Kris Dunn‘s rookie year with the Timberwolves was glum.
Losing. Shaken confidence. Minutes on the wing rather than his preferred position of point guard.
But when I first talked to Dunn about that season, he spoke almost with a pride about the experience.
He persevered. He advanced. And he was getting his opportunity.
It was late in the 2017-18 season. The Bulls had acquired Dunn from Minnesota in the Jimmy Butler trade the previous summer. Chicago was as desperate at point guard as Dunn was to play the position. The Bulls had been muddled at point guard ever since Derrick Rose got hurt. Jerian Grant, Rajon Rondo, Michael Carter-Williams and Cameron Payne each had turns as Chicago’s point guard du jour. As the extremely hyped No. 5 pick in the 2016 draft, Dunn looked more promising than any candidate yet.
But Dunn didn’t capitalize. He wasn’t good enough his first season with the Bulls and regressed last season. Chicago drafted Coby White and signed Tomas Satoransky at point guard last summer. Dunn said the Bulls didn’t even engage him in contract-extension talks.
Dunn looked like a bust who wouldn’t be long for Chicago.
Yet, Dunn is not only still there, he’s starting at small forward and making a real case for an All-Defensive team.
“When adversity hits,” Dunn said, “I don’t fold.”
Dunn surprisingly earned a rotation spot to begin the season. Then, when Otto Porter and Chandler Hutchison got hurt, Bulls coach Jim Boylen shocked even Dunn by tabbing him as the replacement starting small forward.
“I ain’t a three,” Dunn said. “But I can hold my own.
“I’m not afraid of a challenge or anything. Whatever the team needs from me, that’s what I try to do. If they say, ‘Kris, we need you at the four,’ f— it. As long as I’m on the court, I love to play the game of basketball. And I’m going to do what I’ve got to do.”
Dunn said he “absolutely” still envisions becoming an NBA point guard. He views his current role as merely a product of what his team happens to need.
“It doesn’t take away what I’m capable of,” Dunn said. “I’m not going to let anything or anyone paint a narrative for me. I know I’m a point guard.”
I’m more skeptical. Dunn is a clunky outside shooter (26% on 3-pointers this season, 31% career). That’s a huge demerit for a lead guard to overcome.
But point guards tend to develop later than other positions. Dunn can attack the basket, and he’s a solid playmaker. If his shooting comes around, he has a chance.
In the meantime, Dunn is playing lights-out defense.
Among guards defensively, Dunn ranks second in real plus-minus (behind Alex Caruso), first in PIPM and second in RAPTOR (behind Donte DiVincenzo). If he keeps this up, Dunn must be taken seriously for an All-Defensive team.
Though he’s nominally a small forward, Dunn often defends the opponent’s best perimeter scorer, usually a guard. Unlike the bigger Porter, Dunn can take that burden off Zach LaVine and Satoransky.
Dunn – who’s 6-foot-4 with a 6-foot-9 wingspan – has also thrived in Chicago’s aggressive and flowing defensive scheme. He has stolen the ball on 3.8% of opponents’ possessions, the highest steal percentage since Tony Allen.
Allen thrived in a different environment, though. Non-shooting defensive specialists have it harder than ever.
It seems telling, when listing Dunn’s offensive responsibilities, Boylen slipped in “defend at a high a level.”
Dunn’s defensive real plus-minus is +3.72. His offensive real plus-minus is -1.38. The difference between those marks – 5.10 – is one of the largest in the NBA. Nearly everyone else with a bigger spread between offensive and defensive real plus-minus are offensive-minded players.
Here are the players with the biggest differences between their offensive and defensive real plus-minus, the highest spread first. The right side of the bar marks the better rating. The left side of the bar marks the worse rating. Better offensive players are in black. Better defensive players are in red:
Dunn will be a free agent next summer. The Bulls can make him restricted by extending a qualifying offer – a standing one-year offer a team must tender to preserve matching rights.
The cost of Dunn’s qualifying offer will be $4,642,800 or $7,091,457, depending on his role the rest of the season.
He’d get the higher qualifying offer by starting 19 of Chicago’s remaining 41 games or averaging slightly more than 24 minutes per remaining Bulls game. Dunn is currently averaging 24.8 minutes per game.
Sometimes, restricted status can get a player a bigger contract. It forces other teams to go over the top with an offer sheet. See a couple of Dunn’s teammates, Porter and Lavine. But it seems unlikely any team would covet Dunn enough to make that type of push for him.
So, a higher qualifying offer could help Dunn in one of two ways. He’d get a larger fallback salary if no other contract emerges. Or the Bulls would be less likely to extend a qualifying offer in the first place, making him unrestricted and allowing him more freedom to find a team that’ll use him at point guard.
Dunn expects to return to the bench once Porter gets healthy. That timeline could determine Dunn’s qualifying offer, though it’s also quite possible Chicago wouldn’t extend even the smaller qualifying offer.
Either way, Dunn’s defense is earning him playing time that’s useful in developing his offense.
“I hold myself at a high standard, and I want to be really good player in this league,” Dunn said. “And I have the abilities to do it. It’s just on honing my craft.”
Dunn, who’s averaging 7.2 points per game, isn’t hijacking the offense in a last-grasp attempt to prove himself. He lets Chicago’s other guards handle the playmaking and pitches in where he can – primarily defense. He’s doing exactly what the Bulls need from him.
“The biggest thing about Kris Dunn is he has a spirit for the team and a spirit for doing the right things,” Boylen said. “When you have that, good things happen to you.”