LOS ANGELES — Kendrick Nunn’s sudden arrival on the NBA scene seemed to catch everyone off guard.
It did the front offices of 30 NBA teams, who passed on him in the 2018 draft. It did — but not as much as you’d think — the Golden State Warriors, who had him in training camp a year ago but sent him to the G-League then did not sign him. It did the Grizzlies, Bucks, Timberwolves, and Hawks, who watched him rack up the most points through five games (112) of any rookie since Kevin Durant back in 2007.
Nunn surprised everyone.
“It’s not no surprise at all,” Nunn told NBC Sports. “I’ve known who I was since years before this happened. I envisioned it and wanted to make it come to life working hard every day. The results have shown.”
Nunn’s start, including 44 points in a preseason game, impressed coach Eric Spoelstra enough to move Nunn into the starting lineup, allowing Spoelstra to bring Goran Dragic off the bench as a weapon (ala Lou Williams with the Clippers). It’s worked for a Heat team off to a 6-3 start, a team defending well and outscoring opponents by 5.4 points per 100 possessions.
Nunn’s fast start has stalled out some the last four games — 9.3 points per game on 34.1 percent shooting overall and 19 percent from three — as defenses have stopped wondering who he is and started blitzing him more. He’s drawing a lot more defensive attention and having to learn how to adapt his fearless playing style to that reality.
That was evident against the Lakers last Friday, a team where Spoelstra (and Doc Rivers, and every coach that has faced them) has talked about their length. It bothered Nunn early. On the Heat’s first possessions of the game Nunn got Anthony Davis switched onto him out on the wing, Nunn fearlessly put the ball on the floor and drove and blew right past him. However, when Avery Bradley slid over to help and forced Nunn to make another move, Davis caught up and swatted Nunn’s shot. Meanwhile, Nunn didn’t see the open pass to Bam Adebayo along the baseline. It’s all a learning experience.
“Just watching film, see the mistakes that I made and try to learn from it,” Nunn said of how he grows after games like the last few. “Little mistakes, but I’ve got to correct them. Just watch the film.”
It’s that grinding, hard-working attitude that endears Nunn to Miami — he fits perfectly with the Heat culture. Overlooked but talented and willing to put in the work, it’s a mold that applies to the team’s marquee name in Jimmy Butler, and it applies to Nunn. It’s why Butler and Nunn have developed some quick chemistry.
“It’s easy because [Butler and the veterans] love my work ethic and the kind of player that I am, that I can do it on both ends of the floor,” Nunn said. “So you’d love to play with someone who plays defense and can score the ball.”
Nunn grew up where grit mattered, on Chicago’s South Side. He was high school teammates with Jabari Parker at Simeon High and won several state titles, and he impressed enough as a young player to get a scholarship to Illinois. However, Nunn was booted from that program after pleading guilty to a domestic violence misdemeanor battery charge, one where he was accused of hitting a woman in the head, pushing her, then pouring water on her. When you talk about why Nunn went undrafted, this was part of the reason — teams were concerned about his character.
Nunn bounced to Oakland University in Michigan, where he put up numbers — 25.9 points per game and shooting 39.4 percent from three — but teams are leery of guards who put up big numbers at smaller schools. Often, they and their games don’t translate. It was all enough for Nunn to get passed over in the draft.
The Golden State Warriors, a team known for finding diamonds in the rough, gave Nunn a chance at Summer League in 2018, and he impressed enough to get an invite to their training camp. That was a stacked, deep roster for Golden State looking to contend, so it’s no surprise he was waived then assigned to their G-League team in Santa Cruz, where he scored 19.3 points per game.
The character questions from college didn’t follow him to the G-League, where sources say he was mature, and a good leader in the locker room. On the court, he was draining threes but also was aggressive on straight-line drives to the basket.
Nunn impressed the scouts in Miami enough that in the final days of last season, they signed him to a non-guaranteed contract.
There now are a lot of questions from Golden State fans about how they let Nunn go — the Warriors could undoubtedly use another solid, scoring guard right now — but when you think about their roster in the final days of last season, still with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, a player like Nunn was just not a need. Not even on a 10-day contract. Plus, they were a luxury tax team, keeping him would have gotten very expensive fast. If Miami hadn’t snapped up Nunn, maybe the Warriors do sign him after Thompson went down with a torn ACL. We’ll never know because the Heat were the aggressors.
The rest is history in Miami, and Nunn said he feels like he found his home.
“Just being in this organization where I fit in and I love everything about it is an honor,” Nunn said. “Everything is good — Miami, the organization, the culture, where I live…
“It’s a lot warmer (than Chicago), I don’t like the cold.”
Nunn, however, likely will be back in Chicago in February — All-Star weekend, for the Rising Stars Game on Friday night with teams of rookies and second-year guys. Those rosters are not yet chosen, but Nunn seems a very likely inclusion.
The rookie is pumped about the idea, and he can handle the cold weather.
“I’m looking forward to that for sure, just for a couple days, though,” Nunn said.
He wants to get back to Miami. It’s warmer. And he knows where he fits, where his home is now.