Dunn’s miscues resulted from a classic case of trying to do too much, which is common for rookies at the point guard position. In the below example, Nemanja Bjelica executes a quick pick-and-pop play and is open at the top of the key. Dunn instead tries to force the issue and split the defenders, to no avail.

Dunn developed a tendency to often recklessly attempt to split double teams similar to the one above. As he gains more experience, he should learn to force it less and instead take what the defense gives him.

Below is another concerning example of Dunn just trying to do too much. He and LaVine are leading a fast break and Dunn draws both defenders into the paint. Meanwhile, LaVine does a great job of getting to the corner to spread the floor and make himself available for an open three.

The rookie failed to recognize it and the ball was stripped from him on his way up. Again, these issues will become more scarce as Dunn gains more NBA experience, but the rate at which these types of plays happened in his rookie season is concerning, and ultimately led to him being removed from point guard duties.

What’s Next

Dunn’s role in 2017-18 will likely be similar to the role he had to end this season. He spent most of his playing time at the 2, with Tyus Jones running the point. He also began to receive crunch time minutes for his tenacity on the defensive end.

That doesn’t mean his improvement both as a shooter and in taking care of the basketball aren’t important. In fact, they’re probably more important in that role. If Ricky Rubio goes down with an injury, Dunn will be thrust into a point guard role and he’ll have to operate the offense.

His potential is similar to what Marcus Smart is now for Boston — a versatile, disruptive, lockdown perimeter defender who struggles to find a role offensively. But if Dunn can improve offensively, his shot specifically, he can become more like an Avery Bradley.

Dunn’s development will be a major factor in Minnesota’s playoff chances next season. If he can carve himself an offensive role and eliminate some of the “downs” in his game, the Timberwolves’ playoff chances will skyrocket.