Kris Dunn is living proof of the power of context. After a horrible rookie season in Minnesota, the no. 5 pick in the 2016 draft looks like a completely different player in Chicago. He is averaging 13.7 points, 6.3 assists, 4.6 rebounds, and 2.0 steals a game on 43.4 percent shooting, while the Bulls, who are supposed to be tanking, have gone 11-7 over the past month. Dunn’s averages have skyrocketed, but that was inevitable given his new role as a featured player. Dunn hasn’t changed that much. Everything around him has.
Point guards are like quarterbacks: Developing them requires a huge commitment from their team, and they need opportunities with the ball in their hands. There’s only so much they can learn from practicing, watching from the sideline, or spotting up off the ball. The problem is that giving a young point guard those opportunities is a sure way to lose games. Learning to run an NBA offense is incredibly difficult. The bottom-three teams in the league in offensive rating this season all feature a first- or second-year point guard: the Lakers (Lonzo Ball), Bulls (Dunn), and Kings (De’Aaron Fox).
Dunn never had a chance in Minnesota. The franchise has the longest current playoff drought in the NBA, and it had run out of patience by the time it drafted him. The Wolves were changing gears, from building a young core to trying to win, and hired Tom Thibodeau to accelerate the rebuilding process. There was no time for Dunn to play through his mistakes, or much of an opportunity for him to show what he could do. Instead of directing the offense, he spotted up off Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, and Zach LaVine.
“No one wants to be traded, but I understood I was going to be in a better situation with younger guys, being able to develop my game,” Dunn told me before a game in Dallas last week. “I was angry, but at the same time I looked at it as a restart.”
Things are different in Chicago. Trading Jimmy Butler for Dunn, LaVine, and the rights to Lauri Markkanen was the first step in the Bulls’ rebuilding project. Their only goal this season was to accumulate ping-pong balls. They had nothing to lose by empowering Dunn. With most of their team from last season gone, and LaVine out for the first few months to recover from an ACL tear, there was no one for Dunn to defer to. The Bulls became his team by default. Just look at how much more often he touches the ball than last season:
|Touches Per Game||Average Time of Possession (seconds)|
|Touches Per Game||Average Time of Possession (seconds)|
“When you have an organization that believes in you, it makes everything a lot easier,” Dunn said. “I’m 10 times more comfortable than last year. I have an understanding of my role, learning how to be a leader for the team and just trying to bring it every day. I have to thank the organization for that.”
Everything went according to plan for a while. Dunn dominated the ball, and there was little talent around him. The Bulls were predictably awful. Then, a month ago, Nikola Mirotic returned from a broken face, an injury he suffered at the hands of his teammate Bobby Portis. All of a sudden, the formerly feuding big men started clicking, and Chicago’s second unit began destroying teams. LaVine will make his season debut against the Pistons on Sunday, and the Bulls could actually be a respectable team if he returns at full strength.
Chicago is winning almost in spite of itself. It may still end up moving Mirotic, who has reportedly not taken back the trade demand he made after his fight with Portis. What direction the Bulls go from here is still unclear. The goal is still a high lottery pick in this year’s draft, and who they take will have a huge impact on Dunn’s development. Will they commit to him long term and draft a player who doesn’t take the ball out of his hands? Or will they take the best player available, even if it means minimizing Dunn in the process?
A lot of Chicago’s decisions will depend on how it evaluates Dunn. The Bulls, almost by accident, were designed to showcase their new point guard. He starts next to three knockdown shooters (Justin Holiday, Denzel Valentine, and Markkanen) who space the floor and move the ball, and a veteran center (Robin Lopez) who does the dirty work inside. Dunn plays at a faster pace this season, and he doesn’t have to make sure anyone is getting their touches. He is playing free. He reads and reacts to the situation in front of him without having to worry about coming out of the game if he misses a few shots.
“I had a really good talk with Kris before the game [in Dallas],” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “I brought him in my office and said, ‘Listen, I’m going to start giving you some added responsibility. You’re becoming a guy that as you go, we go. And I’m going to let you go and control the offense a little bit.’ So he’s not looking over his shoulder at me for play calls all the time, and he starts recognizing who to get the ball to.”
Dunn has improved significantly from last season, but that’s a low bar to clear. He’s still an inefficient player who makes a lot of bad decisions with the ball. He has the third-lowest true-shooting percentage (48.4) and second-highest turnover percentage (17.9) among the top-45 players in the NBA in usage rate this season. He’s not driving the Bulls’ recent success: Their offensive rating is 1.6 points better when he’s off the floor then when he’s on it, and over their past 15 games, they have a net rating of minus-6.0 with Dunn and a plus-3.3 without him.
Dunn’s biggest selling points are his physical tools and his desire to improve. At 23 years old, he already has an NBA-ready body, and he’s mature for his age. A difficult childhood, during which he was raised by a single mother who was incarcerated, forcing Dunn to live on his own with his brother for months before they were reunited with his father, has helped him put his struggles in the NBA in perspective. He keeps an even keel, and he has become a leader in the locker room. His teammates know how much work he puts in—for example, how he watches every game he plays on film twice after it happens.
Holiday said Dunn’s ability to bounce back from a rough game is “impressive if I didn’t know who he was. If you know Kris Dunn, that’s what you expect from him. He’s going to come with it. He bounces back, and that’s what we expect him to do.”
Dunn is physically able to handle the rigors of the NBA. He has elite size (6-foot-4 and 210 pounds with a 6-foot-9 wingspan) and speed for a point guard, which is partly why his defense is ahead of his offense at this stage of his career. He focused on that side of the ball as a rookie, but he’s been able to maintain his defensive intensity this season even though he has a much bigger role in the offense. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, Dunn is in the 73rd percentile of players leaguewide when defending the ball handler in the pick-and-roll, and in the 64th percentile when defending isolations.
Like many hyperathletic guards, Dunn didn’t need a polished jumper until he got to the NBA. He could get into the paint and dominate the area at the front of the rim whenever he wanted at lower levels of the game. That caught up to him in Minnesota, where he couldn’t buy a jumper to save his life. He has worked diligently in Chicago on improving his mechanics with Hoiberg, a shooting specialist during his decade as an NBA player. Still, Dunn is a work in progress. He is shooting 33.7 percent from 3 on 2.5 attempts a game this season, and 69.6 percent from the free throw line on 1.9 attempts a game—below-average numbers for an NBA point guard.
“I’m working on my whole formula. My body position. Looking at the back of the rim. When I catch the ball, I like to shoot it from my chest. I’m trying to keep the ball away from there,” Dunn said. “Shooting is going to come in time. There’s plenty of years left for me to grow and develop into that.”
Dunn’s inconsistent jumper holds him back when he’s running the pick-and-roll, the staple of the Bulls offense. He handles the ball in those plays on 65.3 percent of his offensive possessions, but he’s in only the 43rd percentile of players when scoring out of it. Opposing defenders sag off him and dare him to shoot, so there aren’t many driving lanes for him to attack. He’s often driving into the teeth of the defense, and tries to create something out of nothing. As a result, Dunn has the third-highest turnover percentage in the pick-and-roll (18.1 percent) of the 20 players who have run it the most this season.
“I’m an aggressive player on both ends,” Dunn said. “I like to make the home run plays sometimes.”
Not many guards are allowed to play as aggressively. The only high-usage players with higher turnover rates on the pick-and-roll are Russell Westbrook and James Harden. The difference is the payoff to their gambles is higher. Harden (65.5 percent) and Westbrook (61.8 percent) shoot a much higher percentage at the rim than Dunn (54.5 percent), and they get to the free throw line far more often. His free throw rate (.140) is more than three times lower than Harden’s (.497), and twice as low as Westbrook’s (.336). No one expects him to be as good as those two; they were All-Stars at the age he is now.
The question is whether Dunn can be effective if he’s not in a featured role. He doesn’t threaten defenses off the ball. He’s averaging only 3.0 3-point attempts per 36 minutes of playing time, which puts him 55th among the 60 guards who have started at least 20 games this season. If he’s not initiating the offense, the defense doesn’t have to guard him. The Bulls have worked around his poor shooting by building their offense around him. Dunn has to continue improving as a shooter because Chicago may not give him a similar opportunity to dominate the ball next season as much as he has this season.
The biggest story line for the Bulls over the second half of the season is how well Dunn can mesh with LaVine. The other Wolves veteran traded to Chicago will have a much larger role in the offense than either Holiday or Valentine, neither of whom has a usage rate above 18 this season. Chicago will run a lot of plays for LaVine, who was in the 63rd percentile of scorers out of the pick-and-roll last season. The Bulls are not just going to be the Kris Dunn Show anymore.
Still, the two former Minnesota guards could be an effective backcourt pairing. Dunn has the defensive chops to guard either backcourt position, so he could take the more difficult assignment on a nightly basis, allowing LaVine, an inconsistent defender at best, to hide off the ball. On the other end of the floor, LaVine is an elite 3-point shooter, so he can create room for Dunn to drive to the rim. However, if Dunn can’t keep the defense honest when LaVine has the ball, the Bulls may end up having to stagger their minutes and pick one to emphasize.
If Chicago can commit to both, it could draft an athletic big man to round out their core. The Bulls need a long-term replacement for Lopez, who doesn’t have the speed to protect Markkanen on defense, and isn’t much of a threat in the pick-and-roll. Lopez also doesn’t have the finishing ability to catch lobs at the rim, or the shooting ability to drag his man out to the 3-point line. There are a lot of centers projected to be available no matter where the Bulls wind up in the lottery, whether it’s Deandre Ayton, Marvin Bagley III, Mohamed Bamba, or less highly regarded prospects like Robert Williams or Jaren Jackson Jr.
The more difficult question is what happens if they have the opportunity to take a point forward like Luka Doncic, or a point guard like Trae Young or Collin Sexton. Adding another ball-dominant perimeter player with LaVine would force Dunn off the ball completely. At that point, Dunn would probably be better coming off the bench and anchoring the second unit. He may wind up in a defensive spark plug role similar to the one Marcus Smart has in Boston. Smart was a point guard in college, but he has never gotten the opportunity to run the Celtics offense. Those opportunities don’t come often in the NBA.
Dunn has 40 more games to make an impression on the Bulls. He can look like a future All-Star on nights when his shot is falling, such as when he went off for 32 points on 12-of-17 shooting and nine assists in a 127-124 win over Dallas last week. Other nights, he can look like he has no business being featured in an NBA offense, such as the 4-for-18 performance in a double-overtime win over New York on Wednesday. A young point guard in the NBA will have a lot of ups and downs. Dunn needs to show enough so that Chicago won’t want to get on that roller coaster again with another player.