Welcome to another installment of Hidden Gems! I’m looking to expose the underappreciated members of the basketball world. Each week, you’ll see me dissect one member of an NBA roster who may not receive a national spotlight, but undoubtedly contributes to winning basketball. These players may be sneaky-good prospects, do-it-all glue guys or G-League studs that will maximize every opportunity to play..
My goal: to introduce at least one player from each team to readers over the course of the season. I’ll be analyzing their current performance, their role, their background, and their potential impact in the coming year. Last spring and summer saw me break down the Atlantic division squads, among others; up next is the Central division. To read all of my analyses, click here.
Compliment me! Criticize me! Any and all feedback is greatly appreciated. I’m young, inexperienced and looking to get better. Hope you enjoy!
Basketball is back! We no longer have to trudge through September baseball or convince ourselves the entertainment value of football is worth supporting a corrupt league organization. Training camp and preseason action, as insignificant as they may seem, are finally the antidotes to our summer doldrums.
After taking a hiatus, my Hidden Gem of the Week column is also back and better than ever. I’ve spent the summer learning about scouting techniques and advanced stats in the hopes of creating better analysis. I still have a long, long way to go, but I’m more confident that my observations are meaningful and not coincidental.
To kick off the new NBA season, I’m breaking down a point guard that seems to be lost in the whirlwind of the 2019 offseason. Kris Dunn entered 2018-19 as the floor general of the future for Chicago, but the franchise’s stance has cooled over the summer. Not long removed from his fifth-overall draft billing, Dunn hasn’t entered the “bust” conversation yet, but the general attitude seems to be lukewarm at best.
This is unfair to Dunn. In his third season and amidst a tumultuous coaching change, Dunn put up some of his better offensive numbers while remaining a defensive stalwart. Whether he remains with the Bulls or ends up on the move, Dunn’s skill set is rare and worth the investment.
How Did He Get Here?
Specifcally — how did Kris Dunn end up a Chicago castoff?
The Providence alumnus has an incredible journey to the NBA that exemplifies toughness, determination and work ethic. This should be made clear: regardless of Kris Dunn’s NBA stats, his story deserves recognition on its own. I cannot do it justice here, so I highly suggest you click the link.
Four years of consistent improvement with the Friars led to Dunn consistently ranking as the top point guard in the 2016 NBA draft class despite his seniority. When draft day rolled around, new Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau snatched Dunn with the fifth pick to groom him as the Wolves’ franchise table-setter.
But the lone year in Minnesota was… weird. Incumbent starter Ricky Rubio was the fan favorite, but he played poorly, and Dunn had chances to start, but he played even worse, and the 2016-17 season became a bout of awkwardness for the Wolves. One year after drafting Kris Dunn, Thibodeau and the Wolves shipped him to Chicago as a major piece in the blockbuster Jimmy Butler trade.
Year one in Chicago went fairly smoothly in terms of on-court performance, though Dunn struggled with injuries. However, 2018-19 brought confusion and some frustration. Dunn missed 26 of the first 27 regular season contests, returned just as Fred Hoiberg was replaced by current head coach Jim Boylen, and got off to a frustratingly inconsistent start that brought down his usage for the rest of the season.
By year’s end, Dunn had become an afterthought on a Bulls team with rising stars at every other position. According to The Athletic, John Paxson even called him out in a rare move, saying back in the spring, “We have to get better at that position, there’s absolutely no question in my mind.”
Point guard clearly became the focus of Chicago’s offseason. The franchise drafted Coby White with the seventh overall selection, retained rotation player Ryan Arcidiacono, and nabbed underrated playmaker Tomas Satoransky on a three-year, $30 million deal as part of a sign-and-trade. Many assumed Dunn would be dealt in a corresponding move over the summer, but nothing ever materialized. Now he’s jammed in the middle of a crowded rotation that has no clear hierarchy.
Dunn’s suffocating defense has been his calling card through college and at the pro level. At 6’4″, 205 pounds, his frame is imposing for a point guard. His hands are quick and decisive (watch plays #10 and 6 above). But that defense flies under the radar because Dunn most defensive statistics heavily favor larger players.
Look more closely and Dunn stands out. His steal percentage of 2.4 percent would place him in the top 20 in the league last season had Dunn made the minutes qualifier, per Basketball Reference. He ranked ninth in the Association with 3.1 deflections per game. His Defensive Box Plus/Minus was fourth on the Bulls (including all positions), and is admirable for a point guard on a bottom-ten defense.
The 25-year-old looks even better in Greek God of Stats’ new Matchup-Based Defense metrics (read about that here). Dunn faced the tenth-toughest defensive load in the entire NBA last season and placed in the 86th percentile for Total Shooting Defense (which scores defensive performance against load).
Some of Dunn’s individual defensive matchups feature impressive performances against the game’s offensive stars. De’Angelo Russell, for example, shot just 44 percent from the floor and 30.8 percent from long range while committing five turnovers in 113 possessions against Dunn last season. However, he struggled against catch-and-shoot threats such as Trae Young, Bradley Beal and Evan Fournier.
Moreover, in 146 possessions against spot-up shooters last season, Dunn placed in the 22nd percentile in terms of effectiveness. Opponents scored 1.12 points per possession against the third-year Bull in these situations. On top of that, he placed in just the 14th percentile against pick-and-roll ball handlers while giving up 1.02 points per possession. These are two key concepts of modern basketball, and Dunn needs to be more effective in these situations to truly garner praise.
Room for Offensive Improvement
On the other end, Dunn’s scoring ability has kept the point guard from breaking through, but last year showed some positive signs. Though his scoring output per game dropped slightly, the fourth-year veteran notched a career-high 35.4 percent clip from three-point range. This rate doesn’t blow anyone away, but shooting at a league-average rate is a good sign for a point guard who has historically struggled to shoot well.
The problem? Dunn took a remarkably low 2.1 three-point attempts per game, making just 0.7 on average. He shot plenty of mid-range jumpers, but did not shoot them with consistent accuracy.
One explanation could be the radical shift in scheme that occurred when Jim Boylen took over as head coach. Per The Athletic, Dunn explained in May that he often “sat in the corner” in Boylen’s multiple-ball-handler system, which ran counter to Fred Hoiberg’s plan of letting Dunn lead the attack with his dribble creation. This shows up in the stats: Dunn shot just 28.8 percent on catch-and-shoot threes last year, a stark drop-off from his 45.7 percent clip on pull-up attempts. In that same article, Dunn also emphasized his focus on that catch-and-shoot three ball for the offseason.
Additionally, Dunn struggled mightily finishing around the rim, convert just 52.7 percent of his looks within the restricted area. He also made just 47.8 percent of his layup attempts and only got to the line for 1.5 free throws per game. This is another area Dunn told The Athletic he would improve upon for 2019-20. This shouldn’t be difficult; his previously mentioned 6’4″, strong frame should be an asset in drives to the hoop, and I would imagine this aspect of Dunn’s offensive repertoire could easily make a leap.
If the shooting comes together, Kris Dunn becomes a devastating attacking weapon. He possesses a mature arsenal of dribble moves and is an adept passer. His role as a distributor is crucial as well. He makes his team better through his passing; Lauri Markkanen, Lauri Markkanen and Otto Porter all made at least 39 percent of their threes when assisted by Dunn.
Satoransky brings a nice boost to the overall team playmaking ability, but much of the ball movement responsibility still falls on Dunn’s shoulders. If he can become a capable scoring threat while continuing to create for his teammates, the young point guard should blossom.
How is the Fit?
Ultimately, the biggest question marks are Kris Dunn’s ability to mesh with Coach Boylen’s structure and Coach Boylen’s ability to showcase some of Dunn’s obvious strengths. Sure, having multiple ball handlers is helpful — but is this limiting a proven creator? Meanwhile, do the additions of Satoransky and Thaddeus Young help take some of the burden off of Dunn defensively, or will he still have to carry the load on a team with multiple poor defenders?
This moment from Darnell Mayberry’s Q&A with Dunn sums up everything. Dunn recognizes that he helps himself and the team when he can run the offense. There’s some frustration here, both with the Bulls and at the general trajectory of his career, because Dunn clearly has the talent to be a spectacular multi-dimensional point guard. The Bulls have to give him the chances.
If Dunn can fight through and be a consistent starter while developing his off-ball shooting, he could help turn the Bulls into a rising playoff team. Recently the Bulls and Dunn have both expressed confidence in the upcoming season, according to NBC Sports Chicago. But if he struggles and Satoransky and White impress, Dunn could easily be on the way out.
Regardless, Kris Dunn has an obvious place on an NBA starting lineup. His athleticism, floor awareness and defensive intensity are a rare combination. If there was no previous history, I would vouch for my Timberwolves to trade for him. All Dunn needs is the freedom to be himself on the court.
All statistics and figures, unless otherwise noted, come courtesy of NBA Stats and Basketball Reference.
Header photo courtesy of Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images.